CALGARY — With the trade deadline fast approaching, the Eastern Conference scout arrived at the Saddledome Monday with explicit instructions.
“I’m trying to figure if Edmonton is a buyer or a seller.”
Aren’t we all, pal. Aren’t we all.
On a night where the Oilers hung around the periphery of a 3-1 loss in Calgary, Edmonton lost another two points to the Los Angeles Kings in the Pacific and now stand firmly outside the playoff race out West.
They’ve got injuries, they’ve got good players playing poorly — Darnell Nurse and Leon Draisaitl were both horrendous on Monday — and their power play is ranked 23rd in the NHL since Dec. 5. And now they’ve got questions about how they’re going to make up ground in the West, with a bunch of players playing above their pay grade due to injuries keeping Tyson Barrie, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jesse Puljujarvi, Evan Bouchard and Zack Kassian out of the lineup.
“You can't expect Brad Malone to come in here and score three goals tonight, right?” said Leon Draisaitl, shouldering the blame on a night when even one power-play goal in four fruitless opportunities could have meant a point in the standings.
“That’s our job. That’s on Connor (McDavid). That’s on me. That’s on the top guys that are getting paid to create, and we probably didn't do enough of that tonight.”
How do you crap on a power play that’s missing its utility man in Nugent-Hopkins, and not one but both of the best QBs they have in Barrie and Bouchard? Not to mention a big horse down low in Puljujarvi.
But the unit is lost at sea, and the Oilers are drowning because of it.
“We’re playing our hearts out, but if you score one goal you’re not going to win many games,” said Draisaitl, lamenting all the injured guys. “There are just top guys not in our lineup. Those are key minutes, right? Nuge plays 20 minutes a night. It’s hard to replace a guy like that. It's hard to replace 16, 17 minutes from Puljujarvi.”
The Oilers did a decent job accommodating for all the missing players Monday, playing a solid, low-event defensive game against the NHL’s hottest team. But that formula counts on being able to bury at least one power-play goal, and in a game that was 2-1 with three minutes to play, that might have been enough to get a game into OT.
Alas, an offence led by the NHL’s two leading scorers was impotent. Edmonton generated just six high-danger scoring chances (per Natural Stat Trick), and not a single one with the man advantage.
“You can't forget that we’re missing three key pieces. Four even, with Bouchard out today as well,” began head coach Jay Woodcroft, who is sliding through his first three-game losing streak at the helm of this flagging vessel. “There is no easy answer on it. We’re going to look to adjust some things personnel-wise to give it a fresh look. I think we can be more substantive in-zone there.”
What does that mean?
It means you do what one always does when the power play hits a dry spot: You get off the perimeter and start pounding pucks on the net, hoping for a good bounce or a greasy rebound goal.
“More substance,” Woodcroft defined. “More shots to the net and looking for second and third chances. Not just relying on a certain play or two. It’s about finding that second and third opportunity, and scoring a dirty one around the paint.”
Edmonton got excellent goaltending from Mikko Koskinen, but their best set-up man turned out to be referee Dan O’Rourke, who inadvertently redirected a puck right to Derek Ryan whose rebound was potted by Devin Shore for Edmonton’s only goal.
It was a big break in a 2-0 game, no doubt about it. But the Oilers couldn’t take advantage because the rest of their offensive game was nonexistent on this night.
“You’re not gonna win very many games if you score one goal,” Draisaitl repeated. “On the defensive side of it, I thought it was good. But offensively, maybe we didn't create enough.”
With 25 games to play, the Oilers awake this morning two points south of a wildcard spot and four points behind third place Vegas in the Pacific. Sure, there’s lots of time.
But it’s getting late fast.
“I think if we start looking at the standings, that would not be the way to go,” warned Shore. “We’re trying to build something as a group, the way we want to play. That needs to be our focus, and let the results kind of be a byproduct of that.
“I think if we start looking at the playoff picture, I don't that’s a recipe for success right now.”
We’d have to agree.
Don’t look at the standings. Do look at the mirror.