Facing Off: Dissecting Stunning Starts for Oilers, Coyotes

Facing Off is a weekly column, featuring Larry Fisher and Andrew Bensch debating five of hockey’s hottest topics each and every Monday. From current events like trades and hat tricks, to bigger-picture stuff like scandals and expansion — you name it, we’re debating it. Albeit, not always with a serious tone. We’re keeping this column light, so keep that in mind when reading, and feel free to join in on the fun by leaving a comment below.

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Andrew’s had a lot to celebrate so far this season, including a birthday on the weekend. He turned 24 on Saturday, so while Martin Jones was giving him shutouts and the Sharks were giving him wins in general — making Andrew look like a genius for picking San Jose to not only make the playoffs but to win the Pacific Division — I’ve decided to give Andrew what he’s always wanted, a shorter intro to this week’s Facing Off. He called me out last week for my longwinded, wide-ranging rambles on all things hockey, so I’m sparing him (and you) all that extra scrolling and instead getting right down to business for a change.

Is (was) the sky falling in Edmonton? Fire McLellan? Trade McDavid?

(Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports) Todd McLellan historically had fast-starting teams in San Jose, with his Sharks often topping the early-season standings. Now in Edmonton, McLellan's Oilers are bringing up the rear to start this season, an all-too-familiar position for the floundering franchise.
(Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports)
Todd McLellan historically had fast-starting teams in San Jose, with his Sharks often topping the early-season standings. Now in Edmonton, McLellan’s Oilers are bringing up the rear to start this season, an all-too-familiar position for the floundering franchise. For his part, McLellan is tasked with righting the ship and getting the most out this perennially underachieving group.

FISHER: No, silly, it’s all rainbows and sunshine. For the record, this question was asked after the Oilers lost their home opener to fall to 0-4 on the season. In other words, before they blew out the Flames and nipped the Canucks in overtime. Suddenly, all that pre-season optimism has come rushing back. But at 0-4, the harsh reality was sinking in (again) for Oilers fans that Rome wasn’t built in a day — not even in a decade for this franchise. The current team remains a work in progress, from the roster makeup to adjusting to a fifth different head coach in the last six years since Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle were rookies. Todd McLellan is undisputedly the best of that bunch — the most established and respected — but it’s going to take time for his systems to take hold and to rid the veterans of that ‘loser’ mentality. Edmonton’s fan base has also become numb to losing over the years, but should be lauded for their patience and resiliency. Nobody was pushing any panic buttons despite going 0-3 on a tough road trip to open the season because they could see subtle improvements that weren’t showing up in the standings. Winning is important and it had to start sooner than later, but most are giving McLellan the benefit of the doubt and McDavid is getting better by the game too. He wasn’t sniping highlight-reel goals like his draft rival Jack Eichel right off the start, but McDavid has been coming on strong since getting the weight of the hockey world off his shoulders by scoring his first on a redirection against Dallas. That put McDavid ahead of Sidney Crosby and Anze Kopitar in the scoring race through three games, with those stars held pointless as Pittsburgh and Los Angeles got off to much more concerning winless starts. It was a bit disappointing that McDavid didn’t click with Hall and that McLellan split them up after only one game — I do question that decision — but McDavid does seem to be developing chemistry with another former first overall pick in Nail Yakupov, a player the Oilers really need to step up this season. Aside from Andrej Sekera, the additions that Peter Chiarelli made in the off-season have shown promise, including both Cam Talbot and Anders Nilsson in goal. Sekera should settle in and become more reliable, and I’m still confident the results will come, but the Oilers have some catching up to do already. These mounting losses early in the fall won’t help their chances of contending for a playoff spot in the spring. I do think people underestimated the loss of Eberle, who led Edmonton in scoring last season and has in three of his five seasons to date as the longest-serving Oiler (he’s played 356 games to Hall’s 305). I could see the Oilers going on a run upon Eberle’s return in a couple weeks, but they’ll need to find ways to win without him and play at least .500 hockey between now and then. If they don’t, we could see some of those nice new orange jerseys landing on the ice at Rexall Place.



