The Edmonton Oilers seem like they’re going through hockey’s version of “Groundhog Day,” only this movie isn’t very funny for their fans. (Although maybe the ones with a Bill Murray-like disposition can find the dark humor in it all.)
If their tepid start is any indication, the same old conversations are happening around the Internet:
--- Journalists who praised them in season previews are feeling some remorse.* (Cheer up, James Mirtle, at least you didn’t tab them as the third best team IN THE NHL in 2012-13.)
--- Some people wonder if all the hype around this team is really justified. Or, more specifically, if management can really build a winner out of this slew of prospects when the same general group - Kevin Lowe’s still a power broker, whatever his title might be - has failed time and time again. /Waits for Lowe to talk about the Stanley Cup rings he won while he wore a hockey sweater, not a suit.
--- Then there are the legions who expect the Oilers to figure it out, one way or another, because of all the high-end prospects they stockpile season after season.
Honestly, I feel like I have one foot in the “They can’t get it done” group and another in the “I guess they’ll eventually just stumble onto something by way of getting lottery picks every year" side. (Although I’ll admit that “eventually” probably won’t be 2013-14 and might not even surface in 2014-15.)
While it’s probably true that Craig MacTavish needs more than one summer’s worth of work to fix their many problems, my belief is that the Oilers still blew it in an all-too-familiar area: stopping pucks.
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Now, don’t get me wrong; I don’t blame the Oilers for giving Devan Dubnyk a chance to really stamp his name on the job.
The 2012-13 season, as abbreviated as it was, provides the best reasoning. Sure, Dubnyk worsened his already sub-.500 career record (14-16-6 in 2013), but he put up an absolutely fantastic - especially considering the circumstances - save percentage of .920. If he was getting reasonable support around him, that's playoff-caliber goaltending.
While his career save percentage isn't out-of-this-world, it's still at a respectable starter level of .911. It gets dragged down by a tough start to his career (.889 in 19 games during the 2009-10 campaign), too; since then, he's never dipped below the .914 mark in a full season. That's not far behind what Ryan Miller’s doing, which might be kind of a painful comparison since the Buffalo Sabres' stalwart can relate to being hung out to dry by a bad defense and a poorly managed franchise.
Big picture-wise, Dubnyk is 27 and 6-foot-6, with more-than-respectable career numbers, so his appeal should be obvious. The Oilers could look to the way Boston allowed Tuukka Rask to run with a contract year and wonder if it would work out similarly with Dubnyk. And, honestly, I still think Dubnyk can work out his problems. At least if fans and management give him some leeway.
THE WRONG SURROUNDINGS
Still, the Oilers don’t employ anyone in Zdeno Chara’s ballpark, and they didn’t improve their defense enough this summer to go with a Dubnyk-or-broke setup.
While Jason LaBarbera put up some decent numbers in Phoenix, he’s never achieved much with a true workload. Instead, he is what he is: a perfectly acceptable (but far from difference-making) backup.
If the Oilers were truly fed up with the smell of the Western Conference cellar, they would’ve gotten a better backup (not that they’re the only NHL team that strangely devalues a cheap, valuable commodity in an above-average No. 2). The good news is they can still improve their ugly situation; they’d do it with another guy whose gravy days came in Phoenix: Ilya Bryzgalov.
Now, Mr. Universe can be difficult. He also might not like Edmonton very much. But something tells me he’d come cheap; he’s making peanuts in the freaking ECHL so he can keep his NHL options open. While Philly didn’t work out, he put up near-Vezina numbers in Phoenix and was a fantastic backup for Jean-Sebastien Giguere in Anaheim.
Bryzgalov could be the starter if Dubnyk flames out, a platoon option if they’re neck-and-neck and a waiver casualty if he’s awful and/or a pain to deal with.
While it stuns me that he’s still unemployed - much like Vinny Prospal - it’s good news for any team that’s desperate for goaltending help. It’s early, but the Oilers absolutely are; their league-worst team mark of an 84.8 save percentage is three percentage points worse than second-to-last Washington’s 87.8. Three percentage points is basically the difference between bad-to-average, good-to-great and so on, so it all underscores how horrific Edmonton's netminders have been in a short time.
Signing Bryzgalov won’t wave a magic wand and erase all of Edmonton’s problems, it would just give them a more feasible chance to overcome them. While I like the idea of adding Andrew Ference (Oilers numbers guys were mixed about the signing), it wasn’t enough for a young and shabby defense. I think they - and plenty of other NHL teams - really blew it by passing on Ron Hainsey.
He wouldn’t be a miracle worker - he’s not solving all of Carolina’s problems - but he’d be an upgrade and would allow lesser Oilers D to slide into more comfortable positions. And, like Bryzgalov, the Oilers probably could’ve signed him at a discounted rate.
Sure, he gained attention as an NHLPA rabblerouser - thus making him sort of blacklisted - but it’s not like the Oil are anti-rebels. Their GM was the last guy to refuse to wear a helmet and their captain made waves after he gave Montreal Canadiens fans the finger.
