3 Line Hockey

 

There is a sea change underway in the National Hockey League.

General Mangers have discovered that it is preferable to ice a lineup that can possess the puck and do something with it when they get it.

That it took so long for them to discover certainly gives one pause but I think we can see that there are some hockey executives who have been ahead of the curve and some others who are still grappling with the concept.

Traditionally, we’ve seen NHL teams ice a lineup that includes:

  • A Power vs. Power line that, hopefully can outscore either the oppositions’ top line or a checking line thrown out against them depending on home or away situations or opposition tactics
  • A second line with “secondary scorers” who often play softer minutes
  • A third line comprised of “checkers”
  • A fourth line comprised of with “energy” players or “face punchers” or some combination of both.

The issue with this traditional thinking is that more progressive teams have figured out that, if you can ice a third line with skill, it can easily outperform a third line of checkers if the skill level is high enough and, of course, if the oppositions’ third line is busy with other tasks depending on match ups.

Let’s take a look at the gold standard of NHL teams…the Los Angeles Kings. I am convinced this team is perfectly constructed to achieve in the contemporary NHL.

They, in my opinion, don’t have one hole in the lineup. They are built to win, they have all their core players locked up long term, they have young players on entry level contracts pushing  the river and they have zero cap problems.

So, how have they adapted to the three scoring lines mantra?

Now, understand that what constitutes a third line is very fluid and depends to a large degree on coaching tactics, TOI,  and a raft of other considerations. But, it’s likely that the the Kings “third line” is Mike Richards, Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson.

Toffoli and Pearson scored 25 points in the NHL playoffs on the Kings’ march to a cup win, while Richards, relegated to “4th line” minutes in the playoffs managed to score 10 points in 26 games.

Going forward, I think a 3rd “scoring” line of Richards, Toffoli and Pearson may well surpass many other teams second line and, in some cases, threaten to expose the top lines of a few teams.

But, what about the other teams in the tough Western Conference?

Chicago can throw out a third line of  Brandon Saad, Marcus Kruger/Andrew Shaw and Kris Versteeg who scored more than 40 goals last season.

Now, let’s look at the Ducks.

They will likely employ some combination of Andrew Cogliano/Emerson Etem/Patrick Maroon/Devante Smith-Pelly on their third line.

Cogliano is the old man of that group and managed to score 21 goals and 42 points last season while playing the 4th most minutes among Anaheim centres (although he often played wing), and he’ll be joined by a couple of blue chip prospects.

(For those with long memories and a smidgen of humility, you’ll recall I said years ago that keeping Gagner and moving Cogliano was a HUGE mistake. Thank you, thank you very much.)

The Ducks have this thing figured out.

I’m not going to go though every team in the WC, but I think we can agree that some teams like Arizona and Calgary barely have enough decent forwards to ice a traditional “checking” line never mind a  3rd scoring line. They’ll just be trying to play for a draw.

But what about a couple of teams closer to home?

The Canucks have new voices in the room…all of whom have gone on record as wanting a skilled, puck possession team.

Their lineup is very much in flux but I wouldn’t be surprised if their third line is Chris Higgins/Linden Vey/Jannik Hansen.

Higgins scored 17 goals and 39 points last season.

Vey is, of course, a former WHL scoring champion and Hansen, while having a dreadful 2013/14 like most Canucks, does have a 16G 39P season to his credit.

Sounds like a work in progress to me but has some great potential.

Ideally, the Edmonton Oilers would have a third scoring line with a decent centre between Benoit Pouliot and Nail Yakupov but based on MacT’s ramblings, Boyd Gordon is going to take that spot which immediately downgrades the line to a checking line and renders Yakupov’s singular skills someone moot.

Perhaps we’ll see Yakupov on the second line with Perron and (fill in the blank) but I wonder if a third line of Pouliot/Gordon/Purcell could be called a “scoring line”?

Sounds like an old school “checking line” to me.

And, if MacT keeps employing face punchers, I think we have all the information we need.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Smartest Guy in the Room

 

There’s a caution to “Smartest Guy in the Room”

One wag says ‘If you’re the smartest guy in the room…you’re in the wrong room”

But I think most of us can agree that Dean Lombardi is the smartest guy in the NHL room.

