Christmas came early in Edmonton, where the Oilers eased intense pressure around the organization with a 6-2 towel whipping of the Winnipeg Jets on Monday night. Boy, did they need it.
The Oilers just completed an 0-6 stretch against some of the NHL's best teams. They deserved better against the Boston Bruins, weren't very good against the Vancouver Canucks, then competed hard against the Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings and Colorado Avalanche. The last game of the losing streak, however, was the worst, a 6-0 home loss to the St. Louis Blues that culminated in one fan tossing his jersey onto the ice. Maybe he knew he was getting a new one under the tree?
This was an excellent motivational opportunity for Oilers head coach Dallas Eakins. When you're under siege, why not create an us-against-the-world atmosphere? Show the video to the players and say, "Look at this guy. He threw our jersey on the ground! You wouldn't take that from a teammate. Why should we let him get away with it?" Coaches do this all the time, even if they don't really believe what they are saying.
But this was a small step. One victory, no matter how stress relieving, doesn't fix the problem. At some point, most likely after the season, major surgery is coming. All Oilers general manager Craig MacTavish must decide is where to perform the operation.
MacTavish took heat for promising "bold moves." But Edmonton fans should be thankful he hasn't done anything just for the sake of saying, "Look! I'm active." Those are the worst kinds of trades. And in today's cap-tight NHL, it is extremely difficult to pull off franchise-altering trades in season.
You wait until your year is over, take a deep breath and then determine what exactly is out there. You find out who else is unhappy with their team (or a player) and what they are willing to do. Last June, for example, that was Boston and the Dallas Stars, or Vancouver and the New Jersey Devils.
MacTavish sees the games better than all of us who talk about them. It's the same on-ice mistakes killing their chances. You can talk about the goaltending, the lack of size, the lack of depth, whatever.
About 300 kilometres south, the Oilers' hated rival is seven points better, even though the Calgary Flames' current hockey boss hates the way they play. On paper, you wouldn't trade Edmonton's roster for Calgary's. But Bob Hartley's Flames compete harder and pay better attention to detail.
At some point, it's no longer coaching. It's about the way the group chooses to play. Eakins could start benching more guys, a road he's already been down with Nail Yakupov. But this could go even bigger.
1. Another thing MacTavish will do - if he hasn't already - is call Nashville Predators capo David Poile and say, "If you decide to trade No. 6, I'm in. I've got what you want. There's no better fit in the league." The Predators had no choice but to match the Philadelphia Flyers' offer sheet for Shea Weber. They needed control of the asset and credibility among the fan base after losing Ryan Suter. But things are changing in Tennessee.
2. The market is restless. The Predators were ecstatic to draft Seth Jones. But it meant not getting a highly skilled forward, which was the original plan. If a Weber package includes one of Edmonton's recent first-round picks (not Yakupov after the Alexander Radulov experiment) and this year's first-rounder, you can sell that. Of course, Edmonton will have 28 competitors if this scenario becomes reality.
3. Overall summation of the pre-Christmas trade market: "Brutal." One NHL GM: "There was absolutely nothing out there."
4. Edmonton's compensation for Linus Omark: If he plays 15 NHL games this season, with the Buffalo Sabres or anyone else, it's a sixth-round draft pick in June. If he falls short of that yet re-signs with Buffalo before the draft, it's still a sixth rounder in June. If he re-signs after the draft, it's a sixth rounder in 2015. Memorize this, there will be a test.
5. Poile would like to do something. "We would make a move if appropriate," he said last Friday. "We're very, very disappointed ... Our forwards are not performing to the level of expectations. We need a shakeup. Everyone wants to give you a player, not take back." People will ask, so let's make this clear: Poile did not discuss trading Weber.
6. Poile on his head coach Barry Trotz in an almost unheard of position, ie. taking heat in Tennessee: "We're all locked in to this together. We both believed in our moves. But [Trotz] didn't sign or draft anyone. There are always extenuating circumstances." The biggest is Pekka Rinne, out with a hip infection. Poile said you want to be .500 with your second goalies, which is roughly what Carter Hutton and Marek Mazanec are (12-13-3 combined). Rinne is plus-65 for his NHL career. "He's like the Mastercard commercial, priceless ... We have two young goalies who have played well. Every night, you go through the situations [and ask yourself], 'Would Pekka have stopped that?' We don't play the same without him."
