Tonight, an opponent that actually has a legitimate chance at a high draft pick given their
5 8 10 Year Rebuild
The Time: 9:30 PM EST
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+2 (MSG+ after the Isles game ends); Radio - 880 AM WCBS
The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (8-9-2) at the Edmonton Oilers (6-11-2; SBN Blog: The Copper & Blue)
The Last Devils Game: On Tuesday night, the Devils began a four game road trip in Winnipeg. The first period was awful but at least the score was 0-0. Early in the second period, the Jets scored two goals. Mathieu Perreault put home a backhander in the slot for the first one. Mark Schiefele beat his man (Stephen Gionta) and put home a rebound. The Devils responded by continuing to play poorly as they did in the first period. In the third period, the Devils showed more fundamentals and got an early goal. Patrik Elias was credited for a goal on a shot that Michael Hutchinson didn't handle and went in from the fracas in front of the net. It was the ugliest power play goal of the season so far for New Jersey. The Devils made it a one-shot game and nearly got that shot. But the Jets never stopped attacking either. A giveaway by Marek Zidlicky led to an impromptu counter-attack led by Adam Lowry. Elias and Eric Gelinas focused on the middle man but never Michael Frolik. Lowry's shot was stopped by Cory Schneider and Frolik had all space to put home the rebound. The Devils lost 1-3 and nobody who supports New Jersey was happy about it. Nor should they have been.
The Last Oilers Game: On Wednesday night, the Oilers hosted Vancouver. Edmonton was winless in their last three games and were still looking for their first win against a Western Conference team this season. In the first period, the 'D' looked as a Ryan Nugent-Hopkins turnover led to Jannik Hansen splitting both defenders for a shorthanded breakaway. He scored. Vancouver put up another early in the second as Radim Vrbata scored just after a faceoff to begin a power play. Seriously, it took two seconds and there were no Oilers in the slot. The Oilers would get on the board minutes later when Steven Pinizzotto scored his first NHL goal. But Keith Aulie gave away the puck at his own blueline after that and Chris Higgins made him and Ben Scrivens pay for it. The game then got weird when Edmonton scored twice in eleven seconds. Teddy Purcell bombed in a PPG from the point off a faceoff win; then Boyd Gordon fired one at a somewhat sharp angle that beat Ryan Miller off a post-center-ice-faceoff forechecking effort. It was a game, but Vancouver re-took a lead with another PPG by Vrbata. The Oilers would get an equalizer in the third period from an unlikely source: Andrew Ference. His long shot got through and the Oilers were one step closer to an equalizer. But past the halfway mark and just after the Oilers came close to breaking the deadlock, Henrik Sedin led a breakout, passed it up to Daniel Sedin, and he fed Yannick Weber crashing the net - and the one-timer got in. The Oilers made a late push, but it wasn't enough. The 4-5 final to Vancouver was their fourth winless game in a row and they remain winless against the West in 2014-15. Curtis LeBlanc has the time-based recap at The Copper & Blue that will just make you sigh at the Oilers as you read it, almost as much as he did while writing it probably.
The Goal: The neutral zone is key; stop flinging and losing pucks through it. I understand that there are times where the skaters must dump it in. I understand that there are times where defending players must just chip it out for a clearance. I understand those concepts are necessary in games. But the Devils have been doing way too much of both. It's undercut their offense, it's allowed the opposition to keep attacking and ringing up shots on net, and it's why this Devils team has been worse than the Oilers when it comes to possession. Seriously. War on Ice has the Devils' FenClose% in 5-on-5 play at 49.31. OK, the Oilers aren't much better at 49.40; but that's still not good. The Devils are a low-event hockey team. For them to be successful, they still need to come out ahead. They haven't been doing that recently and it's really obvious as to why in their many lackluster performances as of late. They're not working towards better zone exits or zone entries. They're not winning the neutral zone. Therefore, their puck control has been poor, their offense stalls, and their defense gets worked. I'm not saying they need to own it for all sixty minutes (that's nearly impossible against actual competition), but more than just five or ten will do. I appreciate that Peter DeBoer and the Devils want to start winning games now per this Fire & Ice post by Tom Gulitti. They can start in the middle - tonight.
A Helpful Local Analogy for Tonight's Opponent: The Devils don't play the Oilers all that often. Given that Edmonton hasn't done anything of note outside of a draft, there's not much reason to pay attention to them. So here's a helpful analogy . The Oilers are like the Islanders of recent seasons - just not this one.
