Oilers have a long way to go as defensive problems persist


ELMONT, N.Y. — Oilers coach Jay Woodcroft said his team lost to the Devils on Monday night because of “self-inflicted errors.”

The song remained the same against the Islanders on Wednesday.

The Oilers played fine, battling the Isles tough for most of the night. Though the offence couldn’t produce despite 49 shots on net, the difference was careless plays in their own zone that gifted the Islanders three second-period goals.

That was the deciding factor in a 3-0 loss.

“Some of the ones that went in we thought were controllable situations,” Woodcroft said. “We made a couple mistakes.”

That has been the story of the Oilers, who dropped to 10-10, an awful record considering they reached the Western Conference final five months ago. They entered American Thanksgiving just outside of the playoff bubble, an ominous sign.

Things aren’t going to change unless they improve from the net on out.

“I truthfully think our defending has been better of late than at the beginning of the year. Obviously, it still has a long way to go,” captain Connor McDavid said. “That’s pretty clear. We continue to have to be stingier in our own zone, harder in front of our own net.”

Of all the goals against Wednesday, the first one had to be the most dispiriting to the Oilers.

They had fended off the Islanders early and had started making a bit of a push. They then went to the power play, the decisive strength of this time for years, for the first time on the night.

Uncharacteristically, the power play was a mess.

Isles centre Jean-Gabriel Pageau drove to the net off a rush and received a pass from Zach Parise for an easy goal. It was a pass Pageau never should have received. The Oilers had two players, Tyson Barrie and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, right there and in position to take Pageau or prevent the puck from getting to him.

They did neither.

Barrie then took a penalty on the next sequence to negate the devastating power play. The unit ended up going 0-for-5 — with a short-handed goal against.

“That’s a recipe for losing,” McDavid said.

The goal against was the worst part. It shouldn’t have happened.

“You saw it, right?” Nugent-Hopkins said when asked how that occurred.

“We had numbers there,” Woodcroft said.

That wasn’t the only issue for the Oilers. Far from it.

Pageau scored again, this time on an attempted cross-ice feed to Anders Lee that went off Evan Bouchard’s stick and by Jack Campbell. Bouchard wasn’t alert enough on the play.

Bouchard was in the thick of the next Islanders goal, but he wasn’t solely to blame. He might not have even been the main culprit.

Islanders winger Oliver Wahlstrom circled around the net on a rush that looked contained. But Bouchard appeared caught between a rock and a hard place as Wahlstrom came out the other side. Wahlstrom dished to Sebastian Aho, a defenceman streaking in. Leon Draisaitl and Jesse Puljujarvi didn’t pick him, either.

“We had enough people back and didn’t sort it out right,” Woodcroft said. “We didn’t give up a lot, but when we give up something, it was a big error that ended up in the back of our net.”

The Oilers simply haven’t been good enough defensively this season. Full stop.

As poor as Campbell has been — he was much better Wednesday in his first game since Nov. 10, stopping 28 of 31 shots — the Oilers have largely been lousy in front of him and, to a lesser extent, Stuart Skinner.

“Defensively, we need to be better,” defenceman Darnell Nurse said. “We can’t be giving up three goals a night. We can’t have our goalies having to make great Grade A-chance saves every night. There’s too many a night that they need to make.

“We know that as a group. We’ve been saying it for years that we can score with any team in the league. The defence has to be better.”

Of course, there’s more to it than that.

The Oilers are getting crushed at five-on-five. They’re 12th last in Corsi For percentage and eighth from the bottom at shot differential. Worst of all, they’re fifth last in goal differential; they’ve been outscored 44-33 (all numbers per Natural Stat Trick).

It looks like the pre-Dave Tippett years and the end of his tenure, too.

“We went through a stretch last year where the sky was falling on us, where everyone was quitting on us, and we found a way to push ourselves into the playoffs,” Nurse said. “We’re in a lot better spot sitting here speaking now than we were in the depths of that last season.

“We know we need to be better. There are no excuses in our room. We know the things we need to take care of.”

The list is long.

Just five forwards have produced with any degree of regularity. One of them is Evander Kane, who is sidelined indefinitely.

There isn’t a single defenceman outperforming expectations. They’re struggling to defend the blue line, a problem thought to have been rectified once Woodcroft and Dave Manson got through to them late last season. It’s not like they’re getting a ton of help from the forwards, either.

“We’re working to building a game, finding out who this year’s version of the Oilers is,” Woodcroft said. “While we’ve done some good things, we haven’t done enough good things for long enough to put something together here the way we would like to.

“Sometimes when you’re figuring that stuff out, those chances sometimes end up in the back of your net. No one’s happy about it, but we’re working to correct it. If we can do a better job of handling those situations, we’ll come out on the right side of the result.”

There’s a lot of work to be done — and time left to fix it.

“It’s a quarter of the way (in). We’re not sitting here in April going through a slump like this,” McDavid said.

But it’s not exactly early anymore, either.

The Oilers had better get things figured out quickly, starting with their own zone. Otherwise, it could very well be a long spring.

“We’ve got to be better,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “We are a playoff team, but we need to start playing like it consistently. To a man, everyone’s got to step up and find a way through this.”


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