In a season already filled with various ebbs and flows, the Oilers, or at least for those of us on the outside looking in, have reached a point of negativity that has not been felt in a while. The Oilers have lost their past 4 games, all in regulation, which has already eroded much of the cushion the hot start to the season afforded. Needless to say it’s been a concerning week or 2, and the takes across Oilers Twitter are being served up hot.
The saying goes that “you’re never as good or bad as you think” and we’ve gotten a taste of both, as usual. Even outside of the 2 MVP level talents of McDavid and Draisaitl, with Puljujarvi, Hyman, Ceci, and Bouchard (heck, I’ll throw in McLeod too) playing up to optimistic pre-season projections that would help improve the lineup, there’s been a lot of positives. That being said, not all of the moves that GM Holland orchestrated have gone as smoothly.
Perhaps most pertinently was the decision to move off of a young, right handed, top 4 defender in Ethan Bear, who returns to Edmonton as a member of the opposition (provided he plays, he missed the Canes last game with illness). Stemming back to a drawn out contract negotiation the season prior, things seemed to deteriorate between Bear and the Oilers. Of course, how things ultimately unfolded was complex (and I’ll touch on this more in the Game Notes section at the end of this article), for now I’ll simply leave it as the ideal right side of this blueline would include Bear, Bouchard, and Ceci, which would be a high caliber unit, perhaps venturing into top tier status.
Amidst the chaos and fervour of the fan base, the losing streak, the return of Bear, and a legitimate team in the Hurricanes facing off across, it should be a dramatic night in Oil Country. It seems likely we’ll see Andersen in net for the Canes while Koskinen should get the nod for the Oilers.
KEYS TO THE GAME
- Start on time. I’m not one to get too caught up analyzing Koskinen’s results early into games, but the numbers are there for all to see. The goals haven’t all been solely on him, it will require a complete team effort to come out with focus and purpose on defence.
- Stay patient. The Hurricanes are an elite defensive team, perhaps more so than Dallas and Seattle, who gave the Oilers recent losses under that basis. There likely won’t be many chances and the Canes are likely to carry most of the flow of play, so the Oilers will have to capitalize on what they get and weather the storms in between.
- Stick to your game. The Canes are perfectly equipped for the challenge tonight, as their tight checking style and talent up front allow them to dominate on the road, sporting a 11-3-1 away record on the season. From strong special teams to a notable proficiency in the faceoff dot, they have quality not matched by many teams around the league.
- Forecheck. We’ve seen how teams with a personnel and a plan can have success hemming the Oilers into their own zone, cutting off the Oilers attack before it gets started. No doubt this will be an area the Canes will be focused on exploiting.
Edmonton: Russell was placed on IR yesterday, Broberg was called up in consequence.
Hyman — McDavid — Puljujarvi
RNH — Draisaitl — Yamamoto
Foegele — McLeod — Kassian
Shore — Ryan — Sceviour
Nurse — Bouchard
Broberg — Ceci
Niemelainen — Barrie
Carolina: Gardiner, Pesce, and DeAngelo are on IR, while Martinook is day-to-day. Bear’s status will be updated closer to game time as he’s day-to-day with an illness.
Niederreiter — Aho — Teravainen
Jarvis — Trocheck — Necas
Svechnikov — Staal — Fast
Stepan — Kotkaniemi — Lorentz
Slavin — Cole
Skjei — Chatfield
Smith — Bear
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Edmonton: The personnel up front has been fairly consistent for the Oilers, meaning there’s not a whole lot I would highlight specific to tonight’s game. The bottom 6 (throw in Yamamoto if you really want) have left a bit to be desired offensively, but still bring something to the table. In particular McLeod continues to come into his own, perhaps blossoming into a permanent role as the defence-first 3rd line centre the Oilers lineup needs. With his emergence it’s possible the Oilers are a strong addition (or internal improvement) away from reaching another level of depth up front, which they might need to make a legitimate run, but as it’s configured now there shouldn’t be an expectation for too much offence from the bottom half of this lineup.
