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The Oilers know a luck regression looms – and how to offset it

New Oilers GM Ken Holland understands that his team's sizzling start is at least partially the result of some great puck luck. The key to offsetting the impending regression: improvement from the team's secondary scorers.

It was one of the strangest box scores in recent memory. And, based on how the Edmonton Oilers have played in this young season, it was a signature win.

Wednesday night’s 6-3 home drubbing of the Philadelphia Flyers extended the Oilers' jaw-dropping early record to 6-1-0 and exaggerated every characteristic of the team’s success so far almost to self-parody levels.

We know the Oilers have relied heavily on their top two lines for offense thus far. Well, Connor McDavid rattled off five points, and Leon Draisaitl had three. Through seven games, they sit 1-2 in NHL scoring at 17 and 15 points, respectively. The Oilers’ forwards have scored 24 goals this season, and McDavid, Draisaitl, and James Neal have 79.1 percent of them.

We know the Oilers’ power play has absolutely sizzled so far. It converted both opportunities Wednesday and sits at a league-best 45.5 percent now.

We know the Oilers have been outchanced in most of their games. The Flyers outshot them 52-22, including 25-4 in the third period, albeit they were buoyed by four power plays in that frame alone. Edmonton has now been outshot and out-attempted in six of its seven games so far and sits 27th in 5-on-5 Corsi.

We know the Oilers have put pucks in the net with remarkable accuracy. They beat Brian Elliott and Carter Hart six times on 22 shots Wednesday. For the season, the Oilers lead the NHL in shooting percentage at 15.64. For perspective, the best shooting percentage in the league last year across 82 games belonged to the Lightning at 12.17.

Everything – everything – has gone right for the Oilers so far this season, and they essentially “played the hits” Wednesday night. Does that mean it’s time to panic and predict a massive regression to the mean in the weeks and months to come? Maybe – but the good news is the organization is not blind to the idea at all.

Speaking on the phone yesterday, hours before Edmonton won its sixth game of the year, it was GM Ken Holland who broached the subject of shooting percentage and regression. He gets it.

“It’s going to come back to a more realistic number,” Holland said. “You’re going to need some other numbers to come up to offset that so you can continue to win.”

And where must the offsetting numbers come from? It’s obvious: depth scoring. Neal was brought in for that, and Holland said the idea was always to give Neal a bigger role than he had in Calgary, simply because the Flames were a much deeper team and the Oilers needed Neal’s net-front presence on the power play out of necessity.

“I talk to GMs and players about the importance of building your resume," Holland said. "And once you’ve built that resume, and you look at the Guide and Record book, and it says James Neal produced 20 goals 10 years in a row before Calgary, so you’re hoping a change of scenery is going to get him back to the level he produced at prior to the year in Calgary.

“No chance that we thought he’d get off to the start he’s off to, but the importance to an athlete is, he has a four-goal game, and his confidence takes a big boost up, and when you get an athlete who’s feeling good about himself, you get a chance to fire on all cylinders.”

Holland was convinced Neal’s off year was an anomaly, and so far the hunch has been bang on. But even if he's back to being a 20-goal threat and then some, that’s not nearly enough. If we acknowledge the Oilers’ top-six forward group as Draisaitl, McDavid, Zack Kassian, Alex Chiasson, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and James Neal, the bottom six has produced one goal in seven games. The Oilers can’t possibly continue their torrid pace in the standings unless the depth scorers pick up the slack.

“We think and believe that they’re going to start to chip in offensively,” Holland said. “They’ve gotten some chances but haven’t put them away. But ultimately, we need them to score some goals, because there are some things you can look at statistically in the early going that have been really good for us but probably aren’t sustainable. As those numbers go down, in order for us to continue to win and be competitive, some other numbers need to go up, and part of those come from the secondary scoring.”

Holland lists 10 goals as an 82-game target for the likes of Markus Granlund, Riley Sheahan and Jujhar Khaira. If they can hit those benchmarks, the top six can do enough heavy lifting to field a competitive team offense. As for whether Holland would consider looking for outside scoring help soon: he didn’t answer the question directly but notes that it’s a “small, small sample size” right now and that he’s been impressed with the depth forwards’ ability to get time in other teams’ zones and drain their oxygen tanks.

Holland has also been very happy with the penalty-killing contributions from Sheahan and Josh Archibald. The Oilers’ PK was 30th in the NHL last season at 74.8 percent. It’s currently No. 5 in the league at 88.5 percent. So the depth additions, while not sexy, have made at least one tangible mark so far.

If the Oilers keep playing like they did Wednesday, some of the early-season wins will turn to losses. But if Holland’s theory is right, and the bottom six’s luck improves to offset the other regressions coming, this team can remain a playoff threat.

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