'They're shell-shocked': Edmonton Oilers limp home from road-trip with playoff hopes fading fast

Wednesday, 29 November 2017, 09:58:25 AM. What's wrong with the Edmonton Oilers. I had a chat with Sportsnet NHL analyst Elliotte Friedman, and he diagnosed the problem right off the bat. 'Whenever something goes wrong, they just fall apart,' he said. 'They really lack a lot of confidence right now.' I couldn't agree more.

Two dozen games into the season, the Edmonton Oilers look like a lousy hockey team, and fans are screaming for the guillotine.

They want someone's head — the coach, the GM — in a basket.

Everyone's talking about un-used cap space and bad trades, and the same fans who hated Jordan Eberle are now blowing kisses his way.

But guess what?

At exactly this juncture last season, the Oilers weren't much better than they are right now.

Two months into this season, the team has one problem — a big one. And if the Oilers can't solve it, soon, they're done.

This week, I had a chat with Sportsnet NHL analyst Elliotte Friedman, and he diagnosed it right off the bat.

"Whenever something goes wrong, they just fall apart," Friedman said. "They really lack a lot of confidence right now."

I couldn't agree more.

'They can't believe this is happening'

Whatever is wrong with the Oilers, I'm convinced it's a confidence thing. As Yogi Berra supposedly said: "Ninety per cent of this game is half mental."

Yogi was pretty smart, for a not-so-smart guy.

After 24 games this season, including a 4-2 win in Boston on Sunday afternoon, the Oilers are 9-13-2 and in serious jeopardy of missing the playoffs.

After 24 games last season, they were 12-10-2 and right in the thick of things.

The difference is three wins. The effect of that difference, on the team and the fans, is massive.

"I don't think anybody expected this," Friedman said. "I think they're shell-shocked, surprised, stunned, all the same things the fans are. They can't believe that this is happening to them. And I think it's really affecting them."

So what happened? After all, this is virtually the same roster the Oilers iced last season.

Sure, Eberle is gone, along with his $6-million salary. And sure, the guy brought in to replace him at less than half that salary has struggled.

But Ryan Strome has shown improvement this season. He scored the winning goal Sunday, his fourth of the year.

Top-six scoring hasn't changed

The Oilers have six forwards, based on past performance and pedigree, they should count on to score goals. Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Milan Lucic, Patrick Maroon and Strome.

This year, after 24 games, that top six has scored 40 goals.

Last year, after 24 games, that top six (switching Eberle for Strome) had scored 40 goals.

The problem isn't there.

Early this season, the Oilers defence was on the critical list. It cost them goals, and games.

But they seem to have cured those ills, for the most part.

So why aren't they winning more often?

Because they don't believe they can.

Oilers Bruins Hockey

Edmonton Oilers goalie Cam Talbot (33) makes a stick save as defenseman Oscar Klefbom (77) holds off Boston Bruins right wing David Pastrnak (88) during the third period in Boston on Sunday. (The Associated Press/Mary Schwalm)

Even among the best athletes in the world, success leads to success, and failure to failure.

Early last season, this young Oilers team rocketed out of the gate, winning seven of the first eight games. They ripped off five straight wins in October, against Carolina, St. Louis, Winnipeg, Washington and Vancouver. During those five games, they scored a total of 15 goals. They surrendered only four. In other words, goaltender Cam Talbot stole a couple of wins for his teammates.

That fast start set up the whole season. It gave the players confidence. It bought them some breathing room. They followed it up by stumbling, going 5-11 over the next 16 games. But it wasn't the end of the world. After 24 games, as mentioned above, they were 12-10-2 and right in the playoff race.

So, what happened? Did their success last season — reaching the playoffs for the first time in a decade, winning the first round against the San Jose Sharks — set them up for an inevitable fall?

It's an interesting question, one only the players can answer.

"I don't know if they thought it was going to be easy," Friedman told me. "I don't know if they thought, well, you know, we came within an inch last year of beating Anaheim to go to the Stanley Cup semi-final, and we're just going to be better."

A high-wire act without a net

The difference this year, I would argue, is that Talbot hasn't played lights-out the way he did for stretches last season.

More importantly, the Oilers do a high-wire act every night without a net, without those early wins in the bank.

Before the season began, Friedman and many other experts saw the Oilers as a legitimate Cup contender.

"I thought there were holes," he said of the Oilers lineup. "But in a 31-team league with a salary cap, everybody's got holes, right?

"You know, Mark Messier had a really good saying about the salary cap. He said that every team has a fatal flaw. And [the question is] can you overcome your fatal flaw? I thought the Oilers would be good enough to overcome whatever fatal flaw they had."

So, 24 games into the season, what is their fatal flaw?

Confidence. A decided lack thereof.

I'm not saying this is a team that can win the Stanley Cup. I'm saying this team is better than what we've seen so far.

"There's no way, to me, that this team is as bad as they've played," Friedman said. "I think they're better than they are, but I know that's not a lot of consolation to Oilers fans."

Can they turn it around in time? It seems doubtful. The 3-1 loss against Buffalo on Friday was a huge setback. That's a struggling team the Oilers should beat.

'Everybody's job is on the line'



Friedman, who knows the league much better than I do, said the Oilers are likely looking for ways to fill those holes he talked about.

"I think they've been trying to make moves for quite a while now," he said. "I think Peter Chiarelli has been working as hard as his counterpart in Montreal, Marc Bergevin, has, to do something. I think part of the problem is… when you're struggling, the other teams in the league, what do they throw you? They throw you anvils instead of life preservers. It's very easy to make a bad trade at this time.

"It's better to make no trade than a terrible trade."

If the Oilers can't turn it around, those heads some fans have been calling for might roll.

"I think when you're in this situation right now, everybody's job is on the line," Friedman said. "When you have a year like this, everybody in hockey knows you're on notice."

Rick McConnell covers the Oilers for CBC Edmonton. Follow him on Twitter or contact him via email at rick.mcconnell@cbc.ca

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