Invariably, in one way or another, the first few weeks of any new NHL campaign will lie to us. On-pace numbers will suggest a player is bound to set some ludicrous career high or one brief moment of brilliance will indicate a long-struggling star is set to finally rediscover his game. For some teams, early season successes will paint a picture of a group that’s primed to break out at long last. For some perceived frontrunners, the failures, hiccups or missteps will be taken as a sign of impending doom.
But it’s not until about this time, when nearly half the campaign is in the books, that we can truly start to buy what the season is selling. And given that’s the case, it appears the lie the early season told us all is that the Edmonton Oilers were prepared to assert themselves as an actual contender.
Through the first eight games of the season, the Oilers were a revelation. Only once in their first eight games did Edmonton lose, and the Oilers were winning in all fashions, be it close games or blowouts, pulling points out of high-scoring affairs or winning by way of the shootout. It could be argued the Oilers’ time masquerading as a top team held on through the beginning of December, when they found themselves eight games clear of .500 with 29 games in the books.
But it was about then that the good times stopped rolling, as following Wednesday’s 2-1 defeat at the hands of the St. Louis Blues, Edmonton has now suffered six defeats in their past eight games, all the while backsliding towards the pack. With the holiday break on the horizon, the once-surprising Oilers have started to take on the identity of the team many thought they would be, and that’s not helped at all by the fact Edmonton finds itself perilously close to losing their grip on the final divisional playoff spot in the Pacific Division, a mere two points clear of the hard-charging Calgary Flames.
It could be argued the signs of a downturn were coming. Statistically speaking, the Oilers were riding a PDO high to start the season, an inflated shooting percentage and stellar save percentage supercharging Edmonton’s results. But in the time since, Edmonton’s numbers have crashed. Their once 10.6 shooting percentage at five-a-side has dipped to 7.1 percent over the past 29 games. Meanwhile, the .921 save percentage at 5-on-5 has collapsed to .908 across that same span. The result? A .979 PDO since Oct. 19 – a far cry from the 1.030 mark during Edmonton’s early-season heater – that has resulted in the Oilers posting one of the league’s lowest points percentages since mid-October.
But the biggest concern for the Oilers shouldn’t be their decline and their decline alone. Rather, it should be that there’s no band-aid for what ails Edmonton and it could very well be that every ounce of early success the Oilers had ends up being all for naught. Just consider for a second the areas that need addressing, of which there are three that stand out above all.
First, there's the matter of the depth of Edmonton's attack, which has been a longstanding issue. To wit, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are again leading the charge this season, a turn of events as predictable as the sun rising in the East and setting in the West, but there is a 24-point chasm between Draisaitl, who is one point back of McDavid for the team scoring lead, and the next-best Oilers scorer. That is equivalent to the league-high gap between Nathan MacKinnon and the next-highest offensive contributor for his Colorado Avalanche. And help has been hard to come by for the Oilers' duo. James Neal’s production has slowed. Zack Kassian, a decent middle-six scorer, doesn't produce enough to properly complement the star tandem. Meanwhile, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has mustered just 18 points in his 31 games this season. That has left McDavid and Draisaitl to do all the heavy lifting.
Second, Edmonton is still without two serviceable defensive pairings. Two of the three highest-paid rearguards of the bunch, Adam Larsson and Kris Russel, are averaging less than 19 minutes per night, all the while ice time is being heaped upon rookie Ethan Bear.
Third, the goaltending has been substandard. After a hot start, Mikko Koskinen has been no better than average since the opening weeks, his .920 SP at 5-on-5 ranking 25th of the 42 goaltenders with 500-plus minutes since Oct. 19. Meanwhile, Mike Smith has been among the worst keepers in the league. His .889 SP at 5-on-5 is the second-worst among the aforementioned group of 42 goaltenders. Oftentimes if an attack isn’t deep, sustained success is predicated upon high-quality goaltending. And if the goaltending is middling, one can expect the same of the team’s results.
But the kicker and the very reason why Edmonton may simply have to accept whatever fate lies ahead: there are no readymade call-ups who can make an overnight impact up front, on the blueline or in the crease and the Oilers’ hands are absolutely, positively tied as far as a needle-moving acquisition goes. Other teams may be able to address their shortcomings one way or another, but that doesn't appear as though it will be the case for these Oilers. With roughly $1 million in cap space, any attempt Edmonton GM Ken Holland could make at improving his roster would need to be a near dollar-in, dollar-out proposition, which severely limits his options. That’s not going to be changing by the time the trade freeze ends or the deadline rolls around, either. This is the situation and the Oilers are stuck with it.
At least, that is, until season’s end. Once the off-season comes, Holland will have wiggle room. A grand total of 11 current roster players will see their contracts expire, another four will become restricted free agents and nearly $24 million – if not more, depending on next season’s cap number – will be available for Holland to use as he sees fit. Maybe then he can attack and address the longstanding needs of this franchise and maybe then the Oilers can bring about meaningful change to a roster that clearly needed much more than a coaching change to take the required steps forward.
Until that time, however, the Oilers are simply going to have to attempt to be more than the sum of their parts, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to believe they can be when the better part of the past 30 games has suggested otherwise. Does that mean Edmonton’s playoff hopes are dead in the water? Not quite. The superhero-esque ability of the Oilers’ dynamic duo makes all manner of things possible. But even Superman had his kryptonite, and if Edmonton’s other pieces continue to act as that for the otherworldly McDavid-Draisaitl tandem, the Oilers will have no other choice than to let the chips fall where they may.
(All salary cap information via CapFriendly)
(All advanced statistics via NaturalStatTrick)
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