Regardless, the Oilers didn’t get that extra boost on defense - Tom Gilbert was another guy who inexplicably lingered on the market, but the organization might have soured on him from a previous tour anyway - yet they can still bite the bullet and get a better goalie to compete with their potentially-still-decent one.
On the other hand, Dubnyk owners could benefit greatly if the Oilers continue to follow their current blueprint of failing at almost anything that doesn’t involve “selecting the obvious top player with the No. 1 pick.”
*Luckily, I didn’t pick them to make the playoffs.
Plenty of useful bits, including backups worth your short-term adds, after the jump.
A GOOD TIME FOR BACKUPS
Considering how early it is, it’s a little surprising, but backups are pretty solid right now. (This isn’t meant to be comprehensive, so don’t pass on some No. 2 you like just because he wasn’t mentioned here …)
-- Josh Harding is doing really well for the Minnesota Wild in Niklas Backstrom’s absence. I got the feeling that Minnesota sort of “settled” for Backstrom this summer after the Finn had a surprisingly mediocre contract year. Harding has MS, which understandably makes many forget that people believed he could be a starter only a few years ago. It doesn’t appear to be a major problem for him at the moment, at least, so if you have a “revolving door” slot for frequent add/drops, give Harding an add for a while.
He doesn’t have a great chance of stealing Backstrom’s gig altogether, but he could at least encroach on his territory, especially short-term.
-- Jean-Sebastien Giguere had a shutout in his first game of the season, but Semyon Varlamov’s been incredible. Both will slow down just by sheer regression, yet each guy is in a contract year, and Varlamov’s notorious for being streaky and injury-prone. So at least monitor JSG.
-- Speaking of notoriously injury-prone, Kari Lehtonen suffered his usual early-season lower-body injury (expect another in a few months). Dan Ellis is a quality backup so he could be an OK add. My only concern is that the Stars’ defense is pretty lousy and they have a tough run coming up: At Colorado tonight, home vs. San Jose on Thursday and at Los Angeles on Saturday. Still, he's worth a look if you like to live dangerously (or just want to hit the "games started" minimum).
-- Joey MacDonald might actually be the starter in Calgary right now, although I still view both Flames goalies as virtual backups. Despite the Flames' surprising early competence, his numbers actually aren’t that great - .897 save percentage, 2.98 GAA - but those three wins are sparkly. I wouldn't begrudge you for giving him a revolving door spot, just don't drop anyone of merit for him.
-- Jonas Gustavsson is frustrating, no doubt, but he wowed Milan Lucic on Monday and plays on a good team. Jimmy Howard probably won’t play today and is day-to-day with a bruised hand, so personally, I’d rather go with “The Monster” instead of anyone in this group except Harding. (But, again, be ready to drop Gustavsson when he gets injured or falls off the map, which happens all too often with the big Swede.)
Jarome Iginla's been a slow starter for as long as I can remember. Try to anticipate the moment when his fantasy owner is most anxious about an early slump, fire a sell-high guy his way and then laugh your way to the fantasy bank ... It's stunning that Marcus Johansson is owned in just 19 percent of leagues. OK, I know he doesn't have the best peripherals (although he does get some FW and hits), but he regularly lines up with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, for goodness sakes. He's also put up appropriate numbers for that role and could very well get better with each year since he's, you know, still just 23 ... Boyd Gordon is a good hockey player, but his four goals are misleading, as they've come on just nine SOG (44.4 percent). He is a faceoff machine, though ... That Capitals power-play is just flat-out absurd … Dirty secret: now that he's hopefully shaken the injury bug, I like Henrik Zetterberg more fantasy-wise than Pavel Datsyuk. He fires far more SOG and often gets center/wing dual eligibility. Datsyuk would win the “wow” category by a landslide over almost anyone, though ... I'm glad Loui Eriksson is figuring things out, but I stand by my opinion that his weak peripherals keep him from matching his polished reality with elite fantasy numbers ... As bad as the Buffalo Sabres are, they have to start scoring more than one goal per game, right? Right? ... Dany Heatley is a shell of the shell of himself he was a couple years ago ... Jason Pominville should be fine. Maybe playing - and scoring - against his former team will improve his puck luck; he only has two goals (and zero assists) on 17 SOG.
INJURIES (full list)
While I deflated Dustin Penner’s tires earlier, make no mistake: he could be a great value if the Ducks line him up with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry once he’s healthy (and I think they should) … Rick Nash was placed on the IR. At least you can experiment with an open roster spot for a bit … Matt Calvert is out for quite some time as he’s awaiting abdominal surgery today … In case you didn’t read the backup bit, Kari Lehtonen, Niklas Backstrom and Jimmy Howard are hurt, so their No. 2’s should get some reps. They’re all in the day-to-day range … It feels like Tim Thomas has been out for ages, but it’s really just been about a week … Tomas Hertl’s shoulder issue is a day-to-day thing. Still a bummer … Roman Josi (concussion) hasn’t been cleared yet. Could be a boon for Seth Jones … Ducks prospect Stefan Noesen's season is over after he tore his ACL and MCL.