The Edmonton Oilers have been rebuilding for years, but they won’t make significant improvement until they finally land a true starting goaltender.
Yes, the Oilers blueline depth remains a significant issue, particularly the lack of an established top-two defenseman. They could also use experienced depth on their checking lines.
But it’s the goaltending that’s their constant undoing. Indeed, the last time the Oilers had a proven starter was when Dwayne Roloson was between the pipes, from their surprising run to the 2006 Stanley Cup Final until his departure via free agency in 2009.
Since then, they’ve relied on past-their-prime veterans (Nikolai Khabibulin, Ilya Bryzgalov) or career backups (Jeff Deslauriers, Viktor Fasth, Ben Scrivens and the current tandeum of Cam Talbot and Anders Nilsson). The one promising starter they had (Devan Dubnyk) resurrected his NHL career elsewhere after it was nearly ruined by a combination of inept management, poor coaching and a porous defense during his years with the Oilers.
Some Oilers supporters will undoubtedly rush to the defense of the current tandem of Talbot and Nilsson, pointing to the club’s ongoing defensive issues. While there’s validity to that argument, nobody will ever mistake Talbot or Nilsson as a reliable NHL starter.
So far, Talbot’s best NHL season was filling in for a sidelined Henrik Lundqvist with the New York Rangers in 2014-15. This season is Nilsson’s first in the NHL, and while his stats are better than Talbot’s, he hasn’t shown enough yet that heralds the arrival of a true starting goalie.
As of Nov 21, the Oilers sat 12th in shots-against per game (29.1). That’s an improvement over last season, where they were gave up the 11th most (30.0). However, their goals-against per game was 3.15 (second worst in the NHL), scarcely an improvement over last season’s league-worst 3.37.
The fact remains the Oilers have lousy goaltending this season. Until management addresses this issue, it won’t get any better.
To be fair, finding a proven starter is easier said than done. It’s not as though there’s an overabundance of such talent around the league.
Could the Oilers pry Ben Bishop away from the Tampa Bay Lightning? Bishop’s eligible for UFA status in 2017. During the summer, there was some talk of the Lightning moving the big netminder if they feel they can’t afford to re-sign him, especially if backup Andrei Vasilevskiy reaches his potential as a starter. Bishop, however, has a no-movement clause, which he’s unlikely to waive to join the Oilers.
Last month, there was speculation the Anaheim Ducks might put Frederik Andersen on the block if promising John Gibson was finally ready for prime time. Considering Andersen is perhaps the only member of the Ducks consistently playing well this season, he’s not going anywhere this season.
Long-time Carolina Hurricanes starter Cam Ward is eligible for UFA status next summer. It’s believed he could be shopped by the trade deadline. Born in Saskatoon and having played his junior hockey in Red Deer, Alberta, it’s natural to assume he might be open to playing in Western Canada. However, there’s no guarantee he’ll consider that option. He’s also 31, has an injury history and at times struggled with consistency during his career.
Over the past two years, Chicago Blackhawks starter Corey Crawford’s name has occasionally surfaced in the rumor mill. That’s usually tied to their salary-cap issues. Originators of the Crawford rumors, however, can’t seem to understand the Blackhawks have no intention of trading the goalie who backstopped them to two Stanley Cups in the past three years.
Detroit Red Wings netminder Jimmy Howard is being challenged for the starter’s job by Petr Mrazek. If Mrazek unseats Howard, the latter could be available, but the Wings could wait until the offseason to move him. Howard has solid career NHL stats (179 wins, 2.42 GAA, .916 SP). Like Ward, however, he’s had some issues with consistency. Howard’s signed through 2018-19 with a $5.29 million annual cap hit and a partial no-trade clause. The Oilers could be on his 10-team no-trade list.
With Jake Allen taking over the starting job with the St. Louis Blues, veteran Brian Elliott could be available. The Blues, however, will likely retain him for the rest of this season as insurance in case Allen gets injured or struggles. He also has decent career numbers, but he’s not exactly an established starter.
For this season, it appears the Oilers are stuck with their current tandem of Talbot and Nilsson. Maybe one of them will improve over the course of the season to prove themselves as a full-fledged starter. If not, management will have little choice but to continue the search.
It’s a tall order. Experience isn’t enough. They need a netminder who can become a leader. They need someone who can steal some games. They need a goalie who can offset the miscues of a rebuilding defense corps. In short, they need someone who will give them a chance to win. And until that goalie is found, the Oilers will remain outside the playoff picture.