Oilers must address goaltending now to stop early-season slump

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Edmonton is one of those teams you feel you should believe in, whether you actually do or not. With this many high first round draft picks on the roster, a blooming is inevitable, right?

Chicago did it with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. Pittsburgh nabbed Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin – and Marc-Andre Fleury. Champions and contenders have been built this way. And it’s supposed to evolve this way in Edmonton, too, with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall and Nail Yakupov, who has been made a healthy scratch the past two games.

But Chicago and Pittsburgh built their rosters with so much more. They built them with Duncan Keith, Bryan Bickell, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp and Corey Crawford – Kris Letang, James Neal, Chris Kunitz and Paul Martin. There’s more to a championship – or contending – roster than a few names that look nice in lights.

Depth, defense and responsibility are common traits among champions. But the one “must-have” all winners in recent years have possessed that can be addressed with one transaction is goaltending. Chicago first had Antti Niemi, who was unknown at the time, but has developed into a Vezina candidate, then won with Corey Croawford, whom they drafted. Pittsburgh won with Marc-Andre Fleury and after a couple years struggling in the playoffs, GM Ray Shero didn’t hesitate to prop up the position with reliable veteran Tomas Vokoun. Los Angeles won with Jonathan Quick, Boston with Tim Thomas – and nearly Tuukka Rask.

But time has run out on Edmonton’s attempt to keep their goalie position cheap and within the organization. It’s early, and long before the American Thanksgiving threshold some managers use as a cut off date in determining what their team needs and doesn’t. But Edmonton can’t wait that long, or else it could be too late – even for an 82-game schedule.

Edmonton has played six games now and hasn’t allowed fewer than four goals in any of them. Devan Dubnyk’s save percentage is .829. Jason Labarbera hasn’t been much better and allowed four goals on 20 shots in Monday’s 4-2 loss to Washington. At one point he allowed three goals on three straight shots.

It’s not that Dubnyk can’t bounce back from this bad start. He posted a .921 save percentage last season and has first round pick pedigree. He’s not a part you’d trade now and no one would be after him anyway in this goalie climate. But he’s not the for sure answer and Labarbera isn’t a good enough safety net. Dubnyk’s making $3.5 million against the cap this season and is a UFA in July – is he the guy Oilers fans would feel comfortable locking into?

The goalie market is trimmer than it was, but still plump these days, with Ryan Miller, Jake Allen (or someone in St. Louis), Jose Theodore (who got the Panthers to the post-season), Jonas Hiller, Ilya Bryzgalov and Robin Lehner all conceivably available. Not all would be the answer; quite possibly none would be. But it’s time for the Oilers to take a swipe at somebody and see if they can catch a little lightning, or light a little fire in Dubnyk.

Lots of work still needs to be done on team defense, blueline talent and general growth and maturation of the younger players on the roster before Edmonton becomes a contender like the Penguins or Hawks. But they’re far enough along to start making steps toward and into the playoffs and have to stop the early-season bleeding now before this hole gets too deep. For that reason, Edmonton’s brass needs to try and make an impact on this troubled area.

Right here, right now, this Edmonton team still looks like a lottery lock with the comically high amount of goals they’ve allowed; an outlook that should be unacceptable at this point.

Until they solve their goaltending, it won’t matter how much front line potential Edmonton has – everyone will eventually stop believing.