Home > Edmonton Oilers, Sports > The Slow Start of the Edmonton Oilers and the Trials of Nail Yakupov

The Slow Start of the Edmonton Oilers and the Trials of Nail Yakupov

Another NHL season has begun, and this time it was supposed to be different. After seven long seasons out of the playoffs, this was the year that the youthful Edmonton Oilers were supposed to have grown and learned enough to at least contend for the second season, if not burst right through that ice ceiling at last, after so long.

Of course, that hasn’t happened, and Oiler fans of the current cynical vintage ought not to be surprised. Going into today’s road tilt against the Ottawa Senators, the Oilers have only a single win through eight games, that one coming in a shootout against the New Jersey Devils. Their losses have included multi-goal defeats at the hands of superior clubs like Vancouver and Washington as well as more dispiriting defeats: they blew a two-goal third-period lead against the Winnipeg Jets in the season opener, and took the stick to the Toronto Maple Leafs (near the top of the league, though perhaps not deservedly so) on national television, only to continuously lose their lead, including in the final minute, before dropping the game gut-wrenchingly in overtime. For a team whose long-suffering fanbase finally expected to be better, it’s been a disappointing opening tenth of what might be another long season.

If I recall, this goal was not Dubnyk’s fault. But it’s so hard to tell sometimes.

When a sports team is not winning, there is never enough blame to go around, and fans and media have been liberal with it. Much of the heat has fallen on starting goaltender Devan Dubnyk, whose decent career numbers have cratered in the opening weeks of the 2013-14 season. Ignoring all the undocumented palaver about his body language or tendency to allow “bad” goals (as opposed, I suppose, to “good” ones), Dubnyk and backup Jason LaBarbera do need to be better if the Oilers are to compete.

But plenty of more salient issues present themselves away from the easy goalie blame-game. The defence in front of the netminders has been prone to chaos in their own zone (especially prized d-man Justin Schultz, who leans offensive more than defensive), and the power play and especially the penalty kill have been putrid, too. Indeed, many of the areas that the Oilers were strong in last year – special teams, above-average goaltending – have gone south, while areas of the game where they were weaker – faceoffs, generating shots, using Ryan Smyth – have gotten much better. Early times, but the Oilers under new coach Dallas Eakins appear to have flipped the script on the Oilers under the last couple of coaches, for good and for ill.

In the midst of the year-opening slump, as if to make matters appear even worse, Eakins decided to leave last year’s rookie phenom Nail Yakupov on the bench for the games in Toronto and Washington. A healthy scratch is one of the nuclear options in a coach’s discipline tactic-book, and has been used on players of more experience and rounded ability than the still-raw former #1 overall pick. It can also be taken to mean more than it does, and before Yakupov return to the lineup for Thursday night’s loss to the New York Islanders, trade rumours lit up the internet with Yakupov as a central piece, perhaps to acquire goaltending help. That the rumours (even those pushed by mainstream media figures) were more than a little ridiculous in their misevaluation of Yakupov’s value did not make them any less alarming to Oiler (and especially Yakupov) fans, present company included.

Leave aside lazy xenophobic distaste for Russian players or skilled offensive dynamos, as well as any blather about “toughness” or “heart” or “two-way game” or whatever other dog-whistle term is used by Canadian fans to justify their tendency for preferring Canadian players to any others. Are Yakupov’s hiccups in learning defensive responsibility or how to play a team game really what kept him out? Is there a personality clash with the evidently intense and demanding Eakins? I’ve not kept my fondness for Yakupov’s extravagant enthusiasm and flair too quiet at all, and have great hopes for his transition from the fledgling folk hero he already is to a bonafide superstar for the Oilers. But these things take work and adversity, not merely talent and skill. Yakupov’s latest trials, like those of his team as a whole, will hopefully presage an overdue rise to come. If they do not, then suffering through them will have proven to be that much more difficult for the team and for its fans.


Categories: Edmonton Oilers, Sports

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