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.
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