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Playoffs or bust: Can the slumping Oilers save their season?

Everything that has ailed the Edmonton Oilers through the first quarter of the 2017-18 season was on display in Tuesday night’s drubbing, an ugly 8-3 defeat, at the hands of the St. Louis Blues.

Let’s not waste any time getting to the point here: the Edmonton Oilers have been dreadful this season. 

Defensively, the Oilers have been downright woeful, sporting the sixth-worst goals against per game. The offense, even with Connor McDavid, has been spotty at best. Their 2.52 goals per game ranks 27th in the NHL. Even the goaltending of Cam Talbot has left much to be desired as he sits firmly in the bottom third of the league among starters. And in an early season that has been rife with disappointment, there has been no greater culmination of everything that has ailed the Oilers through the first quarter of the campaign than Tuesday night’s drubbing, an ugly 8-3 defeat, at the hands of the St. Louis Blues.

With the loss, Edmonton fell to 7-12-2 on the campaign, sporting 16 points and barely ahead of the lowly Buffalo Sabres and Arizona Coyotes. Their goal differential fell to minus-19, the fourth-worst mark in the league, and the Oilers have now dropped three straight and five of their past six at a time when many expected this slow-starting Edmonton bunch would be beginning to right the ship. And as the losses pile up and hope starts to dwindle, one can’t help but wonder if there’s any way for the Oilers to save what is increasingly looking like it could be a lost season.

Statistically speaking, it would seem a near impossibility. In the post-lockout era, only once has a team had a start this poor — which is to say, 16 or fewer points in the first 21 games of the campaign — and managed to make the playoffs. That was the 2007-08 Washington Capitals, who were 6-14-1 at the quarter mark of the campaign before turning it on and finishing the season with a 43-31-8 record, 94 points and top spot in what was then known as the Southeast (or SouthLeast) Division. So, given the rarity of reaching the post-season after such a start, it’s safe to say the Oilers are facing an Everest-esque climb if they want to play meaningful games in April. 

However implausible, though, it’s not impossible for Edmonton to get back on track. But what needs to change?

Well, after Tuesday’s performance, there will no doubt be those calling for a change behind the bench. It’s often the first place teams turn at times of trouble, especially in the salary cap era when making a trade to spark your club is much easier said than done. And, to be sure, Oilers coach Todd McLellan wasn’t excusing his own performance after the beatdown from the Blues. “In every facet of the game, we were second. It wasn’t even close,” McLellan told reporters post-game. “Very, very concerned, obviously, at the way some individuals played tonight. Many of them. And it’s indefensible on my behalf. We’re responsible for having the team ready and obviously they weren’t.”

However, with all that has plagued the Oilers, there’s not much evidence that McLellan is the problem. That’s particularly the case when his track record indicates he’s been excellent at preparing his teams throughout his coaching career. Yes, post-season performances got away from McLellan during his days with the San Jose Sharks and the organization went 30-32 in the playoffs during his tenure as the bench boss, but McLellan’s regular season record is a sparkling 396-244-85, good for a points percentage of .605 across his 10-year tenure behind an NHL bench. Other active coaches with a percentage as good or better over a span as long? Bruce Boudreau, Joel Quenneville, Mike Babcock and Ken Hitchcock. That’s a veritable who’s who of the NHL’s best behind the bench, thus making it difficult to believe McLellan is really the biggest issue here.

McLellan did touch on something important in his pointed post-game remarks, though. When asked about the Blues’ four-goal third period, he said the game would've been over even if it had been 25 minutes long and pointed to the team’s overall defensive issues. “We didn’t handle any of their players,” McLellan said. “That’s about as poor as I’ve seen our group of (defensemen) play in my three years here. And we’re supposed to be getting better back there?”

That might speak to the biggest issue in Edmonton — and it’s not as though it’s a problem no one saw coming. For all the bright spots on the Oilers, the major concern many had with the roster was the lack of a true-blue top-pairing and absence of a defender upon which the rest of the blueline could rely. That issue, of course, was exacerbated when, following the Oilers’ playoff run last season, it was announced Andrej Sekera would miss a large chunk of the season due to knee surgery to repair a torn ACL. But even with Sekera in the lineup, there was the belief that the Oilers would need to add one more top-tier rearguard in order to really solidify the back end. Again, though, adding a player and addressing an issue via the trade market is easier said than done in the salary cap era, and that goes double when a top-pairing defenseman is the piece a team is seeking.

That’s not to say the Oilers couldn’t make such a deal happen, however. It has long been rumored that Ryan Nugent-Hopkins could be the next moved out of Edmonton after trades shipped Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle, the other two members of the Oilers' old core, out of town. And moving Nugent-Hopkins could potentially fetch Edmonton a top-four defender, even if it means the Oilers have to add a piece or two to make such a deal happen. For better or worse — and some Oilers faithful would certainly argue the latter over the former — Edmonton GM Peter Chiarelli hasn’t been afraid to test the trade market, so trading Nugent-Hopkins, especially if it can help bolster the blueline, isn’t out of the question.

The thing is that making such a move poses a problem of its own. The Oilers aren’t regarded as the fastest team in the league right now and some have suggested the lack of overall team speed has contributed to Edmonton’s struggles as much as anything. And while Nugent-Hopkins isn’t exactly the NHL’s version of Usain Bolt, he’s still a mobile skater who can make things happen with his feet. Stripping him from the roster, and the attack, could result in an even slower group. 

But maybe the fact that any change Edmonton makes comes with its own set of drawbacks leads us to the real, honest answer about these Oilers: there is no quick fix. There’s no one move — not behind the bench, not up front and not on the back end — that Edmonton can make to turn this around. Rather, it’s a matter of the entire team resetting, leaving these first 21 games in the past and hoping they can replicate what only the 2007-08 Capitals have done in this era.

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