a·cu·men [ak-yuh-muhn] noun: keen insight; shrewdness

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Monday, 25 February 2013

02/25/13 Road Trip Questions

The fabled nine game road trip began with an overtime loss on Monday night, and the Oilers are left with more questions than answers. Nuge snake-bitten? Yakupov with 9:05 of ice time? Khabibulin stealing the starting job? Where did I leave my keys?

First thing's first: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins led all Oilers players in ice time with 24:03, but unfortunately he's getting nothing done offensively. He's 1-1-2, minus-3 in his last ten games, which is simply unacceptable for a top line center. Some day it's all going to come together for the Nuge, but so far this hasn't been his year. In all that ice time he had just one shot on goal.

Then again, no Oiler had more than Ales Hemsky's three shots. It may sound harsh to judge the Oilers' lack of shot output against the best team in the league, but it's only because they were once again capable of more than they mustered. Every Hawks goal on Monday night came from players going to the net, but that's something the Oilers must still think is beneath them. They get themselves into dangerous positions and then squander chance after chance by refusing to shoot and go to the net.

A shot on goal can result in several different outcomes, almost none of which are bad:

1) A goal (can you imagine?)
2) A save, which the goalie plays to his own player deep in his own zone
3) A save, which the goalie smothers for a faceoff in his own zone
4) A rebound (oh, the possibilities!)
5) A missed shot that rings around the boards out to center ice, which finds its way to an opposing player who moves in on a breakaway and buries it upstairs

Refusing to take a shot on goal will inevitably lead to a turnover. 100% of the time.

The Oilers are leading the league in giveaways with 190 in just 18 games (10.6 per game!). Oh sure, that's better than last year when the Oilers were last in the league in giving the puck away 996 times (12.1 per game), but I don't think this is anyone's idea of a puck possession team.

And no player typifies the Oilers' problem holding onto the puck more than Nail Yakupov, who played just 9:05 total on Monday and 5:24 at even strength. He got the puck off of his stick in a hurry for a beauty powerplay goal, but has obviously fallen out of favor early in his first season. Taylor Hall's suspension left a sweet opening for him on the top line, but instead he saw his lowest ice time total of the year. Ironically, Yakupov has two points in the games without Hall, but not because he's been expected to fill the void. His ice time has dropped in each of the last four games.

More of the load has been placed on the shoulders of Jordan Eberle, who played 23:50 on Monday and is indeed seeing some regression from his breakout 2011-12 season. Eberle's shooting percentage has dropped from 18.9% last year (10% higher than average) to a still-respectable 9.8% this year (0.6% higher than average). He's averaging over a full shot per game more than last season, but he hasn't been as lucky. Oilers fans should actually be happy about that for the long term.

But how happy should fans be about the play of Nikolai Khabibulin? His 0.935 Sv% and 2.11 GAA are better than Dubnyk's numbers (in 1/3 as many games), which leads one to fear think that management might be interested in re-signing him. Clearly Khabibulin can still play, but age is a factor for the 40 year old. It's tough for fatigue to hurt him in a 48 game season, but expecting him to play 25-30 games in the future is bound to end badly.

Some irony for ya? The Oilers are currently carrying eight defensemen (JSchultz, NSchultz, Potter, Petry, Smid, Fistric, Whitney, Peckham) and they're sitting at 16th in the league in GA/G. There's serious, warranted talk of moving Ryan Whitney out of town, and yet defense is still a great weakness of the team. Management gambled on Whitney returning to some semblance of form and lost, which has left them with a player who they'll have to move for a draft pick at best. That pick had better be used as part of a package for an actual NHL player, or there'll be trouble at the top.

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