As far as guarantees go, Cam Talbot’s assertion that the Edmonton Oilers are going to make it into the NHL post-season doesn’t quite rank up there with Mark Messier’s promise of a New York Rangers Game 6 victory during the 1994 playoffs. But given the way the season has gone for the Oilers, you can understand why Talbot’s talk is garnering some attention.
Ahead of the campaign, the Oilers were an odds-on favorite to be a top team in the Western Conference as it seemed in many ways the most natural progression for a team that was coming off of a run to Game 7 of the Pacific Division final last season. Comparisons were drawn between Edmonton and the coming-of-age Chicago Blackhawks, right down to the signing of their top duo, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, to big-money contracts. There were visions of a return to glory, McDavid hoisting the Stanley Cup and the end, at long last, to an era of almost inexplicable futility.
The Oilers’ encore to their breakout season, however, has not been successful. Through 49 games, the Oilers’ standing in the West is as such: they’re two games below .500 and have accumulated 47 points, which leaves them 10 points back of the final wild-card spot with five teams bridging the gap between Edmonton and the final playoff berth in the conference. So again, Talbot’s prediction, while not exactly bulletin-board material, is fairly bold, particularly in an era where three-point games can keep teams from losing all that much ground on a night-to-night basis. To those who think it impossible, though, the Oilers netminder had a response. “We’re going to play like our lives are on the line every single night,” Talbot said, according to Sportsnet’s Mark Spector. “Until eight teams have an ‘X’ beside their name we’re not out of it. That’s how we have to approach it.”
And while that’s all well and good and undoubtedly the right way for Edmonton to approach the final 33 games of their season, the reality is that what Talbot and the Oilers are attempting to accomplish is an exceedingly rare feat in the post-lockout era. Since the 2005-06 season, there are only three instances in which teams have had less than 50 points after 49 games and made the post-season.
What makes the Oilers' season somewhat different than two of those occasions, however, is the teams who had significant second-half turnarounds were at least point-per-game outfits. Both the 2007-08 Washington Capitals and 2014-15 Ottawa Senators were able to fight their way into the post-season after picking up 49 points through 49 games. And beyond that, both of those instances come with asterisks of sorts. The Capitals’ berth came by way of the old playoff format which sent the top team from each division, and Washington earned their way into the playoffs only by virtue of eking out the Carolina Hurricanes for first place in the Southeast Division. Such a scenario won't benefit the Oilers. As for the Senators, most will recall the play of goalie Andrew Hammond led to Ottawa earning one of two Eastern Conference wild-card berths. Hammond went on an unthinkable run, posting a 20-1-2 record and .941 save percentage across 24 games to propel the Senators into the post-season. A run like that from a goaltender is near-superhuman, and even still Ottawa barely squeaked into the playoffs.
The only other instance of a team making the post-season after a dreadful first half, though, may give Edmonton reason for hope. In 2008-09, the St. Louis Blues managed a scant 45 points through 49 games. Only five teams in the league were worse. But across their final 33 games of the season, the Blues were almost unstoppable, recording a 21-7-5 record and propelling themselves into the seventh spot in the Western Conference. The run was made all the more impressive by the fact the Blues were playing in the Central Division, which didn’t have a single team with fewer than 88 points and nearly had all five clubs make the playoffs.
But can the Oilers become the fourth team to successfully right the ship starting with Game 50? It's safe to suggest there’s never a good time to count out a McDavid-led side, particularly when he’s remained one of the league’s top scorers despite the overall on-ice struggles in Edmonton. He’s a legitimate game-changer and a singular talent who can make something positive happen every single time he steps on the ice. Offensively, if McDavid can get more help from Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins post-break, the Oilers stand a chance at righting the ship by sheer offensive force alone. But leapfrogging five teams and making up a double-digit point spread will likely be predicated on more than offensive firepower, which means the most important aspect of Edmonton's hunt for the post-season is that the team find its legs defensively. That starts with the very player who made the post-season promise.
In 2016-17, Talbot was fantastic for the Oilers in his role as a workhorse starting netminder. He won a league-best 42 games out of his league-high 73 starts, all the while piecing together a .919 save percentage and 2.39 goals-against average with seven shutouts. Last season has seemed like a distant memory at times, though, as Talbot has barely kept his SP above .900 while struggling to lower his GAA below the three-goal mark. That’s not to mention he has just one shutout, putting him on pace for the fewest in his career, including his days as a second-stringer with the Rangers.
Granted, the defensive play of the Oilers has dipped, which is one of the primary concerns surrounding the club beyond Talbot’s play. Oscar Klefbom hasn’t been the player he was last season, nor has Adam Larsson. Truth be told, no defenseman aside from Darnell Nurse has really been all that consistent on either side of the puck, and the result has been a higher rate of attempts against, shots against and scoring chances of various qualities against throughout the season. That has in turn lead to a more difficult workload for Talbot. But even still, Talbot’s only a fraction above the league average when it comes to shots against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, so it’s not as if he’s being bombarded.
So, if there’s anyone who’s going to turn this season around for the Oilers, it appears as though it’s going to have to be their goaltender. And if Talbot uses his own words as a spark and pieces together a second half of his campaign that’s similar to his play from last season, Edmonton might just have a chance. If Talbot can’t manage that, though, chances are the Oilers fall short of making good on his guarantee.
(All advanced statistics via Natural Stat Trick)
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