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Oilers still waiting for improvement

EDMONTON – The Buffalo Sabres won’t see the injured Connor McDavid Sunday night in Rexall Place. Probably good for them. They will also see one of the worst teams in the NHL. Again. And the fact the Edmonton Oilers are languishing near the bottom of the league is just hard to believe. And not good for the NHL at all.

Look at the Oilers’ draft position for the first round of the last six drafts: No. 1, No. 1, No. 1, No. 7, No. 3, No. 1. The players taken were Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Nail Yakupov, Darnell Nurse, Leon Draisaitl and McDavid. How can they still stink? (That was rhetorical. We all know their goaltending and defense have been less than stellar over the years).

It’s safe to say there will be howling from corners around the NHL if the Oilers win another draft lottery and land Auston Matthews at No. 1 come next June at the draft in First Niagara Center.

When this corner checked in on the Oilers last week in Toronto, it was at the end of a road trip. They were feeling good about themselves after a shootout win in Pittsburgh – and then laid a complete egg in a 3-0 loss to the Leafs.

“We’re not where we need to be,” new coach Todd McLellan said bluntly. “We’ve got work to do as a team, work to do as an organization to get bigger, stronger, harder, physically win more battles than we lose.”

“When I look at the trip as a whole, we had some real key, key people really under-perform on the trip; significant minus numbers, not hitting the scoresheet,” McLellan said. “Right now we’ve got to keep our heads straight around us and make good decisions as an organization, good decisions moving forward to try and improve daily.”

Who were those references to? On the 1-3-1 road trip, Nugent-Hopkins had two assists and was minus-8. Jordan Eberle didn’t get a point and was minus-6. One of them seems likely to go as new GM Peter Chiarelli is going to have to get some ooomph on his roster.

The Sabres will, however, see an Edmonton team with some glimmers of hope of late. When they got home, the Oilers beat Boston in a shootout Wednesday and upset league-leading Dallas in overtime Friday on a goal by Eberle, just his fourth in 14 games this season.

The Oilers haven’t made the playoffs a single time since their miracle run to Game Seven of the Stanley Cup final in 2006 at Carolina, and that’s the only year they’ve won a series since 1998.

It’s not going to be easy to fix this franchise. McLellan pretty much admitted as much when I asked him how he works with players who have clearly gotten used to losing. Remember, he won an awful lot in San Jose and as an assistant to Mike Babcock in Detroit.

“We have to keep reminding ourselves as a staff and the new people in the organization including new players that there is a past,” McLellan said. “Players have felt pain at some point over the years. One of our goals at the beginning of training camp was to make this group mentally stronger, more determined when it wasn’t going well.”

The Oilers say the fact they’ve lost eight one-goal games is a good thing, that it shows they’re close.

“It’s getting better and better,” insisted McDavid, who could be back from his broken collarbone by mid-January. “I know it’s tough to stay positive when you’re losing so many close games, but we’re in pretty much every game. With any bounces, we’d be maybe in a different position.”

The loss of McDavid, of course, has had a major impact on the season. The Oilers were 5-8 with him and went 3-7-2 in their first 12 games without him before winning the last two.

“It’s a big hit for us. We think that Connor is one of our top players as an 18-year-old, and he’s proven he can be that when he was playing,” McLellan said. “You take anybody’s star player or players our of the lineup, it’s a big hole to fill. The one thing that Connor really did well was energize our group. He was a catalyst and also promoted some real strong play from others.”

The Oilers are looking better at times with a strong young defenseman like Nurse on the ice. And Draisaitl, the big German taken one pick after Sam Reinhart at No. 3 in 2014, has eight goals and 19 points in his first 17 games. He assisted on Eberle’s game-winner Friday.

“My confidence level and my shape is way better than last year,” Draisaitl said. “That helps a lot. It’s a big step to go straight from junior to the NHL. Maybe I was a little bit surprised, but I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. The last two summers were a lot of work to get where I am.”

But whether it’s Draisaitl or McDavid, who had 12 points in his 13 games, the Oilers need more from across their roster.

“I can’t do it by myself, none of us can,” Draisaitl said. “We all have to stick together, keep doing what we’re doing and it will turn around.”

When the team got home after its roadie, McLellan had more to say Wednesday.

“You can’t accept some of the things that have gone on here,” he said. “Patience is when you get the effort and the results aren’t there. When you don’t get the effort, you can’t be patient, you have to push, you have to make changes. Patience is one thing, accepting below-normal standards is a different thing, and we don’t want to do the second.”

Message to the world

There is nothing you can offer but high praise for the effort the Sabres, Pegula Sports & Entertainment and city officials put in to secure the World Junior Championships again for 2018. Although many hockey observers felt it was a slam-dunk choice, there was some definite backlash at USA Hockey over the thought of awarding the same city back-to-back shots as American host when so many bids were compelling.

When you think about all that has changed downtown just since 2011, you get an idea of the kind of Olympic-style outdoor festival the Sabres are contemplating around Canalside in conjunction with the games.

There weren’t many details offered Friday in Ralph Wilson Stadium with things still in the planning stages. But it’s pretty apparent a little heated house on the arena plaza to down a few beers in won’t have to be the hub of activity when the tournament returns around Christmas time in 2017. (The 2018 event, remember, kicks off on Dec. 26, 2017.)

