BROOKLYN — Keith Gretzky is burning through the SIM cards, dumping salary, moving money and generally fumigating a roster that should land Peter Chiarelli in some kind of workplace safety tribunal for how poorly it is constructed.
But no matter how hard he works, every second night Gretzky’s team has to strap the gear on and play a hockey game. The lights go on, the roster is the roster and the results are becoming all too predictable.
Edmonton lost 5-2 to the New York Islanders Saturday, their 10th loss in 11 games (1-8-2). They went 0-3 on this road trip, scoring four goals — and we’ll bet you could nail the goal scorers blindfolded, if we gave you three guesses.
And so goes the interim GM’s mandate. The next top-six winger Gretzky acquires will be the first one head coach Ken Hitchcock has to work with.
“We made some big errors on this trip and paid for them,” said Hitchcock. “We played hard in all three games — I’m really proud of our effort. Unfortunately, at the turn of games, we were the ones who made the mistake.
“I thought the first period was the best we’ve played all year on the road. We just have to take positives, right now, from this.”
On this trip, Edmonton actually outplayed Pittsburgh and lost 3-1. They had 41 shots at Raleigh, had at least 50 per cent of the play, yet lost 3-1. In Brooklyn, in possibly the last ever NHL game played at the Barclays Center, the Oilers shelled Isles goalie Robin Lehner with 13 shots in 13 minutes of the first period, but not nearly enough of them were Grade A scoring chances.
They get shots. They possess the puck. But after a couple of injuries, the second power-play unit included Colby Cave and Alex Petrovic. Zack Kassian, a solid fourth-line right winger on any team, is a first-line right winger for Edmonton.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins drags Milan Lucic around the ice, but the big guy has five goals in 58 games this season. Just 15 in his past 139 games.
Why is there no support scoring? Because the third and fourth lines are comprised entirely of fourth-line NHLers and fringe AHL players.
The latest acquisition was Sam Gagner. He drove in from Providence on the day of the game, where he had played the night before with the Toronto Marlies, donning No. 89, the number he wore as an Oiler from the time they drafted him in 2007 until he was dealt away in 2014.
“There is definitely a lot of emotions when I first walked in here and saw my jersey, the familiar 89,” he said after the game. “It was a great feeling. Hopefully, I can give the team some life, and help out down the stretch here.”
It is, frankly, unfair to criticize those players here who are simply playing out of their depth. Fourth-liners playing on the second and third lines. Second pairing defencemen playing first pairing minutes.
McDavid, Draisaitl and Nugent-Hopkins are busting it every night just to keep their team in games, hoping that lightning will strike and a goal will go in while they sit on the bench getting their breath. Meanwhile, Tobias Rieder plays his 44th game in a goal-less NHL season.
Somehow, defenceman Darnell Nurse has found a way to grow through all of this. He’s still fighting for his teammates and took a 10-minute misconduct when the linesman pinned his arms in a fight, and Anders Lee took advantage to land a few shots.
“I understand the rule, when your helmet comes off they have to jump in,” Nurse said. “But when the helmet comes off, you pin a guy’s arms to his side, and let another grown man punch him in the face for free, five, six times. Anyone is going to get mad at that.
“I guess they were trying to hold me accountable for yelling at them.”
At least he shows fire, and promise. And some skill.
Gretzky needs more guys like that, and he had a pretty good 24 hours this weekend.
He’ll need to be that good for six months, to turn this into a contending roster.