He built the San Jose Sharks into a perennial contender and then, when things went south briefly, he found himself in charge of building the LA Kings into a winner.

His record there is beyond reproach so perhaps we should listen when he talks about “analytics”.

Yesterday, Lombardi said this:

“If you have two teams like this, this one’s clearly better than this one,” Lombardi said, placing his hands at two different levels two feet above his desk. “But if [the lower] team is emotionally charged, I think in hockey they can close this gap more than any other sport. So unlike baseball, where if I’m the Yankees, and [there’s a lesser team], [the lesser team] can be emotionally charged, but how much can you really close that gap? I’d say the same thing in basketball to a certain degree. I think, yeah, rebounding, there’s some of those types of things. But I think in hockey, it’s huge. So if you get a little too wrapped up [in analytics], be careful.”

Some guy named Albert Einstein said this:

“Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”

Sounds like Dean and Albert are on the same page here.

But that leaves us with who, exactly, is the smartest guy in the Oilers room.

The scary thing is it might be Tyler Dellow.

MacT has recently dismissed the use of analytics saying, in effect, his watching his players for 60-65 games has more value than assessing their performance through analytics.

He also used this opportunity to tout Justin Schultz as a potential Norris Trophy winner.

There is an issue  here.

MacT has decided, based on his viewing of Justin Schultz, that he has a potential Norris Trophy winner on his hands.

I’m not making this shit up…he said it.

MacT has obviously not taken a close look at how dreadful an NHL defenseman Justin Schultz really is.

More than a year ago, I identified  Justin Schultz as Jack Johnson V 2.0 and NOTHING has occurred for me to change my opinion.

So, what would Dean do?

Lombardi signed Johnson to a multi year deal  and then traded him to Columbus for Jeff Carter.

He did the same with Patrick O’Sullivan and Lubomir Visnovsky.

Of course, using the Oilers as a feeder team, he has produced 2 Stanley Cups and a perennial contender.

MacT and his “brain trust” should spend most of their time watching what Dean does.

The man knows what he is doing.

But I expect their arrogance will prevent that from happening.

 

 

 

 

 

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Other than jumping to unreasonable conclusions about players based on their performance against other rag tag assemblages of “prospects” at mini tournaments being staged hither and yon, it was a pretty quiet weekend leading up to the opening of NHL training camps in just a few days.

But something caught my eye this morning while I was conducting my early morning ramble around websites devoted to NHL coverage. This from Fluto Shinzawa, the Bruins’ beat writer for the Boston Globe.

 

The Bruins traditionally have been good at possessing the puck. They were a top-five team last season.

That’s not good enough for coach Claude Julien. This season, his eighth in Boston, Julien will ask his players to be more aggressive in the neutral zone to seal off rushes quicker.

He wants to introduce new things to longtime charges such as Zdeno CharaPatrice Bergeron, and Milan Lucic to keep things fresh. But Julien also wants to increase the time his team spends with the puck.

“Let’s say our forward has the guy picked up in the middle,” Julien said. “If our D’s can squeeze that guy out early, we will. That will be a trial run for us in the preseason.”

Julien has always preached patience with his defensemen. He teaches them to hang back, stay within the dots, and let plays come to them. Their forwards are good at applying back pressure and steering puck carriers into the teeth of their defense.

This season, if the defensemen have a good gap and read that a neutral-zone stoppage is possible, they’ll be given the green light to step up. If they take away the puck in the neutral zone, opponents won’t have a chance to carry it over the blue line or dump it in. The Bruins will be on the attack instead.

“For the most part, we’re pretty good about the time we spend with the puck,” Julien said. “If we can get a little more aggressive, we might spend even more time with it. You’re trying to be a little more dominant with your puck-possession time. What you do with it, that’s another story. But instead of letting the guy come all the way down and the D’s staying within the dots when he could have closed a little quicker and letting the forward do all the work, we might have the D squeeze them a little earlier, if we have the numbers coming back.”

Now, it should not be a surprise to an NHL head coach that possessing the puck is a critical tactic in trying to win hockey games but there is ample proof that perhaps NHL head coaches aren’t as “tuned in” as perhaps they should be.

