Three straight losses, 7 periods without a goal. Is it time to panic? Is the flu to blame for this problem, or the injuries?
I’d say to an extent, yes, that can be used as a good excuse. I think that there are two main problems with this team right now, and they will be swayed, for the most part, when some of the players return: a) our defense is weak and Quinn’s top pairing is a fairly weak pairing and b) due to injuries/flu, Quinn hasn’t been able to enforce his strategy of building a line of a grinder, a playmaker and a scorer.
I wrote an article about it before the season started, but I think the best pairings of who we have now at this point are Grebeshkov and Visnovsky, and Smid and Gilbert. David Staples also has a great article up in which he draws the same conclusion. In addition to my current point that these pairings would fix the defensive issues on the blue line, Staples also points out that the team’s offense will be improved as well.
Right now, I just don’t feel that Gilbert and Grebeshkov are getting it done at either end of the ice together. They’re harboring a lot of the blame for this team going south in Souray and Staios’ absence. Really, I think though that the back end just needs to be re-structured a bit to play into the team’s strengths. Gilbert and Grebeshkov aren’t strangers to seeing a lot of ice time, even together as a pairing. However, are these the guys we want on the ice versus the other teams top lines? I don’t think so. I’m not sure there’s anybody on this team, that we can feel very confident about against the best lines in the NHL. However, if I had to pick one pairing to send out there, it would be Souray and Staios.
I think Gilbert and Grebeshkov can be a good enough pairing when they aren’t the go to guys (especially on the PK). Right now our top PKers are … who? Gilbert, Grebeshkov, Chorney and Smid (add Strudwick in there when he’s playing D). How scary is that? This team also needs a better balance in its pairings. Gilbert and Grebeshkov bring a similar game. Great puck moving, minimal physicality, and suspect defensive ability. However, if you split them up and put them with another player that can play defense, I think they’re quite a bit better out there. I’d say put Gilbert with Smid, and Grebeshkov with Visnovsky. Permanently. Grebeshkov and Visnovsky do play similar games as well, but they seem to have a good chemistry together. Plus, Visnovsky has speed to burn, which allows him to get back into the play very quickly if need be. Personally, I don’t think Visnovsky gets enough credit of being reliable defensively on the rush. I think the pairing of Smid and Visnovsky looks so good partly because of Visnovsky as much as it is because of Smid being a better player this year.
So that’s the defensive side of things. I know what you’re all thinking though. This team hasn’t scored a damn goal in 7 periods, Racki. Well, this is very true. However, right now, this team seems to be a one-trick pony (or a one line team, to be more correct). Quinn has been forced to go against his regular game plan of putting together two skill players with a grinder, and now we have a much watered down team with our top line having our best skill players, and every line after that fighting for scraps. I must say, I really like Penner and Hemsky together, but if it’s going to be costing us games having our best guys all on one line, then it doesn’t make sense to keep doing that once everyone is healthy. I’d like to see Quinn eventually go back to the same system that was working – build a line with a playmaker on it, a guy with size, and a guy that can shoot the puck (with at least one of these guys being reliable defensively). It’s a formula that has worked for this team. Now that the team has been ravaged by injuries/flu, Quinn has put all his eggs in one basket. It’s obviously not something he feels comfortable as doing, having stated right from the beginning that he wants four lines that can score. When Stortini is on the powerplay and Strudwick and/or MacIntyre are on one of these “scoring” lines, then you know we’re short on offensive players. That stuff will fix itself as the flu passes, so I’m not too worried.
So to conclude, I’ve been saying it all along…. I do think this team needs a better stay-at-home d-man, but I think we can get by with what we have with just some rearranging of defensive partners. Smid and Gilbert haven’t played much together, but what they did, they were solid at both ends. They complement each other’s skillsets well. Grebeshkov and Visnvosky already have proven chemistry. And as David Staples pointed out, these guys provide a pretty mobile and lethal breakout which is critical to this team’s offensive success. The last pairing is where things will get hairy for now. But thankfully they should only be seeing about 11 minutes a game anyways, so this pairing isn’t so critical. Once Souray and Staios are back though to balance the load and provide more defensive stability (who would have thought I’d be saying that?), I think the defensive issues become a low priority. On the offensive side, this team is likely going to struggle any night that our top line isn’t firing on all cylinders, so long as they stay together. But to the credit of the bottom lines, Comrie has been sick, as has Brule. This isn’t doing the secondary offense any favors.
Worry not, Oilers fans… it is far from time to panic. These problems will correct themselves as more bodies come back. This is a situation MacTavish also knew very well a couple of seasons or so ago. The positive side here though is that there are a few bodies due back soon, or who are recovering in the line up right now. Once we no longer have an excuse for Strudwick and MacIntyre on the forward lines, this team should be ok. That all said though, I think this team’s defensive weaknesses sans-Souray/Staios have been greatly exposed. I would like to see Tambellini improve the team in that area, but I don’t see it happening. I also don’t see it being absolutely 100% necessary, especially when the two key d-men return.