BENSCH: I don’t care how good the No. 1 overall pick is in the draft, you don’t go from being the worst defensive team in the entire NHL to being a sure-fire lock for the playoffs. We talked about this in an earlier edition of Facing Off that people need to pump the brakes on the Oilers. To be honest, if it were possible, I would rather have 2014 first overall pick Aaron Ekblad than Connor McDavid if I were the Oilers. They have already drafted multiple offensive weapons first overall, their problem continues to be a lack of defense. Andrej Sekera is a nice player and all, but is he supposed to be their No. 1 defenseman? This isn’t the wide-open NHL anymore when Sidney Crosby first came into the league — defenses have clamped down again, scoring is down again. You cannot win in the Western Conference based on forward firepower alone.

Speaking of McDavid, should he have been suspended for a hit (from behind) on Dallas defenceman Johnny Oduya that went uncalled?

FISHER: Andrew posed this question and it caught me a bit off-guard. I watched the game and saw the hit in real time. I’ll admit, it should have been a penalty — a minor for boarding. McDavid seemed to have superhuman strength, shoving Oduya in the numbers and launching him awkwardly into the boards. Hits like that have resulted in serious injury in the past, especially if the players goes in head-first. It happened right in front of the ref, so I was a bit surprised his arm didn’t go up, but I was even more shocked that none of Oduya’s teammates went after McDavid. Oduya gave the ref a “WTF?” after the next whistle, but cooler heads prevailed and, fortunately, nobody got hurt. Penalty? Yes. Suspension? No, and I doubt the league even took a look at it. But I bet the ref received a memo that he missed one there — a minor one. However, if you flip the situation around and Oduya wallpapers McDavid like that, you can bet there is at least a penalty and possibly a suspension. Double standard? You bet, but up-and-coming stars have always got preferential treatment and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

BENSCH: I proposed this question because I saw someone else pose the question and it got me thinking. This is a hit from behind, straight in the numbers, and unlike other questionable hits from behind, the hittee didn’t turn at the last second. In this case, Oduya is in the same position for a good beat or two and McDavid finishes his check right in the numbers. Personally, I have a big problem with this hit and the way the NHL department of player safety makes decisions. This could have easily resulted in a serious injury, and you can bet if it did that the league would have suspended McDavid. Whether or not an injury happens on a play should not be as big of a factor in the decision of whether or not to hand down a suspension. The danger level of the hit should be the primary factor.

These Coyotes can’t be for real … or can they?

(Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports) Mike Smith is the reason the Coyotes got off to a surprising 3-0 start, but I just can't see him being a difference-maker all season. Therefore, I can't see Arizona anywhere near the playoff race when the calendar flips to 2016.
(Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports)
Mike Smith is the reason the Coyotes got off to a surprising 3-0 start, but I just can’t see him being a difference-maker all season. Therefore, I can’t see Arizona anywhere near the playoff race when the calendar flips to 2016.

FISHER: No, no they cannot. I was as stunned as anyone by their hot 3-0 start, especially since they beat three teams that I had making the playoffs in my pre-season predictions — Los Angeles (4-1), Pittsburgh (2-1) and my Cup champion Anaheim (4-0). That horseshoe has since dropped from Mike Smith’s backside, resulting in a couple defeats. Arizona was the only team in the entire league that I ruled out of playoff contention before the season even started. The only thing the Coyotes were supposed to win was the Auston Matthews’ sweepstakes, to select the local product first overall in the 2016 draft. But there we were, with me — and most my predicting peers — looking like total fools. Reality is, Smith had been saving the Coyotes from becoming roadkill, and their rookies — namely, Max Domi and Anthony Duclair — were riding an adrenaline rush that has them looking like bona fide stars instead of budding prospects. Once that wears off — and it already started to on the weekend — the Coyotes will plummet to the bottom of the standings where they belong. Smith has always been a streaky goalie, with the exception of last season when he was terrible for a long stretch, only to improve enough at the end to keep Arizona from getting McDavid or Eichel. Those two are generational talents, on a whole other level than Domi, Duclair or this year’s third overall pick Dylan Strome, who the Coyotes smartly sent back to junior. Don Maloney made that decision because nothing was expected of the Coyotes this season and it wasn’t worth wasting a year of Strome’s entry-level contract. Besides, if he stuck around and was any good, Strome could have jeopardized Arizona’s chances at Matthews. As harsh as that all sounds, one thing we shouldn’t underestimate is Dave Tippett’s ability to get the most out of a mediocre roster. So far, so good on that front.

