BELMONT, NY — American Thanksgiving has arrived, and the Edmonton Oilers are a .500 team that does not hold down a playoff spot.
“Seven and three in our first 10, and 3-7 in our last (10),” said captain Connor McDavid, after a 3-0 loss to Ilya Sorokin (49 saves) and the New York Islanders that laid many of this team’s issues bare.
It’s not to say the season is lost — Edmonton was further back later in the schedule a season ago, when Jay Woodcroft replaced Dave Tippet as head coach. But the first quarter of 2022-23 has been a bitter disappointment, and after another sloppy loss, some elements of this Oilers team have been exposed as the season has worn on.
They are, alas, a team with some pretty good top-end forwards but a bottom-six that is irrelevant and without personality, edge or the ability to affect a game. They are neither big and tough nor quick and pesky, rather blah, with a paucity of offence and even less energy provided during their time on the ice.
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On defence, the Oilers are simply soft, with the blueline too easily surrendered and the home plate area a place where the Islanders could have held a picnic Wednesday, as opponents have all season long.
They don’t or can’t defend. As such, they won’t or can’t win when it matters.
That, folks, we can guarantee you.
“Truthfully, I think that our defending has been better of late than at the beginning of the year,” McDavid said. “Obviously, it still has a long way to go. I think that’s pretty clear. We continue to have to be stingier in our own zone and harder in front of our own net.”
Wednesday proved a microcosm for all that ails the Oilers, as they battled through a 0-0 first period only to break into pieces in a three-goal Islanders second.
New York opened the scoring with a shorthanded goal on which Gabriel Pageau skated through two absolutely inattentive Oilers — Tyson Barrie and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins — to bang in a centering pass from the top of Jack Campbell’s crease. Locked in a tight, low-scoring affair, neither Oiler thought to shoulder check for the oncoming Islander, and Pageau scored untouched.
“I mean, you saw it, right?” said Nugent-Hopkins. “It’s a two-on-two kind of play, he gets the inside post and puts it in.”
Two minutes later, with the Isles on a powerplay, defenceman Evan Bouchard tried to deflect a centering pass — and tipped it into his own net. Behind him, an Islanders forward was poised to bury the pass that Bouchard wanted to intercept, but the Edmonton defenceman was puck-focussed and oblivious to the threat.
Take the man and that puck does not go in.
On the third goal by New York, it was Draisaitl’s check who was left wide open to score from eight feet out. The big German has struggled of late, and turned the puck over frequently Wednesday on another minus-2 night.
Draisaitl sits right near the top of the NHL scoring list with 31 points but has a defensive rating of plus-1. McDavid is at plus-1 as well, and tearing through the league with 35 points and 16 goals in the first quarter.
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The fact both are near even speaks to Edmonton’s lack of success at five-on-five, where they rank 26th in the NHL 20 games into the season.
“We are a playoff team but we need to start playing like it consistently,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “To a man, everybody’s gonna step up and find a way through this.
“Everybody — wingers, centres, D — we have to really be harder, not give them as much time. I thought tonight we were probably a little bit better (defensively) than we have been in the last few games…”
We’ve been saying it for years: until the Oilers can defend like a champion, they’ll never be a champion. And the defensive posture that dug them out of their hole last spring en route to an appearance in the Western Conference Final will have to be rediscovered if this edition is going to follow up that run again in the spring of ’23.
“Defensively we need to be better,” assistant captain Darnell Nurse said. “We can’t give up three goals every night, and we can’t have our goalies having to make Grade A saves every night. There are too many a night that they have to make, and we know this group. We’ve been saying it for years: we are able to score with any team in the league, and our defence has got to be good.”
On a positive note, goaltender Jack Campbell was decent in making his first start since Nov. 12. Two of the Islanders’ goals were bang-bang one-timers from inside 10 feet, and the other was directed in backside by Bouchard.
Alas, he won’t win many when his team gets shut out.
Or when they play with this minuscule amount of defensive conscience.