As the Edmonton Oilers headed towards the holiday break, there was hope their season could be saved. It started with a Dec. 16 win over the Minnesota Wild, continued with a home-ice defeat of the San Jose Sharks and kept going with two more victories, the first against the St. Louis Blues before a solid performance to down the Montreal Canadiens. And with those four wins — victories that marked the Oilers’ first three-game, let alone four-game winning streak of the season — Edmonton was back to .500 for the first time since the second outing of the campaign.
But after returning from the break on Dec. 27, refreshed and rejuvenated with hope of turning around what had been to that point a disastrous campaign, things started to fall apart once again. There were back-to-back one-goal defeats at the hands of the Winnipeg Jets and Chicago Blackhawks, followed by consecutive shutout losses by twin 5-0 scores to the Jets and Los Angeles Kings. And after stopping the bleeding by escaping a contest against the Anaheim Ducks with a 2-1 shootout victory, the Oilers have proceeded to drop back-to-back games against the Dallas Stars and Blackhawks, falling right back where they were before they went on their pre-break winning streak: four games below .500 with more questions than answers in a season where much was expected and very little has been delivered.
That the Oilers find themselves mired in yet another slump has resulted in repeated calls for changes throughout the organization, but, at least for the time being, sweeping changes of any kind don’t appear to be imminent. On Sunday evening, Edmonton GM Peter Chiarelli told Sportsnet’s Mark Spector that he has “no intentions” of relieving coach Todd McLellan or any of his assistants of their duties. Likewise, it doesn’t appear that Chiarelli is in any immediate danger of losing his position with the club. And that neither the coach nor GM have found themselves on the chopping block when things have gone this awry for the Oilers would seem to indicate that Edmonton is expecting one or both to find a remedy for what ails the club. The first question the Oilers need to answer, though, is what exactly it is that’s holding them back at the midway point of the campaign.
The most apparent shortcoming through 43 games has been the goaltending of Cam Talbot. Last season, Talbot was an absolute workhorse for the Oilers, starting 73 games and winning 42 of them while boasting a sound .919 save percentage and 2.39 goals-against average. He was a worthy fourth-place finisher for the Vezina Trophy and the backbone of Edmonton’s defense, a true last line for a team that had been a mess defensively in the past. This season, Talbot has again been heavily relied upon without providing the results. His .901 SP at all strengths is the fourth-worst mark among the 31 netminders to play at least 20 games this season, and at 5-on-5, Talbot’s .917 SP is the fifth-worst among goaltenders to play 1,000 or more minutes. Goaltending is an issue the Oilers have at least attempted to address, however. Late last week, Edmonton acquired netminder Al Montoya from the Canadiens in exchange for a conditional fifth-round selection in the upcoming draft, and Montoya has already made an appearance in relief of Talbot.
Playing into Talbot’s downturn in performance, though, has been a less effective defense. While Edmonton has maintained above-average Corsi for and shots for percentages at 5-on-5 when adjusted for score and venue — they rank 11th (51.5 percent) and 10th (51.6 percent) in the league, respectively — there has been a significant increase in the workload for Oilers goaltenders. Per 60 minutes, Edmonton has allowed 4.6 additional attempts against, 2.8 more shots against and 1.4 more scoring chances against when compared to last season’s performance. That appears to be the result of a tough season for Oscar Klefbom, Kris Russell and a so-so performance from Adam Larsson. Andrej Sekera, who recently returned from injury, has also had a hard time finding his game. He saw his minutes limited in consecutive losses to the Ducks and Stars before watching from the sidelines as a scratch against the Blackhawks on Sunday.
Not helping matters is that poor defensive play at 5-on-5 has leaked over into special teams efforts, too. Edmonton’s last-place penalty kill has been nothing short of atrocious, running at 71.5 percent through 43 games. The next-worst club is the New York Islanders, but their penalty kill rate is inching towards three percent better than that of the Oilers.
The blame doesn’t lay solely on the defense, mind you, as the attack, short of Connor McDavid’s continued dominance, has left much to be desired. McDavid is putting up his numbers, registering up 14 goals and 47 points in 43 games, but there are only two other Oilers at or above 30 points on the campaign and the production drops off precipitously as you get into the depth of the lineup. No doubt a part of the struggles the Edmonton offense has faced is a lack of anything that resembles luck. The Oilers rank 25th in the league in shooting percentage, and while some may suggest that it’s then on Edmonton to create their own luck, there’s not much more they could be doing right on the attack. Per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, again adjusted for score and venue, the Oilers rank fifth in shot attempts, sixth in shots, third in scoring chances and third in high-danger attempts. That’s like struggling to find daylight while standing right next to the sun.
But with all that is seemingly going sideways, how does Edmonton get out of this rut? Well, the first suggestion would be finding a way to solidify the defense, even if it means ditching a productive forward. Talbot needs better insulation as he fights off a down season and limiting the scoring attempts against is a start. And maybe there’s a deal to be made with a team in need of scoring with an abundance of defense — a team such as the Carolina Hurricanes sure could use another offensive piece — that could solidify the Oilers’ blueline. Beyond that, it sure seems as though Edmonton could use a power play specialist and some depth contributions, and there are players available, maybe even a veteran such as Vancouver's Thomas Vanek, who most certainly can be cast in that role. And if the Oilers were also able to find a way to incorporate more speed into the top half of their lineup, it might make for an attack that generates that much more. Offensively, though, Edmonton has done everything but score.
It’s not as if the Oilers can’t turn this all around with some reversal of fortune, either. While SportsClubStats currently has Edmonton at a half-percent chance of making the playoffs, we saw with last season’s Islanders how a season can change on a dime. Yes, that involved a coaching change with Doug Weight replacing Jack Capuano, but on Jan. 17, 2017, New York had 42 points in 42 games and were eight points outside a playoff spot. The Islanders finished the season a single point out of the post-season, narrowly missing out on the final wild-card berth to the Toronto Maple Leafs. As of today, the Oilers are eight points out of the final wild-card spot with 39 points in 43 games.
So, while righting this ship and getting into the post-season may seem improbable and unlikely, it’s not impossible. But at some point, Chiarelli will need to make a move, and one of some significance, to attempt to spur on better defensive results, better protect his struggling netminder and hope such a move can spur an offensive jolt for an Oilers team that has under-delivered on all of its promise.
(All advanced statistics via Natural Stat Trick)
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