Wednesday December 17th, 2014

Every Wednesday, a trio of SI.com staffers will sit down for a discussion of the hockey world's hot-button issues. This week, Brian Cazeneuve, Mike Harris and I talk about the woeful state of the Edmonton Oilers, the possibility of 3-on-3 overtime next season, the surging Maple Leafs and the biggest surprises of the season.

First up:

• Interesting week for the Oilers, who are now working on their ninth straight season of not making the playoffs. On his way out the door, coach Dallas Eakins kept insisting that patience is crucial. OK. So ... what's next?

BRIAN CAZENEUVE: This is a bad cocktail: a fan base that still basks in past glories, coaches and front office people (GM Craig MacTavish, Hockey Operations President Kevin Lowe) who were part of those past glories, and a market that cannot possibly bring back past glories in the age of free agency because nobody wants to play there. Add to that an abundance of high picks that were all geared to producing the same thing (offense) and you have a mess. Right now the Oilers need an overhaul. If that means shipping Taylor Hall, then so it must be. But really, they need to move their president and GM in order to get a fresh perspective on things. The Oilers are likely to get another franchise-defining forward next spring, whether it is Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel. They should make a move to bring in a defenseman they can build that group around, so they aren’t just a one-trick pony.

NHL
Clock ticking on GM Craig MacTavish after Oilers fire Dallas Eakins

MIKE HARRIS: Years ago, then-Capitals coach Bruce Cassidy was guesting on a local radio show. The first question was pretty direct: "Do you have enough boxes?" He was fired not long after. MacTavish might be getting the boxes question soon. After firing Eakins, he admitted that he wasn't blameless. He could be next to go.

Once Edmonton picks a coach who can last longer than a season or two, it needs to decide if it wants to do a total overhaul and thereby extend its woes even longer, or figure out a better solution. The Oilers have a solid group in Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle, but that's nowhere near enough. What Edmonton really needs to do, whether it is MacTavish or someone else making the call, is draft better. The Oilers have just three players on the roster who were selected below the first round: Jeff Petry (second, 2006), Tyler Pitlick (second, 2010) and recent call-up Brandon Davidson (sixth, 2010). That's brutal.

ALLAN MUIR: No argument there, Mike, but addressing the draft is a long-term approach. A team that's about to go nine years without a playoff berth needs its hope to appear a little closer on the horizon. Maybe that comes as a result of the internal review being conducted by their business ops czar, Bob Nicholson. We have no real understanding yet of the scope of his powers within the organization, so who knows if he can do what's really needed and remove Lowe and his cronies. But a hockey man with Nicholson's extensive background shouldn't take too long to arrive at the same conclusion as you regarding the efficiency of the scouting staff. It's hard to change horses midstream in that department, though, so any fixes there will probably have to wait until the summer when contracts expire and the upper brass can see who's available to them. I think something has to happen before then, so I firmly believe that there'll be a trade. A big one that brings in a promising center or a defender. They have to give those fans a reason to come back to Rexall for next 25 games. "Wait 'til next year when we have McDavid/Eichel" won't cut it. 

• A 6-2 win last night over the Ducks. Six straight wins. What do you make of those Maple Leafs?

HARRIS: Stop me if you've heard this before. The Leafs are off to a good start. Is this one built to last or is another fade coming? If goalie Jonathan Bernier stays healthy, put your money on built to last. He got hurt last season and Toronto followed that with eight straight regulation losses. Their top line of Phil Kessel, James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak could make the difference, too, if they can stay fresher toward the end of the season. Toronto is one of just three teams in the league that has scored more than 100 goals (109, trailing Tampa Bay by one). The Atlantic Division is tight now and will stay tight. Toronto has as much of a shot to win it as any team.

NHL
Power Rankings: Blackhawks hold top spot as Sharks, Leafs rise from deep

CAZENEUVE: Let’s not forget that they have been playing a top-heavy home schedule so far this season (21 at home, 10 on the road). They’ll start a seven-game road swing in Chicago on Sunday and then hit the West Coast on a separate road trip in mid-January. Still, they have won six straight games against teams with winning records and they squashed the hot Ducks pretty easily on Tuesday. I’ve been impressed with the club’s balance. They were getting good play from Leo Komarov when he was in the lineup early in the season and Mike Santorelli has been a huge contributor.