The blueline is a bit more of a concern in my estimation, perhaps understandably so given the injury situation. It’s a good start as Nurse and Bouchard are clearly strong pieces, and their pairing is almost certain to be driving play at a high level. Ceci is a strong contributor as well, and it’s not surprising that Broberg’s best results came when he was paired with the steady veteran, which they’ll need to continue to replicate in big minutes as the 2nd pair tonight. I understand that Niemelainen–Barrie seems to make sense on paper, but in reality it’s been a tough couple games for the pair. Facing the deep Canes lineup, especially with the strong checking of the Staal and Kotkaniemi lines that they are likely to see a lot of tonight, the pair will need to show more than they have to this point.
Carolina: The Hurricanes noticeably spread their depth throughout their lineup, and ultimately all the Brind’Amour coached teams have let each line play to their strengths. Aho and Teravainen have long been the force behind the top line using their speed and stick skills on offence and defence. Necas has a ton of talent, at times showing signs of a dominant offensive potential, while Jarvis is a 2020 1st round pick that continues to impress at any level he plays, including a strong start to his NHL career in this, his rookie season. With a strong veteran contributor in Trocheck centering the young wingers it’s probably the most offence-oriented line the Canes have. Staal has long been typecast in the “ideal 3rd line/checking centre” role who generates a ton of shots in tight, and Svechnikov has the physicality to compliment that more rugged style, not to mention the individual skill to create offence on his own from nothing. I don’t want to go too far out of the way to point out Fast is in the spot Foegele held for most of his Hurricanes tenure. Kotkaniemi on the 4th line is a bit ridiculous, but goes to show the depth the team has. I’m a fan of Kotkaniemi and I think his best years are in front of him, especially as he fills out his frame and adds strength and balance. I see him in a similar light, in both style and quality, to Joel Eriksson-Ek of the Minnesota Wild, as a smart player who can shut down the middle of the ice, a trait which might see him be effective against the Oilers tonight.
Similarly to the Oilers, the Canes are missing some regulars on the blueline, and as with the forward group, have chosen to spread the depth. Slavin will no doubt be in the conversation for the US Olympic Team, partnered with the veteran Ian Cole who was not suspended after a dangerous knee against Mark Scheifele. Skjei and Bear (if he’s healthy) are left to buoy their partners who provide strong complementary play.
Daniel Nugent-Bowman wrote a piece in The Athletic about Bear and everything that transpired on his way out of Edmonton. Some of the quotes from the article that have been circulating are pretty sad, and only go to confirm and reaffirm the things we knew weren’t right about how everything unfolded.
We of course knew of the racism and abuse thrown towards Bear, especially after the playoff series against the Jets, which is beyond unacceptable. We knew that management didn’t believe in him enough to give him any term, or to keep him in general. What’s been underlined here is that even beyond that Bear felt as though he was “alone” or “on an island”.
At the time, I was really hoping for a stronger statement and actions of (at least public) support from Bear’s Oilers teammates. I won’t pretend to know everyone’s personal relationships and what might’ve been expressed privately, but it’s clear that not enough of us had Bear’s back in this instance. Darnell Nurse is quoted as saying he knows that he reached out, and that many in the Oilers organization, on the team, and even fans tried to show their support, but in the end it was too little too late to keep Bear from feeling these things. This is a perfect example of how many, perhaps even most, people within the game of hockey can be good and stand for the right things, yet the culture as a whole is still too bogged down with rot to make a difference moment to moment.
We know that hockey culture in particular has a long way to go, years in even the most optimistic of outlooks, before even approaching the equality and equity that it should be beholden to, and that this is but one entry in a long book of ways that the sport has failed to live up to that standard. A book that includes ongoing chapters of concern, not limited to the Blackhawks logo and the worrying limbo-state of the NHL’s internal investigation into the racism and abuse endured by Akim Aliu.