Officials said they learned from 2011 about ticket packaging, and you would hope they would not overprice the games while simply looking to lure Canadian fans over the border. For those who correctly point out American fans were overrun by our friends from across the Peace Bridge last time, part of that was that people here were still learning about the tournament. Another part of that was price point and the requirement to buy a package of multiple games.

There was far too much emphasis on packages and not enough on individual game sales until right before the event when more seats needed to be sold. You would hope that would change this time.

A challenge on challenges

The Sabres’ three goals reversed on offside coaches’ challenges have been well-documented this season, and the whole thing seems fishy. Three more brought the point home Thursday night.

Arizona scored less than two minutes into the game in Detroit, but the goal was wiped out. The Coyotes ended up falling behind, 3-0, by the end of the first period in a 5-1 loss and the replay was a game-changer. Then a potential tying goal for Toronto was taken away with less than five minutes to go in a 1-0 loss in Minnesota.

Then after midnight, Patrick Sharp’s game-winning goal for Dallas in Vancouver was allowed to stand when replay showed Dominic Roussel’s toenail – OK, I’m kidding – had not crossed the blue line before the puck.

The league doesn’t need this. Especially when goals are already at a premium. Goaltender interference plays almost always directly impact a goal. If the NHL keeps this offside foolishness in some form, there should at least be a time limit on things. You shouldn’t have a goal wiped out because you were offside 20 seconds before it was scored.

For those who say get it right with the technology, I say to you these offside challenges are like the pop-up slide issues at second base in baseball. They’re unintended consequences of replay that needlessly change the game and we’ve lived fine with them for, oh, a hundred years or so.

This is all because a Tampa Bay goal in double overtime during a playoff game last spring in Montreal was offside. And it clearly was. Think it would be an issue if that had happened to, say, Nashville? Remember what current Predators coach Peter Laviolette famously said on “24/7” while behind the Philadelphia bench during a game in the Bell Centre? The phrase was “Montreal typical.”

So the Habs are wronged and we have to mess with the entire sport? It’s foolish.

Canucks loathe OT

Something to keep in mind when the Sabres are in Vancouver on Monday: Things are so bad for the Canucks in overtime that Henrik Sedin actually said maybe a shootout would be a better option after they were beaten last week in the 3-on-3 portion of the contest in Los Angeles.

It was already their seventh OT loss of the season, by far a league high. And don’t forget the loss here on Rasmus Ristolainen’s goal with 17 seconds left in regulation. That’s a lot of blown points already.

“There have been penalties, there have been turnovers, there’s been a lot of different things,” Sedin said. “It’s tough to pinpoint one thing, but it is one of those things where we just have to maybe try and get it to a shootout and go from there. Maybe win one and build off that.

“I think we are pressing a little bit and when you do that in those situations, three-on-three, it’s real easy for it to go the other way.”

They said it

• Dallas television analyst Daryl Reaugh on calling the Canucks a “tweener” team: “Their young guys are a bit too yeasty. Their old guys are a bit too moldy.”

• Sabres television analyst and former Tie Domi adversary Rob Ray on the nifty breakaway goal here Friday by Arizona’s Max Domi, Tie’s son: “That’s a lot of highlights out of a Domi.”

• Bruins coach Claude Julien, accusing Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist of embellishment after a kneebump to the head from Brad Marchand: “I know he does some acting on the side, but it doesn’t need to be on the ice.”

• The gem-of-a-response to Julien by Rangers coach Alain Vigneault: “Who would you rather have as a son, Henrik Lundqvist or Brad Marchand? For him to say things like that about Hank, totally wrong. Probably Claude is getting a little older and needs to check his eyesight.”

Around the boards

• McDavid is as interested in talking about Jack Eichel as Eichel is about his Edmonton counterpart. McDavid said it doesn’t bother him to be missing Sunday’s first potential head-to-head game any more than it does to miss any other contest. Said McDavid on watching Eichel highlights: “It’s the world we live in today. The media does a great job covering all that stuff, so you see it. He’s been playing well.”

• Tampa GM Steve Yzerman to Lightning beat writers after his struggling team finished November at 11-11-3: “I’ll react and do what I feel is necessary, but it’s not going to be just to do something because of what our record is. It has to make sense and has to make us a better team.”

Yzerman is believed to be active in the trade market and he has this little ongoing problem of no extension for Steven Stamkos that is only going to become a burgeoning distraction as the Feb. 29 trade deadline approaches. Stay tuned.

• Mike Babcock Effect: The Leafs went 1-7-2 in October. They were 7-4-3 in November, including two wins over Dallas, one over Nashville and shootout losses to Washington and Boston. Pretty darn competitive. Their power play was 2 for 27 in October and 13 for 47 in November, an improvement of more than 20 percent.

• The venerable Jim Matheson of the Edmonton Journal was in the house for Garrett Sparks’ shutout Monday in his NHL debut for the Leafs, and the Hall-of-Fame scribe reminded all in earshot before the game it had happened to the Oilers once before: On Nov. 1, 1985 at then-Northlands Coliseum, Sabres newcomer Daren Puppa made 37 saves to beat the Wayne Gretzky-led Oilers, 2-0.

That was the Oilers’ first shutout at home in more than 4½ years. An early goal gave Puppa a lead he made stand up. The scorer? Lindy Ruff.

email: mharrington@buffnews.com

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