Two Minutes for Looking so Good: Don't Stop Believing (in the Edmonton Oilers Just Yet)
Before the start of the 2016-17 season (and several times during the season), I confided in my friend “Gamblin” Matt Mortensen an absolutely insane theory; that the Edmonton Oilers, one of the worst teams in the NHL over the past decade, would not only make the playoffs but would win the Stanley Cup. He of course reacted like this.
Luckily for me, “Gamblin” Matt wasn’t laughing when the Oilers rolled to a 47-26-9 record and came within one goal of making the Western Conference Finals before falling to the evil Anaheim Ducks. So when I told him in the offseason that I was once again picking the Oilers to win it all (over Toronto), he was right there with me. And why wouldn’t he be? For all intents and purposes it looked like Peter Chiarelli had assembled a championship level squad. Their forwards contained a nice blend of young upstarts like Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins mixed with playoff proven veterans Milan Lucic and Patrick Maroon. Goaltender Cam Talbot had established himself as a breakout star. And of course there was the brightest star of them all in Connor McDavid, the next generation Gretzky who led the NHL in scoring (30 goals, 70 assists, 100 points), won the MVP award and pretty much became the best player in hockey. Sure, maybe there were some worries on the blue line and all, but the overall collection of talent plus McDavid being McDavid made picking the Oilers a no brainer. Quite frankly, I couldn’t imagine a scenario where the Stanley Cup Finals didn’t end with an Oilers vs. Maple Leafs, McDavid vs. Auston Matthews matchup while Gary Bettman alternated between being incensed two Canadians teams made it and elated his two biggest stars were going at it. The lesson, as always; “Gamblin” Matt and I are not to be trusted.
To say the Oilers 2017-18 campaign has been the biggest disaster since Wolfgang Peterson and Warner Brothers conspired to remake The Poseidon Adventure would be a little too kind. Through 46 games the Oilers are a dismal 20-23-3, ten points out of the eighth and final Western Conference post season seed. Just as quickly as Edmonton seemed to rise out of the gutter did they fall right back in, and to this point you could argue that, other than McDavid, Draisaitl and Nugent-Hopkins (who have all maintained a high level of play), no one is safe from the scorn of Edmonton fans and the media. But for all the blaming, I’ve yet to hear a good reason as to why the Oilers went from Stanley Cup hopefuls to colossal disappointments. It’s a good question, no? So I took it upon myself to look into just why the Oilers now suck, and what I found has convinced me of two things; not only are the 2017-18 Edmonton Oilers not a bad team, they’re also not a team you should give up on just yet for this season. Crazy person says what now?!
Before we get into why Oilers fans have hope, let’s talk about why most of it has been kicked out of them. Most of the blame for the Oilers struggles this season have been blamed on the following reasons; head coach Todd McLellan, Chiarelli’s decision to turn star forwards Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle into Adam Larrson and the Strome brother that isn’t Dylan, Talbot regressing from break out star to Ron Tugnutt cosplayer, a below average defensive unit and dozens of other reasons that are both reasonable and absurd. But while one of these theories holds major water and all of them play a part to some degree, the Oilers problems are in fact far simpler than McLellan’s spotty coaching and a questionable blue line. In fact, it’s so simple that I can pretty much pinpoint the Oilers slide to three separate yet equally important issues.
1) Cam Talbot. I told you one of the main talking points was actually valid and unfortunately for Talbot it’s him. Let’s compare stats, shall we? Last year Talbot was exceptional, winning a career high 42 games while posting a 2.39 GAA and a .919 Save Percentage. More importantly, he became the first Oilers backstop since Dwayne Roloson who actually looked like he knew what he was doing. This year has been the exact opposite; in 36 starts Talbot is a mere 16-16-2, with a 3.11 GAA and a mere .902 Save Percentage, marking him among one of the worst net minders in hockey. It’s no coincidence that as Talbot has gone, so have the Oilers.
2). Special Teams Play. If nothing else, this year’s Oilers have produced a Special Teams unit to remember, and not at all in a good way. Once more we go to last year’s squad. That Oilers team wasn’t perfect on the Special Teams end either, but at least they were an effective powerplay, scoring the sixth most powerplay goals in the league to generate the fifth best powerplay in the league. This year has been the exact opposite. Not only are the Oilers third to last in powerplay goals and fifth worst in powerplay percentage, they’ve also generated the second lowest amount of powerplay attempts this season. SECOND LOWEST! Only the Anaheim Ducks have been worse, and they don't have Connor McDavid on their team. The Oilers weren’t a juggernaut at drawing penalties last season, but they were at least respectable. They're not even close this year, and that, along with the next point, is perhaps the most damning evidence that McLellan has lost the coaching mojo. How else can you explain the ability to not draw penalties when you have a once in a generation star?
And then there’s the PK unit. The Oilers weren’t the be all end all at penalty killing in 2016-17 (they ranked 17th in the NHL), but they at least knew how to keep discipline enough to stay out of the box, placing 6th in powerplay opportunities against. As with their powerplay, their penalty killing has gone the way of Uwe Boll; no team has given up more powerplay goals than the Oilers and no team has been worse on the PK than the Oilers. Between their inability to draw powerplay opportunities and their inability to stop powerplays, the Oilers special team unit is so tragic, you’ think it was created by Shakespeare.