7. There's a chance Dion Phaneuf's extension with the Toronto Maple Leafs is done by New Year's.
8. Alex Steen told the Blues that he wouldn't negotiate during the season. On Sunday, Dec. 15, he informed Blues GM Doug Armstrong and agent Jeff Kowall that if they wanted to take a shot at it, he would listen - but it had to be done quickly. The two sides spoke Monday and again Tuesday. The deal was done Wednesday. That's not unusual for St. Louis, which also did Jaroslav Halak and Roman Polak's contracts in a similar time frame.
9. The three-year length was the biggest story since Steen could expect double that on the open market. The Blues aren't big on giving up term. Alex Pietrangelo is the only one with a seven-year deal (he and Jay Bouwmeester are the only Blues signed past 2016-17). Steen, whose previous post-entry level contracts were two and four years, had little issue with this. Whatever everyone else thinks, if the player is happy, it's his business.
10. I asked Armstrong what would have happened if Steen had held back for a longer contract. Would he be worried about losing the player? "If you deal out of fear, you're not going to make the proper decision for your organization," he answered. "I told our owner [Tom Stillman], the franchise continued after Al MacInnis and Chris Pronger and it will continue after me. If a player wants to be here and the organizations wants him to be here, I believe you are going to make it work."
11. The Toronto trade always comes up whenever Steen is mentioned. But Vancouver was apparently another team the Maple Leafs targeted as a possibility. The ask? Kevin Bieksa. It's totally understandable why the Canucks didn't do it. While everyone was still figuring out Steen's potential - he had four points in 20 games at the time - Bieksa was en route to a 43-point season and a pivotal role on the club.
12. I received a couple of interesting calls after our Hotstove Tonight chat about Sabres president of hockey operations Pat LaFontaine. The length of the search for a GM led to speculation he would take the job himself. But one source was adamant in opposition. "He is definitely hiring someone," he said. "One thing he has learned from all these interviews is how big a job this is." If Lafontaine wants someone in place for this year's draft, he's going to have to do it soon. Other teams who've granted permission are getting impatient and considering withdrawing consent until later. This is too important for the Sabres. Time for two or three second interviews.
13. Last week, Flames president of hockey operations Brian Burke told The Calgary Herald's Kristen Odland that the team has received permission to talk to one person (widely believed to be Joe Nieuwendyk) and have had exploratory sessions with other teams. An exploratory session goes something like this: "Hey Moe, it's Brian. I'm not asking permission per se, but I'm letting you know I will want to talk to your guy." "Thanks for the courtesy call, Brian ..." and then they'll discuss that person's availability in general terms. LaFontaine did the same thing in his search.
14. It's pretty interesting what this "president of hockey operations" title has done to these GM searches. Teams asked to allow contact want to make sure anyone leaving is actually getting a promotion, not taking a lateral move with a competitor. Burke and LaFontaine can say they are making someone a GM which, in most cases, is a higher title and, in some circumstances, gets around contract language.
15. Strong work by HBO's 24/7 to get the audio of Randy Carlyle's tirade during last week's 3-1 loss to the Florida Panthers after the Maple Leafs head coach prevented them from going into the room. Very creative. Detroit Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock was not quoted when he shut the doors (I'd bet Glenn Healy's cellar full of Chardonnay that Babcock shut off the mic). Hockey Night in Canada once did a "Day in the Life" feature with Babcock ("I got no butter") and, during private meetings, it was off. That guy misses nothing.
16. It's a shame, but there's a general evolution in these kinds of all-access shows away from, well, access. When no NFL team volunteered for "Hard Knocks" this season, the league passed a rule saying it could force someone to participate (under certain conditions). Participating in the NHL Winter Classic should be enough of a carrot. But as one exec said, if a discipline hearing (Phaneuf) can't be filmed, you open a loophole. You know which team would be a good participant? Montreal. The Canadiens showed some pretty revealing stuff with Louis Leblanc and P.K. Subban on their all-access show, 24CH.