One that leaps immediately to mind is the late, lamented John Tortorella who preached, both in his days with the New York Rangers and Vancouver Canucks a system of creating a box in front of the goaltender and calling on both his forwards and defensemen to block the flurry of shot attempts that were sure to follow. Torts also encouraged the Sedins and their team mates to dump and chase in the Ozone.

If we look at the raw CorsiON numbers of key Canucks forwards during his short tenure, we see a huge drop.

Henrik Sedin 

2013/14  +13.56

2012/13  +22.84

Daniel Sedin

2013/14 +15.20

2012/13 +24.71

While certainly not an exhaustive analysis, in fact just a snapshot to illustrate a point, we can start to see how coaching tactics  might impact possession. That the Sedins also saw their offensive zone starts drop from the high 60% range I think is yet another indication that Tortorella was attempting to turn the Sedins into players who fit his systems rather than creating systems to compliment his players. (See Dallas Eakins for additional reference).

Under Tortorella, the Canucks remained a decent possession team but their best players were clearly headed in the wrong direction and the combination of shot blocking and penalty killing Tortorella asked of them impacted their performance and injury status in a major way.

To me, it is nothing short of astounding that experienced and accomplished NHL coaches like Claude Julien are coming to the Possession Party so late and it’ll be interesting to watch how coaching tactics and personnel decisions are impacted by the revelation that, “if you have the puck more, you’ll generate more shots and win more games than you lose”.

I think we’re already looking at a major sea change in the shift away from “shutdown” defensemen to players who can skate or pass the puck out of their own end with control and it’ll be interesting to watch which coaches continue to employ an “off the glass and out” and “dump and chase” style of offence.

I suspect those guys will soon join Torts on the scrap heap.

Another, interesting bit today from LA Kings Insider.

Dean Lombardi on analytics.

http://tinyurl.com/p35oq8v

 

 

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Centres of Attention

The apologists are out in force. MacT could not have possibly landed another veteran centre because:

  1. None of them would have agreed to come to Edmonton
  2. None of them would have been better than Leon, Marcobello or (heaven forbid) Baby Nuge
  3. The Oilers would have had to give up assets to acquire one
  4. Derek Roy was the only option

So let’s just call bullshit right here and right now.

But first, let’s take a look at what centre depth actually looks like.

 

When Carlos Santana picks up a guitar, a blind man in an underground bunker would immediately know who is playing.  A sublime talent. The Patrick Kane of the music world.

And then there is Eric Clapton. I’d like to think of an NHL comparable but there really isn’t one. For those of us old enough to remember, Clapton is like Johnny Unitas, the best QB ever to play the game.

He’s a musical surgeon with the “calmest feet” in the game…a man who can play with anyone anytime and come out a winner.

Of course, 2 elite centres will only take you so far so, the wise GM will also look at his bottom 6.

 

A couple of minutes into the ZZ Top piece, Eric Clapton reveals why he chose the Texas rockers to close the Crossroads Guitar Festival…worth a listen.

Before moving on, I would like to take a moment for a special FUCK YOU to Lowetide poster DELOOPER who not only has maligned my taste in music but has identified himself as just another apologist:

Ahem, hockey, yes… Did MacTavish have much options in the way of acquiring centres over the summer? It sounds like he was pretty heavily constrained. It’s hard to say if there were any suitable centres out there that would have negotiated well with him. I don’t recall everything that happened this summer (had too many other things going on) but it seemed like there was no clear homerun trades to be made at centre.

This one is for you Sparky.

Clap, clap.

 

So, we’ve learned you can’t sing with a clarinet in your mouth.

But what have we learned about acquiring centres to play on an NHL team?

A couple of days ago, we heard from Jim Nill.

“If you want to be one of the elite teams, you have to have it,” Nill said of elite center depth. “I came from Detroit, we always had it. It was Yzerman-Fedorov, Zetterberg-Datsyuk. You look at the other teams that are winning on our side now, you need to have two elite centermen. We knew that was a little bit of a weakness on our team

SEGUIN, SPEZZA, HORCOFF, PEVERLEY (IN 12 MONTHS!)

What part of this doesn’t MacT understand?

