EDMONTON — For an Edmonton hockey writer, Adam Larsson is nothing less than a stand-up, go-to guy at times like these. And in these parts, like clockwork, a time like this tends to arrive.
Down 3-0 just 11:02 into the game, and trailing 5-1 before the 25-minute mark, the Edmonton Oilers had just lost 7-4 to an average Eastern Conference team — at home — in a game that featured 35 minutes of garbage time.
All of this after having lost the night before to Calgary, the kind of game that should light a fire under a team. Rather, it extinguished theirs.
“How does that happen?” we ask Larsson.
“I can’t even look at team play right now,” he said. “I’ve got my own game to focus on. It’s so bad right now. I’ve got to fix that first, before I look left or right.”
Like so many Oilers players on this ill-built, capped out roster, Larsson has been asked nightly to play more minutes against tougher competition that he likely should be facing. And when he had Oscar Klefbom as a partner, they pulled it off, often enough.
But with Klefbom injured since Dec. 13, Larsson’s game has deteriorated, tangible evidence of a shallow roster that can’t handle any injury. Like a poorly constructed house, one beam shifts and the entire thing falls in on top of itself.
“I’m passive, I’m not skating… Nothing is going my way. It’s up to me to get out of it. I’m not even close right now,” lamented Larsson, after back-to-back minus-three outings this weekend. “This is as bad as it has been. It is as bad as it will be.”
His head coach, Ken Hitchcock, can’t disagree.
“I think it’s been going on a little while,” Hitchcock said of Larsson. “You know, we had a good pair there. And one part of the pair went missing, and there’s a lot of hesitation with Larss. There is a lot of hesitation with a lot of (defencemen).
“We don’t transition the puck. We’re vey slow, very methodical. When you don’t transition the puck, you don’t play well five-on-five.”
In 14 games since Dec. 20, the Oilers have generated 522 five-on-five shot attempts. That is the worst in the NHL.
They’ve been outshot in 17 of their past 20 games.
In what has become an annual exercise here, the Oilers players are taking on the look of a group that realizes it has fatal flaws. Jesse Puljujarvi is deployed on a top line with Connor McDavid and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and the trio are on for two goals inside 12 minutes on Sunday evening.
Not only because the young Puljujarvi is unable to play an NHL game at anywhere close McDavid’s level, but because McDavid offered up one of his most mortal periods of the season. Perhaps a response to being made to baby sit an AHL player? Who knows.
They play McDavid with Jujhar Khaira one night, Puljujarvi the next, and then replace the big Finn with another 20-year-old in Kailer Yamamoto. All because GM Peter Chiarelli’s lineup is so thin, he can’t afford to develop 20-year-olds in the AHL the way other clubs would.
“Our five-on-five play isn’t good enough. It’s not close to (the level required) to be successful in the National Hockey League,” Hitchcock said. “We give up too many quality chances; too many pucks come back at us.
“Our transition game is so slow right now, so deliberate… Between goals against, and scoring chances, and shots on goal — it’s just too high. We’re just not built for the track meet. And today was just another track meet. We pay for it all the time.”
It wasn’t a track meet, really, during the 25 minutes that this game was actually being contested by the Hurricanes. It was one team with some fire, will and execution against another that is playing like it knows the end is near. As if on cue.
Hitchcock can’t say to the media that he doesn’t have enough good players to win with, and he loves to say that all things are fixable. But the players are telling us, once again this season, what they think of their chances.
And the coach, one of the best in the business who came aboard when they fired another coach who was one of the best in the business, is starting to figure things out here as well.
“We’re a .500 team because we fix the problem and it comes back, and we fix the problem and it comes back,” Hitchcock said.
You’re saying it’s starting to feel like Groundhog Day?