17. If the NHL wants some good reality TV, maybe a pay-per-view of the next GM meeting for Paul Holmgren and George McPhee? Between the Flyers and Washington Capitals, it's been an interesting year.
18. Assuming Canada takes four left-shooting defencemen to Sochi, is anyone else wondering if one of them could be Mark Giordano?
19. One change head coach Peter Horachek made upon arriving in Florida was making big, young Aleksander Barkov and Nick Bjugstad his top two centres. Kevin Dineen used the former, but not the latter, who didn't play more than 13:44 in any game this season for the previous boss. Under Horachek, Bjugstad's played fewer than 15 minutes just twice. "We weren't sure about it at the start," said one Panther. "But it was a great call."
20. Bjugstad suffered a concussion during Florida's rookie tournament and a couple of scouts wondered if he'd be able to push around NHL players like he did at college. He's making believers out of those doubters.
21. Last year, Red Wings GM Ken Holland refused to give up on his group, despite injuries and inefficiency. He repeatedly said he wouldn't make a judgment until he saw them healthy. When I spoke to him after they made the playoffs, he delivered a passionate dissertation about how he never thought of breaking up the group because he believed in their pride to keep the consecutive playoff streak alive. Does he still feel that way right now? "Yes," he said last week (NB: Any quoted person is not the source of any anonymous comments).
22. "We got healthy for the last 10-12 games [last season]," Holland added. "We played our way into the playoffs, winning our last four, including the final one on the road. We beat Anaheim and led Chicago 3-1, two teams with lots of guys in their 20s." Detroit has basically been without two top lines and almost everybody, except Stephen Weiss (sports hernia), is coming back over the next week.
23. It's well known that Holland hates the shootout. But he also doesn't consider the overtime format an effective measuring tool because it's irrelevant to how post-season games are played. His yardstick? "How did we do in the first 60 minutes?" The Red Wings were 14-8 before losing their last five.
24. The other thing about Detroit is the organization now has a larger prospect base. Some, like Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar, are pretty much there, while others are a little farther away (Anthony Mantha, Ryan Sproul). Are they to be future Red Wings or pieces of bigger transactions?
25. Asked who is the best team Detroit's played all year, Holland chose the Pittsburgh Penguins. Holland pointed out the Red Wings have yet to play the Chicago Blackhawks and are two weeks away from a West Coast swing, but added, "When we played them [Penguins won 4-1 on Dec. 14] with all those guys out, what they did was very impressive."
26. The normally stingy Phoenix Coyotes went 4-2 in games featuring at least eight goals over the first six weeks of the season. The players laughed about it during last week's trip through Toronto. "Everyone had fun," one said. "Except Dave Tippett ... and Mike Smith."
27. The Coyotes, like other teams he's played for, marvel at Mike Ribeiro's ability to move laterally in a league with so many hard-charging north/south players. "He never gets hit," Keith Yandle said. How does he avoid it? "You watch tape," Ribeiro explained. "If a team is going to play a 1-2-2, you know where everyone is supposed to be. Don't go there.' That seems pretty smart. "I only get hit when it's 4-on-4," he added. "Because guys are everywhere ... Jack Johnson got me the hardest. I looked up and said, 'What are you doing here?'"
28. Ribeiro had a great line when asked about Alexander Ovechkin's scoring prowess: "That's 10 more points I could have had."
29. ESPN's Pierre LeBrun had a good story in which he read a note from Nicklas Lidstrom to Oliver Ekman-Larsson. The Coyotes want Ekman-Larsson to meet Lidstrom and ask, "How were you able to be an elite defenceman for 20 years in the Western Conference?" It sounds like he's going to get that advice.
30. Wishing the best for the family of Taylor Elliott, who played for the Olds Grizzlys and Brooks Bandits in the Alberta Junior Hockey League. Elliott, who captained the Bandits in his final junior season, was found last week in a field near his home. The avid outdoorsman had disappeared on Dec. 1. Christmas can be the best time, but also the toughest time. Hope the Elliotts find peace.
Follow Elliotte Friedman on Twitter @FriedgeHNIC
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