Hopkins has some potential but, on a good team, he is nowhere near a #1C and on some, like BOS, LAK, ANA, SJS, he’s not even a top 6 C. Not even close.

And yet MacT is willing to go into another season with the weakest C depth in the league.

What the Oilers do have is a surplus of 4-7 D men…about 2 dozen by my count and yet the apologists don’t want to give anything up to acquire the most critical team need.

Good grief.

Jeff Petry and whatever else it takes to Dallas for Cody Eakin.

NOW.

 

 

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A Rising Tide

 

 

Regular Lowetide poster WHEATNOIL has suggested the Oilers should hire Alan Mitchell (Laine Babcock, Lowetide…it’s a radio thing!)  in some capacity.

It’s an interesting idea.

Most recently, the Oilers hired their second most vociferous  critic (hehe) to help out with the analytics department.

Tyler Dellow, of course, is a very polarizing figure in that he is aways right, at least in his own mind.

Nothing wrong with that except reality.

On the other hand, Lowetide has become the most respected voice among Oiler fans through a long standing regimen of analysis and undying optimism which has helped thousands of Oiler fans through a decade of watching bumblers and fools drive their beloved franchise into the ditch.

If the Oilers were to hire Lowetide tomorrow, their credibility with their fans would soar overnight since he has been holding many fans’ hands while the patient struggled to draw a breath.

While that process has unfolded, the Oilers have employed a phalanx of paid media shills to present their woeful performance in the best possible light…ranging from a broadcast crew with nice haircuts to  a crew of young Turks who try and polish a turd on the teams’ website.

No problem with that…it’s what they were hired to do as transparent as their “performance” is to the thinking fan.

I would think the Oilers could certainly use an employee with enhanced credibility but at what cost to the hundreds of fans who don’t always buy what the team is selling.

The real issue becomes how the team would co-opt even the softest criticism that Lowetide offers…I would guess the message would quickly become corporate and, thus, stale.

Now, Lowetide is not without fanboy characteristics.

Last year, at this time, his Reasonable Expectations series had the Oilers finishing in the playoffs with a positive goal differential while a last place divisional finish and -67 were much more in line with the expectations of those of us who could see the holes at C, on D, in goal and among the coaching and executive ranks that the fall 2013 roster presented.

Mitchell has also pumped the tires of marginal Oiler players, Pouliot, Gagner, Paajarvi et al, while an objective observer could see something entirely different.

More recently he has fallen in love with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, calling him a “sublime” talent even though there is compelling evidence that the young man is a PP specialist and gets killed at ES.

And, of course, he is on record as believing Craig MacTavish and Dallas Eakins are very smart men while there is close to zero evidence to support that view. (watch what they do, not what they say).

But what Lowetide is good at is storytelling and selling hope:

 

hopchange

 

 

Lowetide’s dogged tracking of prospects, his thoughtful analysis of past and future, albeit often flawed, and his ability to present a warm, friendly and (mostly) welcoming persona to Oilers fans of almost any degree of interest and religious fervour have become perhaps the most compelling reasons to remain a fan of a team that lost its way long ago and is showing precious little aptitude to get back in the fast lane of the NHL.

A visit to Lowetide’s site is always an adventure in optimism and, if that message were to be paid for by the Oilers, it would lose it’s lustre almost overnight since the organization has pretty much cashed every credibility cheque it had in its wallet.

As an example, Bob Stauffer, when an outside observer, who could at least be counted on for a modicum of objectivity, has become an irrelevant voice in the ongoing discussion of a team wandering endlessly in the wilderness.

Lowetide is selling “Hope” and through his engaging personality, wit and writing skill, has the credibility among fans that they will at least listen to to the pitch.

One would hope the Oilers can find a way to reward their #1 fan (free season tickets?) without co-opting  a message that their paid shills could only hope to emulate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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All Hat…No Cattle

 

Remember Kavis Reed.?

I do.

I met him several times through a mutual friend who had played with the Edmonton Eskimos.

My enduring impression was that he was incredibly arrogant and I was somewhat shocked when he was anointed the head coach of the Edmonton Eskimos.

His CV was sketchy and it seemed to me his  ascendence was likely tied more to his “forceful” personality than to his actual accomplishments as a player or coach.

