Facing Off: Pumping the Brakes on the Oilers

Facing Off is a weekly column, featuring Larry Fisher and Andrew Bensch debating five of hockey’s hottest topics each and every Monday.

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When initial puck possession needs to be decided, hockey players face off. At times, when the puck drops, the gloves are shed simultaneously (see Thornton, Joe and Getzlaf, Ryan). Now, when breaking down hockey news on a regular basis, hockey writers will also (figuratively speaking) drop the gloves and start pummeling away on the keyboard.

As we approach the beginning of NHL training camps, a number of topics are on the palate for debate. First and foremost, what about those Edmonton Oilers? Should fans and experts alike pump the brakes on playoff expectations for Connor McDavid’s rookie season? Which players on pro-tryout contracts are most likely to earn a spot with their respective clubs? Andrew and Larry have you covered with passionate opinions to these topics and more in this week’s Facing Off.

How many California teams will make the playoffs this season?

(Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)
(Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

Fisher: First off, welcome back Andrew, I hope the break treated you good and you were able to get all caught up on the latest season of Gossip Girl, or get your fill of Friends re-runs over the last month. Yes, he watches those shows and admits to it. Not to worry buddy, you didn’t miss much here, August was just as lame as we predicted. Now, to predict how many California teams make the playoffs . . . I’m going to say two, Anaheim and Los Angeles. The Ducks are going to dominate the entire Western Conference this season and probably win the Presidents’ Trophy, so they are a given.

The Kings are going to be both humbled and recharged, a dangerous combination that will have them wreaking havoc and staying in the playoff picture from start to finish. The Sharks could certainly make it three, the potential is there, but my off-season predictions had them on the outside looking in and that’s still where I see San Jose when the dust settles on this season. I’m not big on Martin Jones as a starting goaltender (yet), and I’d rather have Milan Lucic and Christian Ehrhoff than Joel Ward and Paul Martin in terms of roster additions. So if that last spot comes down to the Kings or Sharks, give me Jonathan Quick for the win. That should get Andrew good and fired up right off the hop.

sharks salaries
(Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

Bensch: Larry and I can agree on one thing in this case, yes there will be two California teams in the playoffs this year. We just differ on which teams those will be. The Kings don’t have the same forward depth that made them so tough to play against the last few years. Milan Lucic is going to play in the top-six and won’t make up for the losses of Jarret Stoll and Justin Williams in the bottom-six. Plus Lucic is coming off a down year and players of his ilk often decline faster with all that wear and tear.

The Sharks will actually have better depth than the Kings this year with second-year player Chris Tierney prime for a breakout as the squad’s third line center. Tierney finished last season with 14 points in his last 18 games without playing with any of the Sharks’ top players. He is going to be a big time difference maker in San Jose’s bottom six. As for their goaltending, there is a reason why the Kings wanted to get rid of Martin Jones to the Eastern Conference. The Sharks were able to acquire Jones from Boston shortly after the Kings traded him to the Bruins. The 25-year-old has the best minor league track record of all the goalies traded this offseason. San Jose will not only make the playoffs, but they will do so by winning the division. Anaheim will make the playoffs as well but will finish third behind San Jose and Calgary. The Kings will miss out for the second straight year.

Are the Oilers becoming overrated for the upcoming season? Is there too much hype because of the Connor McDavid factor?

Connor McDavid
(Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports)

Fisher: Almost, depending on who or what you read. Some writers (and bloggers) are becoming really bullish on Edmonton’s playoff chances and that might be pushing it. For all that has gone right for the Oilers this off-season — from drafting McDavid to hiring Todd McLellan and Peter Chiarelli — just as much would have to go right during the season in order to make the playoffs in the ultra-competitive Western Conference.

Remember, these same Oilers — minus McDavid and a handful of new B-level talents — missed the playoffs by a whopping 35 points last season. That is a ton of ground to make up, especially with other non-playoff teams like Los Angeles, Dallas and even San Jose making equally impressive roster additions. I’d love to see the Oilers get in, it would be great for the city of Edmonton and a nice send-off for Rexall Place (I mean, Northlands Coliseum). But the realist in me thinks the playoffs are still a year away, albeit a great way to break in the new building (Rogers Place) in the spring of 2017. So to better answer the question, in a word — yes, if you’re penciling the Oilers into a playoff spot for this season, you’re overrating the current roster or putting too much stock in the McDavid factor.

