Edmonton Oilers’ improvement must come from within

It’s not in the coaching. It’s not in the management, either.

It’s inside the room.

That’s the simple, straightforward explanation of Edmonton Oilers’ seemingly unending woes.

The team consists of a mix of players, some of them better than others but still, all of them capable enough to play in the NHL. Does it need an overhaul?

It’s two questions in one.

Yes, a good goaltender, one capable of stealing games here and there at times when the rest of the team is playing as if under anesthetic, might help. Devan Dubnyk never really got the chance to prove or disprove the notion he’s a legitimate Numero Uno. Last season’s 48 games were not enough, this season’s opening weeks didn’t show him in the best of lights, either.

On the other hand, why should a team need goaltenders who act as thieves, instead of having a defence capable enough to help the beleaguered netminders out? Does such defence consist only of the three pairs behind the blue line? Should it not include all five players on the ice at any given time?

Fine. And now: how does a general manager go about getting such help?

The NHL (just as any other professional sports league) is about cutthroat competition. Fans can clamour for all kinds of help, coming up with scenarios galore. Hockey commentators can be throwing rumour-based innuendo around pretending they have inside information till they are blue in the face. So?

One thing we know for sure: professional sports leagues are not about one club helping another out of whatever mess it finds itself. If the Oilers went, for example, for Shea Weber (or any other player, use your own imagination), the Nashville Predators (or any other team, use your own imagination) would be demanding (compile your own list of first-overall draft selections in Oilers’ silks).

Craig MacTavish is a smart guy. He must know by now that saying on the day of his appointment to the job that he was impatient equalled premature ejaculation.

Besides, and that’s another angle, dismantling the team right now, so early into the season, would not only be counterproductive. It would be an admission that everything he (and his predecessor, Steve Tambellini, too) has done thus far was abject failure.

First of all, it wasn’t. It’s NOT a bad team that the Oilers have put together so far as quality of individual players is concerned.

And secondly, even a person as brutally honest to himself (and about himself) as Craig MacTavish couldn’t do THAT. Not now. Not yet, in any case.

So, the composition of the club is more or less a given, with waivers, demotions and promotions now and then not changing the picture as much as some would want.

Coach Dallas Eakins is running a squad that is what it is. He’s shown enough flexibility, to be sure, and enough self-confidence, to be willing to drop a defensive plan that had no hope of working (it’s called, for whatever reason, swarm).

There can be no doubt that he and his associates and assistants keep telling the players: first and foremost, do not permit any two-on-ones or three-on-two against. Bravo, yet, during the recent home game against the Toronto Maple Leafs the Oilers outshoot the visitors by an almost two-to-one margin, and yet they end up being blanked. And not only blanked. Losing 4-0 is known in some circles as shellacking.

Eakins would later say he could understand one of the goals: the Oilers were attacking, their shot rang of the post and next thing they knew, the Leafs were counter-attacking. The other three goals … well, even that one goal Eakins said he understood should not have happened. How come the Leafs were that much faster on the puck? Were the Oilers not supposed to be the fastest team in the league?

And, most importantly, how come the Leafs enjoyed so many two-on-ones and three-on-twos against the Oilers? Have they got players who are that much better than the players Oilers have? Absolutely not. Yes, their goalies seem to be performing better than whoever the Oilers throw to the wolves in their net on any given night. Still, again, it’s about team defence, not about one position only. And the Leafs performed much better than the Oilers as a team.

And therein seems to be the main challenge.

The Oilers have been going out of their way for years, decades, indeed, to make individual players feel they are a part of the team. You can use all those trendy words such as team bonding and whatever other psychobabble there is, the Oilers have tried them all. In fact, one is tempted to believe that the Oilers are the best friends, one and all with one and all. Except, that’s exactly the one thing that doesn’t matter one iota. As the famous Dutch footballer Johan Cruyff said on a number of occasions, he can hardly care less if or when his linemates have birthdays or family anniversaries or whatever, he doesn’t give a hoot about being bosom friends with them, all that matters is that they understand one another on the pitch. There’s something to be said about this approach: professional sports are not about good, clean, healthy fun, professional sports are about winning, and nothing but.

So, anyway, the coaches have obviously told their players what to do and what to avoid. And yet, the players didn’t do it.

After the Leafs game, Dallas Eakins came into the news conference room apologizing for the club’s tardiness in opening the dressing room doors to the media: the players, he said, had a little fireside chat, and that caused the delay.

Perhaps they should have invited some master psychologist to join them in a session of group therapy to help them figure out why they know what to do and don’t do it.

Even though, come to think of it, not even Sigmund Freud would have been of much help. Not even my namesake, Alfred Adler, would.

The only people who can turn things around are the players. They already cost several good, knowledgeable people their jobs.

They should stop working on the new batch of people who would suffer because you can’t fire the entire team, you can only fire the coach or the general manager.

Nobody seems to know what exactly is wrong with this team. Managers don’t. Coaches don’t.

Do the players?

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