Edmonton has multiple skaters that are young and/or rather talented; enough to make them competitive. Like the Isles of recent memory, those skaters are up front. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall, and Jordan Eberle lead the Oilers in scoring right now and they are among the team's most prolific shooters. Hall is akin to a cannonball; Eberle has a really good shot, and Nugent-Hopkins reads plays rather well. They each play a lot, they face tough competition, and their Corsi percentages are very good per War on Ice. Eberle leads the team, in fact. In the Oilers' most recent game and in past games, they have been used together. Past them, Teddy Purcell and David Perron have been productive players in the past and they're just behind the big three in production as well as in the lineup. That said, Purcell could stand to shoot a bit more and Perron could stand to have more luck given his 2.2% shooting percentage. Still, they are players to watch out for tonight. They are likely to do the most damage against New Jersey.
Edmonton's depth is dubious at best and it's one of the reasons why the team is seemingly in a constant rebuild right now - like the Isles of recent memory. It's no accident that the Isles got a whole lot better after a summer of getting guys to get plugs out of the lineup due to talented guys being able to play elsewhere behind their most talented players. The team is hoping two other once-touted prospects, Nail Yakupov and Leon Draisaitl could carry the load but so far they really have not done so. The team utilizes a checking line of Boyd Gordon, Matt Hendricks, and Steve Pinizzotto. They chip in some goals but they're usually getting beat. Their second line center is Marc Arcobello and I think he's been playing a bit over his head. Especially down the middle, it's not so good behind Nugent-Hopkins.
Their defense provide some real head scratchers at times, like the Isles of recent memory. Here's a graph I got of their defensemen from War on Ice:
Given that the Oilers aren't getting super-hammered in possession and they're not anywhere near conceding the most shots in the NHL, the 'D' doesn't look so bad. But we must look a bit closer. Here's the ice time splits for the Edmonton Oilers. The team went out and threw a bunch of money at Mark Fayne, Dallas Eakins uses him against the toughest competition with Martin Marincin as seen in the graph, and yet they're both averaging less ice time than Andrew Ference. Sure, Ference hasn't been an anchor on possession and that's rather good considering he's starting so many shifts in his own end. Yet, you watch him and there's a lot of similarities of his play to Bryce Salvador. Jeff Petry is pretty good but he's doing a lot. The top pairing in minutes is Justin Schultz and Nikita Nikitin and they haven't really done too hot given their favorable zone starts. They're not at the level of Andrew MacDonald, but it's not so good of a level either. Consider all of that while seeing their skaters on goals against like the two they conceded to Vrbata (why, why, why, why is no one in the slot off a defensive zone faceoff) and I'm just confused. Is it the coaching? Is it the players just having a lot of bad moments? It serves to hurt them, though not too terribly based on the team numbers.
And like the Isles of recent memory, the goaltending is just contentious. You may not be happy with Cory Schneider. You may not be happy that he's starting this game as reported by Gulitti yesterday. (I figured that this would be the game for a backup; that may be Calgary, now.) You may not like the soft goals. You may not like his overall save percentage of 91%, considering the Devils' play as of late must make him perform at a level like 95% or better. But if the even strength save percentage isn't enough to give you some confidence in #35, consider tonight's opponents. They'd kill for someone playing like Schneider. Ben Scrivens has been the starter for the Oilers. He's rocking an overall save percentage of 89.5%. His backup Viktor Fasth has been worse at 88.5%. The splits show Scrivens at least above 90% at evens though that's not a good place to be in - as you were aware from last season's team. Fasth has been worse. Even just league average goaltending would benefit the Oilers greatly. They're not getting it this season.
Lastly, they have the same appearance of going nowhere. The Oilers, like the Isles of recent years, are the counter-example of the rebuilding notion. That is, be bad, get high draft picks, let the kids play, and hope the kids turn out to be good and then - BAM! Stanley Cup. (Shout out to Ben Massey for coming up with that - in 2011.) Edmonton has changed coaches, executives, GMs, and other high-level personnel but not this general philosophy. Yes, Connor McDavid and/or Jack Eichel may be generational talents and either of them might change things. But Hall, Nugent-Hopkins, Eberle, Yakupov, and Draisaitl aren't scrubs. They're very talented players who could become or would be key parts on a successful team. The issue isn't that they don't have a Crosby-level player. It goes deeper than that. The Oilers simply don't have the depth, they have questionable usage and moments defense, and their goaltending sucks. There may be some change but at the end of each season, they have multiple deficiencies. Yet, the main philosophy does not change. The kids are playing, learning, and the team hasn't been better off for it for years now.