BENSCH: The Coyotes were everyone’s pick to be last in the Western Conference. Heck, Larry even thinks they are worse than some of the Eastern Conference bottom feeders. However, this is a team that you cannot simply write off ever year. They have always been a group that is tough to play against, and they came out of nowhere in 2011-12 to make a trip to the Western Conference final. Are they for real? Probably not. But the parity in this conference is unreal — there really are no bad teams. Max Domi, Anthony Duclair, Mikkel Boedker, Shane Doan and Antoine Vermette are some talented players up front for the Coyotes. Defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson is one of the best blue-liners in all of the league, and if Mike Smith has a bounce-back year in goal, there is no reason this team can’t compete with the other lower teams in the conference like Edmonton, Winnipeg, Vancouver, etc.

Did the war-room get one wrong on the coach’s challenge by San Jose that overturned a Washington goal against Andrew’s Sharks?

FISHER: Yes, even as a former goalie, I don’t think Martin Jones was interfered with in any way, shape or form. Screened? Yes. Interfered with? No. Jay Beagle merely did a fly-by at the top of the crease — he wasn’t even in the blue paint — as Dmitry Orlov’s shot was sailing past Jones. That’s a hockey play and it was a good goal, which was the call on the ice. It should have stood. You need conclusive evidence to overturn it and I’m not seeing any. Yet, somehow I have a funny feeling that Andrew saw it differently. Andrew may be a homer (at times), but I will admit his Sharks — and specifically Jones — are really impressing me so far. Jones went on to blank the Capitals, but the war-room robbed Orlov in my opinion. San Jose was already leading 3-0 at that point, so it might not have made much difference in terms of the result, but still — you’ve got to get it right! Here is the goal in question, so you can be the judge.



BENSCH: I may be a homer at times, but I analyze everything from every angle and back everything up with facts/evidence. Speaking of evidence, I’m not sure what evidence the war-room saw on this one — that is not goalie interference in the slightest. Maybe there is some slight contact with Jones’ catching glove, but the shot went blocker side off the post, top corner and in. There is no way that contact had any effect on the goal being scored. Terrible call.

With Robin Lehner expected to miss two months, what should the Sabres do about their goaltending?

Robin Lehner
(Peter Llewellyn-USA TODAY Sports)
Robin Lehner didn’t last long as the Sabres’ starting goalie, getting hurt in his Buffalo debut. Lehner seems to be a bit injury-prone, so the Sabres would be wise to acquire one of the available veterans as an insurance policy going forward. They can’t have their season and playoff aspirations riding on Chad Johnson and a couple rookies. That would be a recipe for disaster.

