Have you heard about the SaltWire News app?
Want to become a member? Check out the benefits here.
SaltWire Selects: Stories you don't want to miss
Get the latest summer forecast and weather knowledge from Cindy Day
SaltWire's cartoonists bring heart and humour to the news.
What you need to know about COVID-19: August 13, 2020
Oilers associate coach Jim Playfair
Oilers’ James Neal (18) drills during an Edmonton Oilers practice ahead of their Saturday game against the Columbus Blue Jackets at Rogers Place in Edmonton, on Friday, March 6, 2020. Ian Kucerak/Postmedia
Hello, Houston. We appear to have a problem here with re-entry.
After their run of recent injuries, the Edmonton Oilers are finally getting their team back together. But having players ‘back’ and having their team ‘together’ are proving to be two different things.
There appears to be a malfunction at that junction.
Re-entry has been causing some turbulence.
It’s expected that No. 1 defenceman Oscar Klefbom will bring his 25:35 per game average ice time back to the line-up for Saturday’s game against Columbus after missing nine games. But how long will it take for him to get his game together to reduce the minutes Darnell Nurse has been required to munch and take some pressure off the kids Ethan Bear and Caleb Jones?
James Neal, after missing all of February, in his second game back, returned to the Connor McDavid line Thursday in Chicago and played a pathetic game. He was demoted down the lineup halfway through the end of the game.
Zack Kassian had failed to find his form in four games since returning to the lineup to the extent he had yet to convince coaches he’s ready to return to McDavid’s line.
Newcomers Andreas Athanasiou and Tyler Ennis were given a Welcome Wagon gift by head coach Dave Tippett upon arrival at the trade deadline and placed on McDavid’s wings, but didn’t stay there.
Athanasiou looked totally out of place with McDavid and was quickly dispatched to the bottom six. Ennis lasted longer but didn’t last the road trip. Athanasiou ended up back with McDavid for the third period and had a couple of moments but still no real sense of chemistry.
The result was McDavid centred a ‘helicopter line’ (no wings) in Chicago despite producing 14 points in his first six games after returning from his own six-game absence and, essentially, wasn’t able to get anything accomplished as the Oilers lost 4-3 to the Blackhawks.
Friday, the Oilers returned for a highly optional practice. Coach Dave Tippett was absent for family related reasons. And McDavid, like most of the high-profile players elected to be elsewhere, perhaps deciding to get a haircut.
You’d figure that if the Oilers could set themselves up to be where they are with 14 games to go and 10 of them at home, they should be able to maintain their current position and maybe even open the playoffs at home. But you’d also figure the Oilers have to get the re-entry situation rectified and the McDavid line problem solved if they’re going to do anything in the playoffs.
Relax, suggested Jim Playfair, replacing Tippett as coaching staff spokesman for the team’s return to town.
Playfair said he didn’t see any great concern with Neal or Kassian and their performance returning from injury.
“The pace of play when players are out continues to get better week to week and I think catching up to the pace of play is an important part of it. But I don’t see it as a real big issue.”
When it comes to Athanasiou, Playfair was much more willing to analyze the transition of the speedster’s return from playing with the Detroit Dead Things, where he had the worst plus-minus number in the entire league, to joining a team in the midst of a palpitating playoff race.
“He’s an interesting player. We’ve watched a lot of videotape on him and in the last game was probably the first time we’ve seen that explosive skill, that quickness and that tenacity on the puck,” said the assistant coach.
“When you leave a situation like the one he was in for a long time and come into what we’re trying to accomplish, I think there’s probably an adjustment period to try to figure out where he fits in with Connor’s line or somewhere just a little bit below that.
“I think the figuring out of the line combinations have been something everyone has been a little hesitant about a little bit. But Thursday night, I personally thought he had some good pace and quickness.”
As for McDavid’s ‘helicopter line’ Playfair laughed.
“I don’t see it that way. The transition from the start of the season and what we wanted to accomplish by this time of year by potentially having Leon and Connor drive their own lines,” he said. “I think we’ve been successful with that. I think our star players have impacted every shift they are on the ice.
“When you stand back and look at it, we haven’t identified the lines 100 per cent right now. But we’ve made some really good progress as an organization.
“Here we are in early March and we’re talking about how we’re going to get four lines consistently up and playing, so I think we’ve done a really good job.”
The basic message from Playfair is sit back and watch it come together.
“In looking at these situations right now, maybe it looks from the outside like we failed in a particular part of our game or that individuals have failed. But the adversity it’s going to take to manage what we face right now is going to help to be a good playoff team. So that’s kind of how we look at each situation,” he said.
Hello, Houston. Can we put you on hold?
On Twitter: @ByTerryJones
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020