MacKinnon: Oilers season feels like a grim voyage with a damaged boat
Eakins, farm team prospects will be worth watching rest of season
EDMONTON - If the movie, All is Lost, comes to your mind watching the Edmonton Oilers play out the 29-game string this disappointing season, you may not be alone.
For those who haven’t seen it, this is the J.C. Chandor movie in which a sailor, played by Robert Redford, is on a solo voyage across the Indian Ocean when his 39-foot yacht is swamped by a passing tanker.
Things go sideways from there, as you might imagine. His navigation equipment and nautical radio are disabled. He and his damaged ship sail into a violent storm; his ship capsizes, snapping the mast, on and on.
It winds up being a mighty grim voyage for Redford, to say the least. The kind of movie that’s hard to watch, yet you cannot look away.
This NHL season turned that way swiftly for the Oilers, who lost seven of their first eight games and have never recovered. They have compiled three five-game losing streaks and now their second six-game slide with Friday’s 4-3 loss to the Phoenix Coyotes.
Few were predicting the playoffs for the Oilers this season, but fewer still would have suggested they would go the entire season playing not one meaningful game, start to finish.
Before April 12, when the Oilers finish the season against the Vancouver Canucks, what shards of hope, what piece of the boat should the fan hang onto as the franchise founders toward its worst season on record?
Here are a few modest suggestions. It’s not a lengthy list.
For starters, as the season winds down, after the March 5 trade deadline provides the opportunity to shed a contract or two, might it not make sense to call up Taylor Fedun, Oscar Klefbom, both prospects on defence, and forward Tyler Pitlick from the Oilers’ American Hockey League farm club at Oklahoma City, give them some NHL experience?
At least give Fedun and Pitlick more of a taste of the NHL and, in Klefbom’s case, his first big-league action. The fans could use a taste of the projected future, as well.
The other audition that continues to bear watching is that of goalie Ben Scrivens, the Spruce Grove native the Oilers acquired on Jan. 15 from the Los Angeles Kings.
A pending unrestricted free agent in the off-season, Scrivens is playing for another contract, either here or elsewhere. Whether his play proves to be a preview of coming attractions or a short-run movie, in effect, is entirely a function of how he plays. It will be intriguing to watch, either way.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle. Never mind numbers — and Hall, for one, is on pace for his best season in terms of points — will the Oilers core forwards be able to focus on their uptempo, high-skill game despite all the losing? They embody the team’s identity and, even in spurts, it remains a treat to watch.
Lastly, Oilers head coach Dallas Eakins. A rookie head man in the NHL, Eakins carries himself with a deep confidence some perceive as arrogance. He is never at a loss for words and is forthright in his dealings with the media.
The last first-year head coach who carried himself with this sort of self-possession right out of the chute, at least in my memory, was Mike Keenan with the Philadelphia Flyers, back in the mid-1980s.
Keenan’s Flyers teams finished first in their division his first three years in the league and were Stanley Cup runners-up to Edmonton in 1987. Nice start for Keenan.
Eakins’ NHL journey so far has been fraught with adversity, not unlike Redford’s cinematic sea voyage gone bad. He’s also a more engaging, approachable coach than Keenan was in his early years.
Reporters have learned that if you ask a question, you’ll get a quotable answer, even if you don’t necessarily agree with or like the response, not to mention the delivery, in some instances.
Eakins tends to be all-business.
So what? He is neither boring nor bland, both of which are death for journalists, and fans, for that matter.
How he handles the rough water until the end of the season will be a major challenge for him, but a fascinating study for the rest of us.
Lord knows, there’s little sense focusing on the won-lost record.
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