Bensch: Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes and Yes again. The Oilers have a legitimate shot at making the playoffs this year, there is no doubt about that but there are way too many people penciling them in before the season even starts. As Larry noted, they missed the playoffs by 35 points last season and they play in the Western Conference. Outside of Arizona, every club in the Western Conference has playoff expectations this season. Connor McDavid will be terrific, we all know that. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Leon Draisaitl should give the Oilers a deep forward group down the middle. There is a lot to like about the Oilers offensively but we have been saying that for the last few years. The obstacle for the Oilers still remains. Can they stop anybody? Andrej Sekera and Cam Talbot are nice additions that will definitely help preventing goals but they aren’t nearly enough to fix a team that allowed the most goals per game in the league last season. 

Which perceived Stanley Cup contender could you see imploding and missing the playoffs this season?

(Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports)
(Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports)

Fisher: The easy pick is the Blackhawks becoming this year’s Kings, especially if Patrick Kane is suspended over this ongoing rape investigation. Chicago has already underwent a roster purge in parting with Patrick Sharp, Brandon Saad and Johnny Oduya, and Stanley Cup hangovers are very real. But that was a pump-fake, the Blackhawks aren’t my pick. I’m going with the Blues to bomb and become this year’s Bruins. Like Boston, which headed into last season as the reigning Presidents’ Trophy winner, St. Louis is another team that seems destined to contend for the foreseeable future as a playoff fixture. But, like the Bruins of today, I could totally see the Blues being dismantled by this time next year — David Backes and Kevin Shattenkirk among those moving on.

I’m seeing a lot of troubling signs surrounding the Blues, starting with the hesitation to bring back Ken Hitchcock as coach. He’s on the hot seat going forward and his roster has already been dealt a couple blows this summer. Jori Lehtera had off-season ankle surgery and will miss the start of the season, so it’ll take some time for him to get up to speed again and that will negatively impact his star wingman Vladimir Tarasenko. The Blues also lost another centre with size in Patrik Berglund, who recently underwent shoulder surgery and will be sidelined until at least January — not to mention Vladimir Sobotka, who opted to spend another season in the KHL rather than return to St. Louis. The Blues have some quality prospects who could potentially fill those voids, but the goaltending situation is still iffy too. Jake Allen was nothing special in the playoffs and Brian Elliott has never been anything special prior to overachieving and becoming an all-star last season. I think the writing could be on the wall for the Blues to crash and burn this season, but maybe that’s just me?

(Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)
(Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

Bensch: Often times sports fans can jump down an opinion writer’s throat without fully contemplating the argument being made. Earlier this offseason, I suggested that it wouldn’t surprise me if either Chicago, St. Louis or Anaheim ended up missing the playoffs this season but they are all good teams. The Western Conference is so deep and while these teams have lots of talent, there are teams behind them chomping at the bit to supplant them. Chicago has a possible hangover scenario and the Patrick Kane situation hanging over them as Larry already mentioned.

St. Louis is a team that has lots of talent but has flopped early in the playoffs the last few years. Besides the injuries that Larry mentioned, the overall aura around this team just doesn’t scream confidence going into this season. They got beat again early in the playoffs last year and who exactly did they acquire to make us think anything will change? Given the fact other teams in the conference got better like Dallas, San Jose, Calgary, and Edmonton, it is possible only four or three teams from the Central make the postseason. St. Louis just feels like a stale franchise to me. Speaking of San Jose, Calgary and Edmonton, well, Anaheim isn’t nearly as much of a lock as Fisher believes them to be. If the Oilers do make the playoffs, San Jose, Calgary and Los Angeles are all capable teams as well. Considering Anaheim isn’t exactly stout when it comes to goals against, I could very much see them missing the playoffs.

Which PTOs (professional tryouts) have the best chance of earning contracts?