Without belabouring things all too familiar to Eskimo fans, my skepticism was more than warranted. Kavis Reed was a walking disaster.

Just a little while later, newly minted Edmonton Oiler GM Craig MacTavish hired Dallas Eakins another coach with a sketchy CV…a man who has won nothing as a coach and was a fringe NHL player.

Eakins vaulted on the Edmonton Oiler stage with all the grace of a wounded water buffalo…telling the media what they should eat and purging the Oilers dressing room history so he could imprint the Dallas Eakins Era® on the organization.

Then he proceeded to fall flat on his face in pretty much the same fashion that Kavis Reed did when assuming the reins of the Edmonton Eskimos.

Under his tutelage, the Oilers, despite having their young guns with an extra year of experience and the addition of at least a couple of veteran NHL players, dropped from 74 points (pre-lockout) to 67 points.

Their goal differential dropped from -27 to -67.

Like Kavis Reed, Dallas Eakins was convinced he had a better way of doing things.

After abandoning his ill-advised Swarm Defense, he immediately set about grinding Nail Yakupov to a nub.

While I’m not particularly a Yakupov fan, publicly humiliating a passionate young man like Nail who wants nothing more than to win, would make Jimmy Hoffa seem like a benevolent leader of men.

MacT, who has tremendous personal investment in the hiring of Eakins, better hope the supreme confidence he placed in the hire at the end of the  first abominable season results in the Oilers taking a big leap forward in 2014/15.

If they don’t, MacT is going to have to wear it.

Kavis Reed had 3 seasons with the Eskimos. His record as head coach was 11-7, 7-11 and 4-14.

I would think the Oilers need an additional 10 wins this upcoming season for Eakins to be considered to be trending the right direction.

While that would  leave the Oilers with a paltry 87 points and likely 11th in the WC, anything less is an indictment of both the Head Coach and the General Manager.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Duelling Banjos

 

 

The Edmonton Oilers and Dallas Stars have pretty much been dogs for the better part of the last decade.

Every Oiler fan is painfully aware of how inept their favourite team has been since 2006 and, while the Stars have made the post season a few times since then, the dominant Stars of an earlier era have become a faded memory and, under the ownership of Tom Hicks, the team was in a horrible tailspin…much like the Oilers under EIG although the Oilers are always able to hang on to their fan base while Dallas’ deserted in droves.

More recently, both teams have been on similar although not identical trajectories toward returning to respectability.

Both teams are now owned by billionaires and, ironically, both Daryl Katz and Tom Gaglardi are based, of all places, in Vancouver.

But the similarities don’t stop there…

On April 29, 2013, The Dallas Stars appointed Jim Nill as their new GM while exactly 2 weeks earlier on April 15, the Edmonton Oilers appointed, after what one would hope was an exhaustive search for the best candidate, Craig MacTavish as their new GM.

You have to wonder if the Oilers even spoke to Nill?

And there’s more.

On June 10, 2013, after a mere 7 weeks on the job, MacT decided that Dallas Eakins was a better head coach choice than Ralph Krueger and, presumably,  Lindy Ruff, who was hired by the Stars 3 weeks later.

Soooooo…how’s that working out?

Craig MacTavish took over a team that had been so bad that it was able to accumulate a brace of first overall picks but the team had gaping holes…needing a #1 or #2 C depending on how you view Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, 2 top pairing defensemen, above average goaltending and depth players all over the ice.

Now, the Stars had been decidedly mediocre but were never bad enough to have a top 5 pick…in fact, their last #5 pick came way back in 1996 when they selected Richard Jackman.

If you look at the Stars roster from the season before Nill took over, it’s pretty apparent that Dallas, despite having stability in goal, was also riddled with holes.

Their best centre was Mike Ribiero…their second best was an aging  Steve Ott.

Their D consisted of a promising young Gologoski and an assortment of aging vets or AHL level hopefuls.

At this point, in the summer of 2013, Craig MacTavish declared:

“I’m an impatient guy and I bring that impatience to this situation,” MacTavish said the day he was hired, April 15.

“I think we’re at the stage in terms of the cycle of our hockey club right now that we have to do some bold things.