MUIR: I've been asked this same question a couple of times this week and I pretty much give the same answer as you, Brian: Let's see where they are after this stretch that has them playing 11 of their next 13 away from the friendly confines of the ACC. Mike, you're right on about Bernier and Brian is right about the balance. There's plenty of reason to believe that this season might be different, but I can't forget that the Leafs were being booed out of their own building a month ago, or that they ran up a 9-1-1 streak last January (exactly like the roll they're on now) and still wound up with 84 points and out of the playoffs. To Leafs fans, I say enjoy the ride. You never know when it's going to end.

• The AHL released an infographic this week that illustrates the relative merits of its experiment with 3-on-3 overtime. The gist: the league is on pace to see more than twice as many games decided in OT as compared to 2013-14. If this trend continues, can you see it being the catalyst that convinces the NHL to extend OT by three minutes next season to allow 3-on-3 play?

HARRIS: This will happen, no question. Shootouts are fun but anyone with any sense realizes that they're a flawed way to award an extra point. More GMs seem to be on board now with the 3-on-3 thing than there were even as recently as six months ago. Lots of open space to maneuver and it more closely resembles the actual game of hockey than a shootout does. (Think the NBA will ever go to a foul-shooting contest if a game is tied after two overtimes?)

What the NHL ought to do is five minutes of 4-on-4, three minutes of 3-on-3 and then call it a tie and send the teams out of there with one point each. It will make for an ugly set of standings with a fourth number, but if it eliminates the shootout, it is worthwhile.

CAZENEUVE: For the record, I hate the shootout, but I’m not sure 3-on-3 hockey is the answer either. It leaves too many players out of the mix when the game really matters. I’d opt for a longer 4-on-4 overtime, with the long change and fresh ice. Teams don’t want to do that, but honestly that feels more like hockey. I give the NHL credit for at least looking into more than one way to solve a problem, but I’m not sure there is enough consensus to bring 3-on-3 hockey into the picture.

MUIR: I must be the one without any sense then because I dig the shootout, and I'd bet the majority of the ticket-buying public does, too. Look, I get where the complaints are coming from and I respect that position. But at the end of the day you have to remember that the NHL is a form of entertainment and the shootout does more to add than detract from that. And respectfully, Mike, I hate that "more closely resembles" argument. I see breakaways in every game but I can't remember the last time I saw a moment of 3-on-3 play. And the shootout is nothing like a home run or free throw contest. It's the ultimate challenge of skill-on-skill. I'd hate to see it go the way of the glow puck (which, for the record, did suck).

• Finally, we're now a third of the way into the season. What's been the best or most surprising story so far?

HARRIS: Raise your hand if you had Nashville at 20-8-2 to start the season. Well, you're lying if your hand is in the air. But hey, the Predators look legitimately good. You can make a case that Pekka Rinne, finally clear of his hip injury and the ensuing infection, is the best goalie in the league. The Preds also have the early favorite for rookie of the year in Filip Forsberg (30 points and +23). Think the Capitals would like a takeback on the 2013 trade that sent Forsberg to Nashville for Martin Erat and Michael Latta? Former Preds coach Barry Trotz could darn sure use someone like Forsberg in Washington.

Edge
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CAZENEUVE: I’ll give you several positive surprises: the sustained strong play of the Islanders and Predators, the rebound of the Red Wings, the more surprising rebound of the Sabres after their horrible start, the emergence of Jakub Voracek on a bad Flyers team, the return of Rick Nash to the elite sniper ranks, the early-season play of the Toffoli line in L.A. when the Kings' other lines struggled, and the strong play of Brian Elliott in St. Louis.

MUIR: Love how you call it "the Toffoli line," Brian. You can make the case that he hasn't just been the best player on his line, but the best player on the Kings this season. As for most surprising? It has to be the mumps outbreak, right? A childhood disease that went out with The Little Rascals ravaging the league? It still seems inconceivable to me. On the positive side, I'd say the thrilling emergence of Vladimir Tarasenko, the Norris Trophy candidacy of Mark Giordano, the quiet excellence of Tyler Johnson, and the resilience of the injury-plagued Blue Jackets.

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