Fisher: Looking at the current list, which is growing by the day, I think the strongest bets are Jonas Gustavsson in Boston, Curtis Glencross in Toronto, Steve Bernier with the Islanders, Scottie Upshall in St. Louis and James Sheppard in Columbus. I suggested Gustavsson to Boston in an earlier edition of Facing Off and still think he makes sense for the Bruins behind Tuukka Rask, but he’ll need to outplay the prospect trio of Jeremy Smith, Zane McIntyre and Malcolm Subban during training camp and pre-season action. Suddenly, that’s a crowded crease in Boston. Glencross strikes me as Mike Babcock-type player, a reliable and versatile veteran, so I think he has a better chance of sticking with the Maple Leafs than Brad Boyes or Devin Setoguchi. I’d rank them in that order and Toronto won’t be signing all three, not unless MLSE thinks the Marlies have a shot at becoming an expansion franchise (FYI, that’s an attempt at humour). Bernier is definitely an NHL player and he’s capable of playing up and down a lineup, so Brooklyn should be a good landing spot for him. I’ll let Andrew go to bat for Upshall because that’s one of his boys from a prior Facing Off as well. Sheppard is another guy who Andrew will be familiar with from his San Jose days, but I see him as a very serviceable bottom-six centre on most teams. If the Blue Jackets and Blues end up passing on Sheppard and/or Upshall, somebody else should scoop them up.

Bensch: It is amazing how many PTOs there are this year. It is a good example of a league trending towards younger players. Many of these guys on tryout contracts are players who had decent seasons last year in the 30-40 point range but teams are looking towards their own prospects for larger roles. Plus it depends on the type of player teams are looking for. Thirty points isn’t good enough for the top-six and if said player isn’t able to kill penalties or take faceoffs then their offensive prowess might not be more valuable than a guy who scores 20 points and is a shut-down defensive forward. Most of these PTOs are guys that aren’t known for killing penalties which is not surprising. Looking at some of the names, the two guys I see as best bets are Tomas Fleischmann with Montreal and the aforementioned Sheppard with Columbus. Having watched Sheppard closely with the Sharks in recent years, the guy is a valuable bottom six player. He can dominate as a fourth line player and be effective as a complementary player on a third line with better players around him. He is a big body with above average speed and while not known for penalty killing, he is a better fit there than a guy like Devin Setoguchi. Fleischmann is only a few years removed from a 61 point season. Given quality linemates, he could be a 25-30 point bottom six option for the Canadiens.

How much should backup goalies play?

(Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports)
(Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports)

Fisher: It really depends on the situation. If your starter is Carey Price, then 15 games for Dustin Tokarski is probably plenty. Ditto for a Cory Schneider-Keith Kinkaid split. But if your starter is Martin Jones, a first-timer in that role, then you probably want to limit his workload as much as possible and give upwards of 30 starts to Alex Stalock (or preferably a better/more established backup). That’s reasonable, but if you have a horse like Price, you ride him. You’re paying him the big bucks, so you may as well maximize your return as long as he feels healthy and able.

Tuukka Rask played in a career-high 70 games last season and he did appear to burn out a bit down the stretch as the Bruins missed the playoffs. But Braden Holtby played in a league-high 73 games for the Capitals and was still razor sharp in posting some of the best statistics among goaltenders in the post-season. Stars GM Jim Nill came out and said this summer — upon signing Antti Niemi to challenge Kari Lehtonen — that he feels it’s becoming a two-goalie league. He’s obviously not alone in that mindset, but I think his comments were more reflective of his situation in Dallas. Opinions are really divided on this topic and I’m not sure I even have one. I will say that goaltending is results-driven, so go with the guy that gives you the best chance at winning on a nightly basis so long as his body can hold up for the long run. If that makes any sense?

Stalock Sharks
Alex Stalock  (Jason O. Watson-US PRESSWIRE)

Bensch: Regardless of how good a team’s No. 1 netminder is, no goalie should start over 60 regular season games. Therefore no backup(s) should play fewer than 22. Larry makes some great points to both sides to this debate, how Rask looked burnt out but Holtby was strong throughout the end of the season. Clearly getting rest for the top goaltender isn’t an exact science. However, getting rest for the starting goaltender is important, particularly older netminders approaching their mid-to-late 30s.

What is even more important though is making sure a team can trust their backup netminder in case of injury to the No. 1 and making sure the backup is comfortable with his game. If Carey Price plays 70 games in the regular season and then gets hurt in the first game of the playoffs, who in their right minds would have confidence in a backup netminder who has played just 12 games all season? How can a backup feel confident in himself? There is only so much a goaltender can do in practice to keep sharp. The games are a completely different story. A backup like Tokarski should play 22-25 games to keep his skills fresh. A backup like Stalock should start a few more games (around 27-32) since Martin Jones will be a first year as a starter. Playing your starter upwards of 65 games or more with a rusty backup is not worth the risk. If you’re worried about extra starts for the backup costing your team a playoff spot, than your team as a whole isn’t good enough. Eight out of the last 10 Cup winning netminders started less than 60 games in the regular season.