3). Bad luck. This will be controversial because, let’s be real, what actually constitutes as luck? Even I’m not sure; I just know the Oilers have had very little of it this year, and it’s hurt them even more than the Special Teams woes. One of the first things I checked when trying to figure out why the Oilers have disappointed was the amount of shots they were generating. After all, one of the many complaints logged at the team has been their inability to generate offense after trading away strong offensive players like Eberle and Hall. But a closer look shows that may not be as big a problem. According to Hockey Reference, the Oilers have generated 1,571 shots on goal this year; as of 4:32 P.M. EST today, that’s the second highest total in the league behind the Pittsburgh Penguins. A look at the website IcyData also paints an interesting picture; altogether the Oilers have fired 1,649 shots this year, with 8% (133 shots) coming from the crease, 29% (486 shots) coming from the center/slot area, 16% (264 shots) coming from the blue line, 21% (339 shots) from the left flank, 23% (372) coming from the right flank and 3% (55 shots) coming from out of the zone. I don’t know about you, but that sounds like the Oilers have a balanced offensive attack to me.
Further backing that up are the Oilers possession stats. I know; how the hell can one even tell what advanced/possession stats like Corsi, Fenwick and all that jazz are saying? To put it simply, both Corsi For % and Fenwick For %, the two stats we’re focusing on here, keep track of the amount of time a team has possession of the puck. In both those categories the Edmonton Oilers excel; they rank fourth in both Corsi For % at 52.4% and Fenwick For % at 53.1%. On top of that the team is 6th in oZS%, which is basically the percentage for the amount of time a team starts play in the offensive zone. Put that all together and it tells a far different story than the Oilers record does. As it turns out, not only have the Oilers maintained a strong offensive attack, but they control the puck better than only a handful of teams and often starts play in the attacking zone. That is all the hallmarks of a team that should be at the top of the league. Even with the Oilers other shortcomings, it certainly suggests they should be better than they are now.
So why aren’t they? In addition to the other flaws, the Oilers are found to be lacking in one key yet often forgotten stat; shot percentage. For all the shots the Oilers have taken this season, only 8.0% of those shots have gone in. That percentage is the sixth lowest in the NHL, ahead of only the Carolina Hurricanes, Arizona Coyotes, Columbus Blue Jackets, Montreal Canadiens and Buffalo Sabres. For those wondering, the Hurricanes and Canadiens are average at best teams, the Blue Jackets are a legit playoff team (which goes to show how dangerous they can be) and the Coyotes and Sabres are the two worst teams in the league. Not the best company the Oilers is keeping. In contrast, the Oilers 2016-17 season saw them shoot 2,547 shots on goal, with 9.5% of those shots going into the net, ranking them 8th and 11th respectively in the league. If you applied that percentage to this year’s team, the Oilers would have 149 goals right now compared to 126. Considering the Oilers have lost eight games by one goal this year, it wouldn’t be out of the question to think that an extra 23 goals would’ve given the Oilers eight more victories at least, turning them from 20-23-3 bottom feeders into 28-16-3 contenders. That’s right; even with Talbot cratering and the Special Teams units turning into a Roman Reigns promo, an argument could be made that the Oilers are still a playoff team if they just start getting luckier putting the puck in the net.
That, in a nutshell, is the three issues that plague the Edmonton Oilers this season. It’s also three reasons to not give up on them this year just yet, as all three problems are fixable. In fact, I’d argue the hardest would be getting the shot percentage to trend upwards, as that is more based on luck than anything. Even still, the Pittsburgh Penguins aren’t that far removed from being in the same boat as the Oilers, only to now find themselves in a postseason position because their offensive attack started generating goals they hadn’t been earlier in the season. The Oilers still have the personal to do that and I see no reason they can’t. It then falls on Chiarelli and McLellan to fix the other problems. They need another goaltender to go along with Talbot and Montoya (or potentially supplant them). They need to start generating more powerplays and dear Grodd do they need to either mix up the PK units or trade for someone to help there. Both are doable and both will more than likely be done, if only because Chiarelli and McLellan have to at this point. The disappointing season, coupled with Chiarelli’s questionable moves an McLellan’s less than desirable coaching (I’m sure he has tried to make adjustments to the Special Teams, it just feels like he hasn’t) has left both guys in the hot seat and anything short of a playoff berth will likely see both guys kicked to the curb. The Oilers aren’t looking to waste a second of the McDavid era and, with names like Alberta born Daryl Sutter out there (don’t hate me Flames fans), Chiarelli and McLellan will be throwing everything at the wall just to keep their hopes of riding McDavid to the promised land alive.
Will it work? Even if they correct all the problems it’ll be tough; a ten point deficit is nothing to sneeze at. But the Oilers competition for the eighth spot isn’t exactly murders row; the Blackhawks are a shell of themselves without Corey Crawford, the Sharks have barely kept afloat despite facing one of the easiest schedules in the NHL, the Ducks are wishing they had kept Freddy Anderson instead of John Gibson, the Wild continue to be wildly (pun fully intended) inconsistent and the Stars lack an elite goaltender to contrast their ultra talented group of forwards. Only the Los Angeles Kings and Colorado Avalanche stand out amongst the groups, and the Avalanche are no sure bet either once they cool off from their red hot winning streak (a winning streak that is proof the Oilers can still compete if they too get hot). The point is the competition isn’t so large that the Oilers can’t overcome it. They still have McDavid, the best player in the NHL, they still have a solid supporting cast; even defensively the Oilers are better than you think, having blocked more shots this year than another team in the NHL. Even with the albatross that is the Milan Lucic hanging over them for the foreseeable future, there’s enough talent there that the Oilers can still make moves going forward (even if they have to sacrifice a Nugent-Hopkins to do so) and should still be able to compete long before McDavid decides to join Auston Matthews in Toronto (it’s inevitable folks). But with a little bit of luck, a little creativity on Chiarelli’s part and a few breaks, the Oilers may find themselves in position to compete in 2018 just yet.