FISHER: The answer is NOT ride Chad Johnson. He’s a below-average backup with no track record as an NHL starter or even platooner. The Sabres need to make a move and fortunately for them, there are a few decent, more experienced options available for trade. Minnesota has Niklas Backstrom as a healthy scratch, Calgary is also carrying three goalies with Jonas Hiller likely the odd-man out there and Edmonton has already demoted Ben Scrivens to the AHL. All three are unrestricted free agents after this season, so there isn’t a long-term commitment. All three are also veteran upgrades on Johnson, providing insurance and mentorship for Lehner once he returns. Of the three, the 33-year-old Hiller is the most expensive at $4.5 million, but he’s also the most skilled. He might cost the most to acquire, with Calgary’s asking price likely a third-round pick or perhaps a prospect like Nic Baptiste or William Carrier. Scrivens is the youngest at 29 and the cheapest at $2.3 million, but he’s the least proven of the three and failed as the Oilers’ starter last season. He would be a marginal upgrade on Johnson and probably more of a platooner. Backstrom falls somewhere in between skill-wise, but he’s the oldest at 37 and has a history of injuries too. Backstrom, who claims to be as healthy as he’s been in years and looked good in pre-season action, has a salary of $4 million but a cap-hit of only $3.4. Buffalo could also make a stronger pitch for Minnesota’s Darcy Kuemper — that might take a second-rounder and then some — or Calgary’s Karri Ramo. The Flames also have Joni Ortio, but their preference is to keep him as the potential second-coming of Miikka Kiprusoff. Failing all that, or if the asking prices are deemed too high, the Sabres could always sign Ray Emery — currently on a professional tryout with the Kings’ farm team — to platoon with Johnson short-term and let them battle for the No. 2 job going forward. Personally speaking, if I was Tim Murray, my focus would be on Calgary. The Flames also have top goaltending prospects Jon Gillies and Mason McDonald — an embarrassment of riches — so maybe just maybe Ortio could be had for a second-rounder and Baptiste or Carrier. A steep price to pay, but Ortio could be worth it to pair with Lehner long-term. I’d settle for Hiller or Ramo over the other options as well. I know Andrew is high on the Sabres, but he can’t possibly be high on Johnson . . . or can he?

BENSCH: While I am high on the Sabres, and think they will make the playoffs this season (assuming they don’t suffer more than their fair share of injuries), I don’t see the need to rush to acquire a goaltender. Considering they are just coming off a year where they secured the No. 2 overall pick, there is the potential of another down season this year and so those picks will be incredibly valuable. They have already invested a first-round pick in Lehner, so do they want to give up more future assets for a short-term solution? Anyone worth getting is at least a third-round pick in compensation. Long-term, the best play would be to just ride it out until Lehner gets back. This is a team in the baby-steps of getting back into regular contention year in and year out, no need to make any haste judgments.

There’s More . . .

Typically we keep this column to five topics — and that’ll continue to be the case going forward — but it was Canadian Thanksgiving last weekend and we’re thankful for our regular readers, so we’re giving you a couple bonus topics to chew on this time around. Enjoy!

It has gone pretty quiet on the expansion front, but from a talent standpoint, can the NHL ice two more teams? Or will the league become too watered down with 32 franchises?

Curtis Glencross
(Tom Szczerbowski-US PRESSWIRE)
Curtis Glencross, who had his best years with the Calgary Flames, is still without a team to play for this season. He had tryouts with the Leafs and Avs, but failed to stick and is now one of many veterans stuck on the sidelines. If only there was an expansion team (or two) for them to join.