And that future should be doubted in a few years. For some of those top draft picks, they will eventually hit UFA status at ages 25 and 26 since the Oilers have thrown their top picks right into the NHL right away. Would they stay after so many years of futility while they still have plenty of good hockey left in them? Why other than the Oilers throwing a ton at them or to become the mentors for the next top-ten pick playing at ages 18 or 19 that may or may not be a star? I almost want to tell them then: Flee while you're still not old and go somewhere where they've played meaningful hockey in the Spring sometime in the last eight or nine seasons. They may not need me to say so.
Sure, some rebuilding projects work out like Pittsburgh or Chicago; but those teams had a lot more than just getting hitting big on high draft picks. Edmonton is a great example of an organization that doesn't get that - like the Isles haven't until Garth Snow decided to actually address team needs this summer. Basically, Edmonton needs a summer like the Isles has in 2014 did to contend anytime soon. I'm not confident that will happen. While a record means little on the ice in a game like tonight - remember, their last win was in Rangerstown a.k.a. Fort Sometimes Not Win - this is a team that is truly mired in the doldrums of being bad. The Oilers faithful would likely be thrilled with mediocrity and at least playing for something through February and March that isn't some attempt at a tank job. Instead, they're getting more of the same and are on their way towards another pick in the lottery. Amazingly - and unlike the Isles - this has not (yet?) affected their business.
That's where they are at as a team in general. They have enough talent to be dangerous in a game like tonight or how they kept up with Vancouver in their last game, but it's not going to lead them towards improvement in the long run. From a ten-thousand foot view, the Oilers should be seen as a cautionary tale for anyone who seriously thinks New Jersey or any other team should go all in on the rebuild and hope things will just be better in a few years.
I Summarize That Long Rant With Respect to Tonight's Game: The Devils need to pay special attention to their top players: Nugent-Hopkins, Hall, and Eberle. They can't sleep on the depth, but they should try to win their match-ups. New Jersey's top line of Travis Zajac, Mike Cammalleri, and Jaromir Jagr will likely see plenty of Mark Fayne and Martin Marincin; though they may be able to win those battles. Edmonton has a back-to-back like New Jersey so while it's not announced whether it's Scrivens or Fasth, the Devils should bomb away at them without fear of them being superstars because they certainly haven't been. Pay attention to when they're not covering the middle and strike it. The Oilers aren't bad on special teams and given the state of the Devils' power play, even strength may be preferred regardless. Win the dang neutral zone, go right at their defense, pounce when they falter badly in positioning and in coverage, and don't let up. Again, their bad record and the dead end path they're on means nothing once the game begins. So they must be taken seriously as with any other competitive game in this league.
A Proper Switch: After practicing with Jacob Josefon in the lineup on Monday, Peter DeBoer sat him for Damien Brunner. No, not Stephen Gionta, Steve Bernier, Tuomo Ruutu, or whoever else you're down on. It was Brunner. This was done with the idea of Adam Henrique playing center. I didn't like the switch and Brunner didn't do much of anything of note in the Winnipeg game to warrant further ice time at this juncture. Not that Josefson's presence would have changed much in the Jets game but I do think he should be in the lineup more regularly based on recent play.
Based on Gulitti's report of Thursday's practice, DeBoer has switched them back. Josefson was again centering Ruutu and Michael Ryder. Henrique was at wing with Elias and Martin Havlat. Henrique was moved to wing for the third period of the Jets game. Not that it gone well but I think a less rusty Henrique and not facing Evander Kane's line should yield more favorable results. Ryder gets a bump down that could help and Ruutu may not look so lost without Josefson. Given DeBoer's and Henrique's quotes to Gulitti after practice, going back on this would be a real surprise.
Lastly: I'd like to see more from the defense beyond Andy Greene and Damon Severson. I want to see Eric Gelinas provide The Truth. I want Adam Larsson and Seth Helgeson to rebound from a game where they got pinned over and over. I'd like to say I want Marek Zidlicky to not give away the puck so poorly, but he's not going to change all that much so I'm not going to expect all that much. They need to get the stops to allow for cleaner zone exits, which can only help the team literally go forward on the ice. Will they do it? We'll see.
Your Take: Someone's going to either break a winless streak or avoid a losing streak. Let's hope it's the latter. But try not to get caught in the trap of "The Devils have to beat a team like Edmonton." That will be determined by their play on the ice. Will the Devils actually improve that regard? Will they actually maintain control going into, within, and coming out of the neutral zone? Will they be able to quell Nugent-Hopkins, Eberle, and Hall? Will they make Scrivens' or Fasth's nights really long? Will Josefson provide something? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.