In the coming weeks, the Edmonton Oilers are going to have a choice to make.
Sitting three points out of a playoff spot as they awake Thursday morning and with a game in hand on the presently second-in-the-wild card Anaheim Ducks, the front office is going to have to sit down and have a discussion about an approach to the trade deadline, whether they’ll attempt to add a piece or two and try to make an honest run at returning to the post-season after last season’s thoroughly disappointing miss.
By the time the deadline rolls around, of course, there’s an honest-to-goodness possibility the Oilers will have made up the ground necessary to actually be holding down that final wild-card spot. Sure, Edmonton is mired in a 2-8-0 run over their past 10 games, but save the Vancouver Canucks, no team sitting between the Oilers and either Western Conference wild-card spot has been playing winning hockey. The Colorado Avalanche and Anaheim Ducks are sliding, the Minnesota Wild have been inconsistent and Edmonton has a game or games in hand on most. There’s a window there.
It’s also entirely likely, too, that the Oilers find themselves in a similar position come mid-February, sitting a few points out and only narrowly behind the second wild-card berth in the conference. The truth is, though, that regardless of where Edmonton sits come the beginning of February and on through to the end of the month, the approach to the deadline should be the same: stand pat or sell.
While there are undoubtedly those that will grumble about wasting another season of Connor McDavid’s exceptional talent by doing nothing to shake this team up and vault it into the post-season, the reality is that these Oilers, as currently constructed, would be nothing more than playoff fodder. And while the possibility of McDavid’s supreme talent helping Edmonton steal a first-round series or at least put a scare into a top-tier opponent undoubtedly exists, that doesn’t change the fact the Oilers are woefully short of truly contending for a conference championship, let alone the Stanley Cup.
Speaking strictly from a statistical standpoint, the evidence of Edmonton’s shortcomings — ones that run too deep for this team to even fathom addressing at or before the deadline — are apparent in the fact the Oilers haven’t really improved all that much since the coaching change, which shouldn’t be all that surprising given they’re not seeing vastly improved results.
Under deposed coach Todd McLellan, Edmonton was 9-10-1, but they were performing favorably in a number of underlying statistics. For example, the Oilers boasted a positive 5-on-5 Corsi percentage (50.2), shots percentage (50.9), scoring chance percentage (50.2) and high-danger chance percentage (51.2). Under McLellan, Edmonton was sunk by inability to find consistent shooting success or goaltending more than anything. The Oilers had a 6.6 shooting percentage and .919 save percentage at five-a-side through 20 games.
And while the shooting percentage has come back around under incumbent bench boss Ken Hitchcock — it’s risen to 8.5 percent across the past 23 games — that’s about the only notable rise in 5-on-5 performance Edmonton has truly seen. In fact, in the other key statistical categories, the Oilers have actually seen a decline. That includes Corsi percentage, which has dropped to 47 percent across the past 23 games, as well as shots percentage (46), scoring chance percentage (45.3) and high-danger chance percentage (40.7). Considered by many the answer to the defensive woes that were ailing Edmonton, a no-nonsense coach whose tough approach could straighten out the Oilers, Hitchcock’s albeit-brief tenure has been just as tumultuous as McLellan’s through the season and a quarter prior.
But speaking in terms of what the cost would be for the Oilers to truly address their needs, it would also be incredibly foolish for Edmonton to pursue upgrades for a team that may still fall short.
It’s been no secret that No. 1 on the Oilers’ wish list remains a top-pairing — or at the very least a top-four — defender. Already, the Oilers have tried to address their need by making some minor moves, acquiring Alex Petrovic and Brandon Manning, but neither are needle-movers for a team in need of legitimate first- or second-pairing rearguards. But when you look at the potentially available blueliners who fit the bill and the possible price tags attached, which could be high-round draft picks or talented roster players, it seems misguided at best for an Oilers team that is already thin at about every position to pursue such an addition.
For example, if the cost for Edmonton to add a defenseman capable of playing top-three minutes was a first- or second-round pick, how would that stand to benefit the Oilers now or in the future? Edmonton’s prospect group ranked 11th in the league and had only one top-100 player in The Hockey News’ Future Watch 2018. Adding players such as Evan Bouchard, selected 10th overall in 2018, is the only way for the Oilers’ prospect pool to improve and with it their future fortunes. Shipping out high picks for quick fixes won’t be the answer.
In that same vein, if the cost was a quality roster player — the oft-mentioned Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is certain to find his way into the rumor mill again — that hardly makes much sense for the Oilers, either. With three years remaining on a relatively team-friendly contract that pays him $6-million per season, ‘RNH’ has been one of the few forwards really clicking this season. To trade him would be to limit an offense that already relies far too heavily on McDavid with no clear-cut secondary scoring option.
As painful as it is in Edmonton, the best bet is to embrace the possibility of another season spent on the outside looking in or the best-case scenario that would be a first- or second-round exit. There’s no need for a full-scale, fire-fallow rebuild, but changes need to be made in the off-season when the organization, from the top down, can take a step back and game plan for the future. Patching holes in order to simply satisfy the playoff hunger only stands to hurt more than help.