“We have to expose ourself to some semblance of risk to try to move the team forward in a rapid fashion.”

Jim Nill, of course, didn’t say much of anything except:

“If you want to be one of the elite teams, you have to have it,” Nill said of elite center depth. “I came from Detroit, we always had it. It was Yzerman-Fedorov, Zetterberg-Datsyuk. You look at the other teams that are winning on our side now, you need to have two elite centermen. We knew that was a little bit of a weakness on our team.”

And then, while MacT was out being “bold“, Nill quietly got to work.

In his first major transaction, Nill traded Loui Eriksson and a couple of prospects for two NHL centres…Tyler Seguin and Rich Peverley.

Nill quickly followed up that trade by sending under performing young defenseman Philip Larsen to the Oilers in return for Shawn Horcoff…so, in about a month, Nill had acquired THREE NHL centres.

While Nill was following his stated game plan…MacT was certainly busy although it remains to be seen if he’s done anything that could be described as bold.

His pre-eminent acquisition has been a winger, David Perron, while the holes at centre, on the top D pairing and in goal have not been adequately addressed to this point.

Bruce McCurdy, at the Cult of Hockey has a very good summation here. 

In the poll of Oiler fans that follows Bruce’s post, you’ll note that fully 50% of fans don’t think MacTavish’s performance has been adequate.

I expect a poll of Stars’ fans would look very different.

Fast forward to this past offseason and Jim Nill pulls off another blockbuster, this time acquiring another elite centre, Jason Spezza, for promising young forward Alex Chiasson as well as a trio of former Stars’ draft picks of dubious potential.

Days later, Nill added another former Oiler, Ales Hemsky, who had immediate chemistry with Spezza (20GP 17P) who the Oilers had traded to the Senators for 3rd and 5th round picks.

Eric Duhatschek of the Globe and Mail described the transactions this way:

So the dominoes are starting to shift, with virtually every team in the Western Conference now trying to follow a script established by the Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings, who had a quartet of accomplished centres in their line-up: Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Jarret Stoll and Mike Richards. Los Angeles plays a four-line game, which has proved to be a successful playoff strategy where wear-and-tear and fatigue essentially undermined the Stanley Cup aspirations of a number of teams.

In his new home, Spezza should be a good fit. He will play for coach Lindy Ruff, who is familiar with his game from Ruff’s years of coaching the Buffalo Sabres, a long-time divisional rival.

The Stars then went out and signed Spezza’s Senators’ teammate Ales Hemsky, to a three-year deal for $4-million per season. Hemsky played 20 games for Ottawa last year after coming over from the Oilers at the trading deadline and managed 17 points. He will also play a top-six role on a Stars’ team that’s aggressively fast-tracking their rebuild.

The story is here

If anyone has been bold in this scenario, I think you’ll have to agree it’s been Nill, not MacTavish, who has mostly fiddled around the edges by adding depth wingers, second pairing defensemen and a couple of unproven staring goaltenders.

Nill still has some work to do on defense but Patrick Nemeth and Jamie Oleksiak are reportedly ready to take the next step and join Jordie Benn, Brendan Dillon and Kevin Connaughton on the Stars’ young D corp and, considering Nill has not been afraid to make bold moves, I wouldn’t be surprised if he was in on the contest to pry Johnny Boychuk out of Boston.

With his acquisitions at centre (Nill now has 7 on the roster), drafting Valeri Nuchushkin and Julias Honka (a near PPG defenseman in the WHL), the Stars are inching very close to elite status in the Western Conference.

Given how bold Nill has been to this point and how successful he’s been in acquiring elite players, he will be in prime position to finish his rebuild when Sergei Gonchar’s and Erik Cole’s combined $9.5M cap hits are gone.

I certainly wouldn’t bet against the man.

So, in the meantime, what script is MacT following?

He said he wouldn’t be acquiring any mid level defensemen, and then acquired 2.

He hasn’t, at this point, addressed the weakest centre depth in the league instead seeming willing to rely on a rookie and a couple of AHL players to step up.

What he has done is acquire a couple of bigger depth wingers which, while important to the Oilers, does not address the team’s most urgent needs.

Nothing bold about that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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