I believe that we all have a part to play, however small it may be, in pushing towards this goal. For many this will be a difficult process inwards as well as outwards, as it’s always difficult to unlearn the toxic behaviours and attitudes our world subjects us to, to challenge the beliefs thrust upon us, and ultimately to change and grow as individuals and as a collective. Or, as the famous words of the great Renee Hess of Black Girl Hockey Club puts it, “Get Uncomfortable”, because we will need to do so to change.
In my mind I wanted to go further in depth into the Oilers related angle of Bear’s departure, how it was the play of he and Nurse (and their strong chemistry together) which propelled the Oilers back into the playoffs years ago, how Foegele and Bear have fit in and contributed to their new teams so far, perhaps even into the utilitarian (and obvious) thought that many players of colour are undervalued across the league (wouldn’t Duclair add a lot to this lineup, for example) but that’s really not as important. What is important is that I reiterate that we all, GMs, coaches, players, media, and fans, have a part to play in making the game of hockey a better place. The ways we interact with players on social media and in real life, as well as the ways we interact with fellow fans, friends, and family, have an impact on the game as a whole.
I know my little column here might not change everything, but maybe it can change something, even just one person’s mind. It’s not much but the status quo, at best a collective complacency, is exactly what has led us to this mess. These issues, racism and specifically that towards Indigenous peoples, of course extend well beyond hockey, and in fact are present in all areas of life, especially on Turtle Island, or the American supercontinent as a whole. From since before Canada was even a country, right up until today, the “ruling government” has systematically cheated, oppressed, and robbed (to put it lightly) the rightful stewards of this land (and quite frankly any group that does not fit the description of white and christian) and seems to be content on continuing to do so, even to the extent of driving our planet towards disaster. It is the echoes and outstretched limbs of white supremacy and European imperialism that drives this, and has festered specifically into the culture of hockey, especially given its ties to the national identity of Canada, and Canada’s often explicit desire to adhere to and present itself in the lights and values of white supremacy.
I may be straying into waters that are out of my depth here, but in some ways one might say that as long as Canada, and the Western World at large, continues to act so heinously in the interest of furthering the agendas of white supremacy, that the expressions of our culture, in this case hockey, will be tainted with said attitudes. I however would like to counter with the more optimistic opinion that the power of our cultural expressions, in this case hockey, is that they can instead be agents to change the cultures and people that create them. Perhaps this is a bit naive of me, but I dare to dream.
I would encourage any readers to check out anti-racist hockey organizations like the HDA or BGHC, and to take the “Get Uncomfortable” pledge if you haven’t done so already. I would encourage you to look into the true history of the game, how much of its history and conception belongs to Indigenous peoples, and would suggest reading the book Black Ice as well (a good present idea if I do say so myself), as it shows the truth of how much the game was created, revolutionized, and subsequently stolen from people of colour, ultimately co-opted into the twisted image of white supremacy when it was, with malice and forethought, taken from them.
What I’m trying to say is the game of hockey should, and rightfully does, belong to everyone, but clearly in practice, from the highest levels down, such is not the case. Who else but those of us who love the game can change it? Who else but the living can hold these institutions, nefarious or otherwise, accountable? Who else but you can talk to those around you to change the culture one person at a time? Perhaps we can do it together, to truly change hockey for the better, so that at least the next time a fan or a player of any level is confronted with bigotry they don’t have to feel as alone and isolated as Mr. Bear felt this past summer.
It will be uncomfortable. Some fans, who knowingly or unknowingly hold onto the cages of toxicity, will not want to accept that these issues exist, or will not embrace the effort to make the game more inclusive, and to them I say good riddance. Part of getting uncomfortable is making these lost souls uncomfortable, to purge them from their influence (often it’s a big influence) on the game. The other part is making yourself uncomfortable, to reconcile with your own reality, your own relationship to the game, and to use this knowledge to grow with the game. I speak for myself when I say that this is a difficult and lifelong process, I am constantly learning more and understanding more about how the world around me functions and is shaped. But there are some things that I know to be true. That it’s worth it. That once the game is free to belong to everyone that we will all be so much better for it, and it to us. And that the path forward is the one we take together, for each other.Read next
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