FISHER: To the Original Six fans — those who were alive to experience the good ol’ days — this is going to sound like nails on a chalkboard, but yes, I believe there is more than enough talent to go around. I look at guys like Curtis Glencross, a serviceable top-nine winger on the sidelines, and think he shouldn’t be out of a job at 32, turning 33 years old. Ditto for James Sheppard, 26, Tyler Kennedy, 28, Stephen Weiss, 31, Tomas Kopecky, 32 and Michael Ryder, 34, to name another handful of unemployed free agents. Even guys like Lubomir Visnovsky, 38, and Sergei Gonchar, 41, believe they have a year or two left in him, but can’t find a team that shares that mentality. I know Brandon McMillan, a 25-year-old former third-round pick, is still staking here with the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets, trying to stay in shape and hoping that call comes. He’s a very capable pro, clearly a step ahead of the juniors he’s currently practising with — even drafted players like Nick Merkley, Rourke Chartier and Justin Kirkland. Those three might have better long-term potential, but McMillan is better suited to jump back into the league right now or even next season in my opinion. McMillan, who finished last season with the Vancouver Canucks, is a very versatile player with experience at centre, wing and even defence. He’s responsible at both ends, can kill penalties and chip in a bit of offence. There should be a place for him at the highest level. Curtis Hamilton, whose father Bruce owns the Rockets, was left out in the cold to start this season too. The former second-rounder who turns 24 in December wasn’t qualified by the Oilers and also had to scramble to find work before heading off to Europe — not that landing in Prague on a six-figure salary is the worst place to be. These are just some of the free-agent types, and I didn’t even delve into the many players that would be left unprotected in an expansion draft. Add all those guys to the mix, along with a good group of prospects, and you could ice two pretty competitive rosters right from the get-go. Here’s hoping that gets done sooner than later — be it in Las Vegas and Quebec City, or elsewhere.

BENSCH: The NHL no doubt can afford to expand and not dilute the talent pool. There is so much talent to go around these days as Larry notes in his response. I mean James Sheppard may not be a third-line guy like the Sharks wanted him to be last year, but he is far better than many of the currently employed fourth-liners out there. Tyler Kennedy, likewise, is a guy that deserves a chance somewhere in the Eastern Conference. He has the skill to play with high-end players as a complementary piece, but he is out of the league right now. I wouldn’t be worried about spreading talent out in the slightest. There are plenty of hockey markets that have rabid fan bases waiting for a team and there is no reason not to give them one. Hamilton, Quebec City, you name it, give those places a team and they will thrive.

Alex Ovechkin either confused A.M. for P.M. or hit the snooze button one too many times this week, resulting in a healthy scratch for the Washington captain. Fess up, what’s your worst alarm fail?

(THW file photo) Alex Ovechkin slept through practice this past week and was forced to sit out a game as a result.
(THW file photo)
Alex Ovechkin slept through practice this past week and was forced to sit out a game as a result. And he had to feel shame too.

FISHER: I’m typically pretty punctual and rarely show up late — my newspaper co-workers are chuckling at that one, but I swear the traffic holds me back most days. As a goalie, there is no worse feeling than waking to a text message of “where are you?” — especially when it is a noon skate and you live a half-hour from the rink. Been there, done that. I’ve never been a morning person and I’m also a deep sleeper. Combine the two and it spells trouble. I used to sleep in and miss the bus on a semi-regular basis in high school — intentional or accidental — but believe it or not, I once slept through a fire alarm with a full evacuation. Fortunately, for my sake, it was a false alarm. I was living with a couple in a condo building at the time and had stumbled home in the middle of the night, albeit quietly enough to go undetected. My head hit the pillow and I fell into a deep comatose, awaking around noon and feeling rather refreshed. My roommates looked at me with bewilderment as I exited the bedroom to the question of “when did you get home?” They hadn’t left, except for that brief evacuation period when they told firefighters that nobody else was home. I was there all along, but nothing was waking me on that day.

BENSCH: Ummm, I don’t really have a cool story off the top of my head about sleeping in too late. Of course it has happened to me a few times in my lifetime, but none really stand out above the others. I guess once in high school I was late to first period and thought I would have to get a tardy slip, but my teacher who happened to be one of my favorites (big Sharks fan as well) said it was no big deal and just to take a seat.

So who won this round of Facing Off? Feel free to weigh-in with your opinions in the comments below. We will be checking in periodically to both defend and expand on our initial answers. If you want to see us face-off over a topic, we’re open to suggestions as well.

Larry Fisher is a sports reporter for The Daily Courier in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada. Follow him on Twitter: @LarryFisher_KDC.

Andrew Bensch has been credentialed to cover the San Jose Sharks since 2010. He graduated with his BA in Broadcast Electronic Communication Arts in 2013 from San Francisco State University. Follow him on Twitter: @ViewFromBensch.