'Sky isn't falling' despite Oilers' 1st-half struggles
Radio analyst Bob Stauffer weighs in on frustrating start to season
The Edmonton Oilers are toiling near the bottom of the NHL standings with a record of 17-20-3 and will have their work cut out for them if they hope to get back into the playoff mix.
CBC Sports caught up with Oilers Radio Network analyst Bob Stauffer to find out what is going on with a team that entered 2017-18 with high expectations after making the playoffs last season for the first time in more than a decade.
CBC Sports: What can you say about the feel of the Oilers at the halfway mark?
Bob Stauffer: I certainly think there's a degree of frustration that they've put themselves in this position. They have far greater expectations based on what they accomplished last year and the progressive step they took as an organization and as a team. They probably thought maybe with a couple breaks — they lost three one-goal games to Anaheim — during that [second-round series] that maybe they could have had a different result there too. And they were hoping to build upon it, and through 40 games that hasn't come to fruition.
CBC Sports: How have the Oilers ended up in this position?
Stauffer: They didn't get off to a great start and they've been okay five-on-five most of the season, but they've had significant challenges on special teams. They had a decent stretch [four straight wins] before the Christmas break and no team when they're going good wants to stop playing. Now they've come out of it and dropped four in a row. They haven't been able to sustain a 10 or 12-game stretch where they play really well, and based upon the expectations of what they probably had of themselves as a team and certainly the expectations that a lot of the experts had for this group this year. They probably thought they were going to be capable of a lot more.
CBC Sports: What has been the biggest problem for the Oilers?
Stauffer: The Oilers are [55.6 per cent] on the penalty kill at home and it just sucks the life and the energy out of the team and out of the building. That has been a major thing that has short-circuited any success this year. Good penalty killers will tell you that you have to be 100 per cent engaged and committed to the process. The Oilers have all four centres kill penalties and all four centres are on the two power-play units. They've got to have some guys find a way to carve out a niche for themselves to kill penalties to help the team out right now, I think that's a given in terms of the forwards. As a rule of thumb, you also need your goalie to be your best penalty killer. Cam Talbot has a career [.919] save percentage and [now he's at .903]. Cam would be the first to tell you he needs to play better. That's the thing. There isn't a guy here who wouldn't tell you he needs to play better. That's part of the position they're in.
CBC Sports: With the league trending to toward speed and skill, is their style of play conducive to success?
Stauffer: When Todd McLellan came in, he wanted to coach a team that was hard and fast and supportive. I would suggest that when Leon Draisaitl and Drake Caggiula were out with concussions in the third week of October and the Oilers didn't have Jesse Puljujarvi up at that time and Jujhar Khaira was not in the lineup on a regular basis — Edmonton was slow up front. Puljujarvi is clearly showing signs and when they have Caggiula and Draisaitl they are more capable of being able to play that style. They've had some challenges [defensively] and the Oilers are going to need better play out of them. [The bottom line is] they're all in this thing together. They put themselves collectively in this position and the only way they're going to get out of it is as a team.
CBC Sports: Are you sensing tension from the fan base toward the players and management?
Stauffer: There were great expectations. The fans kept the building full and have dealt with some very challenging times for a number of years. They saw a team take a quantum leap forward last year and now there's been a significant regression through the first half of the season and it has been frustrating. Around the league, no one's crying over the Oilers. The perception is that Edmonton was gifted Connor McDavid. I would argue that they were also gifted Leon Draisaitl. I deal with that everyday on Twitter and everyday on our radio show — just how frustrated the fans are — and it comes with the territory. [But] the message would be that the sky isn't falling in. They have a tremendous young core of players. There is real frustration with the position they're in and really only the team can get themselves out of it.
CBC Sports: Are jobs on the line with the way things are going?
Stauffer: The coach and players can impact the immediacy of the situation and if the situation doesn't get resolved, then it goes further up the food chain, that's how this business works. Those guys have the first chance to get this turned around. The irony of all of this is a week ago going into the game against Winnipeg, we were talking about how the Oilers had won four straight games and were poised to get in the playoff mix, and now they're on the outside and looking like a long shot to work their way back in based on historical numbers. There's an old saying in professional sports: there's winning and there's misery. Well they dropped four straight and they didn't have a lot of room to be dropping games, so they're living that misery right now.