The Edmonton Oilers have a playoff problem.
With the all-star break and a bye week on the horizon, the Oilers find themselves the cusp of the second wild-card spot in the Western Conference, a middle-of-the-pack club with some obvious elite skill but not enough top-to-bottom talent to compete with the league’s best. And while that’s an issue — Edmonton wanted and expected more — the Oilers’ real problem is that they’re reportedly willing to make some bold moves in the coming weeks to make the post-season a reality.
For some clubs, including a few who find themselves in a similar spot in the standings, chasing the post-season and buying at the deadline is a worthwhile pursuit. The Blues, for instance, put a lot of work into their roster this summer and it’d be far from surprising to see St. Louis make a few moves to shore up holes in an effort to sneak into the playoffs as a true-blue wild-card club. The same goes for the Anaheim Ducks, who have a dwindling championship window with a veteran-laden roster. John Gibson has round-stealing potential, so why not give it a shot. The Eastern Conference wild-card contending Pittsburgh Penguins can be added to that list, too, thanks to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
For others, however, taking the same tack is misguided at best and completely foolish at worst. The Vancouver Canucks don’t stand to gain all that much by buying at the deadline and they won’t. The Montreal Canadiens made it clear they have no interest in buying in the short term if it’s going to hinder the future. Chances are the Buffalo Sabres, Minnesota Wild, Carolina Hurricanes and Colorado Avalanche won’t do much big-ticket buying at or before the deadline, either, as they eye long-term growth and sustainable success.
Yet, despite being in much the same company as that second grouping of teams, reports abound that the Oilers are set to throw caution to the wind in pursuit of a post-season berth. And getting back to the topic at hand, therein lies the problem.
The trade chips that have been mentioned in the rumor mill are plentiful when it comes to the Oilers. Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported Edmonton’s first-round pick is in play. He also noted that Jesse Puljujarvi’s name has come up. Ryan Spooner has repeatedly been mentioned by a variety of outlets as a player the Oilers would be willing to move. You can bet that Edmonton would listen on Zack Kassian. Oh, and if anyone would be willing to bite on Milan Lucic, you can rest assured the Oilers would move on at the drop of a hat. That’s not the complete list, of course, but you get the idea. And as TSN’s Ryan Rishaug noted, the goal for Edmonton is to net a productive forward.
No doubt, there’s reason to have an exasperated chuckle at the Oilers’ interest in landing a forward — why, again, did they move Drake Caggiula to the Chicago Blackhawks for defenseman Brandon Manning, who has been scratched in four of nine games since his arrival in Edmonton? — but it doesn’t change the fact that this is apparently what GM Peter Chiarelli is after. One can understand why. Secondary scoring has been almost nonexistent, with the offensive load carried by Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. At a certain point, too, the Oilers are going to need their depth to step up if they’re going to separate themselves from the pack and earn that wild-card berth.
But, and this is the big question, is there really any point to the Oilers potentially selling a first-round pick or a talented prospect in service of simply sneaking into the playoffs?
If we’re talking worst-case scenario — and with the way things have gone for the Oilers in the post-lockout era, you might even be able to replace “worst-case” with “most likely” — Edmonton could make a move and still miss the post-season. With 35 games remaining, the Oilers are deadlocked with the Wild for the second wild-card spot but have two fewer regulation and overtime wins, a key tie-breaking statistic if the two clubs go point-for-point the rest of the way. SportsClubStats puts Edmonton’s chances of a post-season berth at 27.5 percent. Hockey-Reference has the Oilers at 38 percent. MoneyPuck gives Edmonton a 35-percent chance. You get the idea. The odds aren’t exactly in Edmonton’s favor, not with how tight the race is and how many teams are in the mix.
However, for the sake of discussion, let’s talk about a realistic best-case scenario for the Oilers.
If the post-season were to begin today and Edmonton snuck into the second wild-card spot, the Oilers would meet the Calgary Flames. The prospects of getting by the Flames are, uh, not great, particularly given the defensive deficiencies Edmonton has shown and the fact Calgary boasts one of the NHL’s most lethal attacks. But for the sake of argument, let’s say the Oilers got by the Flames. They would then draw one of the San Jose Sharks or Vegas Golden Knights. And if you didn’t like Edmonton’s odds of winning one series where they were significantly overmatched, chances are you’re not going to like their odds of winning a second in a row.
So, again, if we’re being realistic, a first- or second-round exit is the likely best-case scenario in Edmonton. It remains the same if the Oilers cross over into the Central Division side of the Western Conference, too. The likelihood of McDavid and Draisaitl and Nugent-Hopkins and whoever Chiarelli could possibly acquire powering a thin offense that isn’t also supported by top-tier defending or goaltending into anything more than a mid-round exit is slim, slim, slim.
This is to say that the problems in Edmonton run far too deep — far deeper than one top-six forward, to be sure — for the Oilers to even possibly address them at the deadline. And trust that attempting to address them at the deadline is almost certain to backfire. Making a move out of desperation, and it sure feels as though that’s what any movement of a first-round pick or once-prized prospect such as Puljujarvi would be, might end up saving Chiarelli’s job temporarily by pushing Edmonton into the post-season this year, but what about next season or the season after that or the season after that? The portion of the fan base that would be placated by temporary success would only stand to suffer later. It’s one small step forward that risks a potentially larger step back.
Eventually, Edmonton is going to be able to find sustained success. It’s going to happen with a one-two of McDavid and Draisaitl. In order to reach that point, though, the Oilers have to be honest about what they are. And what they are right now is first-round fodder. Now isn’t the time to go all-in in pursuit of the post-season. That’s for when they are better than their record. At this very moment, though, their record is exactly who they are, and the price they pay to add at of before the deadline might not be the biggest cost when all is said and done.