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Pacific Peeks: Edmonton Oilers

Everything went right two years ago, then it all went right back to wrong.

EDMONTON, AB - APRIL 05: Connor McDavid #97 and Darnell Nurse #25 of the Edmonton Oilers strategize during a break in play against the Vegas Golden Knights at Rogers Place on April 5, 2018 in Edmonton, Canada. Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images

The Edmonton Oilers are a team of extremes. Are they the 103 point team from 2016-17 or the 78 point team from 2017-18? Are they a return to form for general manager Peter Chiarelli or another step into his tragic descent into irrelevance? Are they the fiery chariot Connor McDavid will lead into the heavens, or the plummeting albatross wasting his prime years? Exactly how many of the Js are we supposed to pronounce in Puljujarvi?

The answers to all of those questions is probably “neither” (except the Chiarelli one, that’s probably the latter). This is a team of bad management, no winger depth, weak defensive depth, decent goaltending, and a great core of centers led by the best player in the universe. It is not impossible that McDavid can drag this franchise up the Sisyphean slope to the postseason, during which as we’re often reminded, “anything can happen,” but it doesn’t seem very likely.

The aforementioned management and its coaching staff, including former Sharks bench boss Todd McLellan, has to be worried about the heat of their seats going into this season. If the Oilers start this season 1-7-2 or something, heads will have to roll. Unfortunately for us, this may have already happened by the time they visit our fair city for the teams’ first meeting on November 20. The Sharks will be in Edmonton for the first time shortly after the Christmas break on December 29, then a quick turnaround to face them back in San Jose on January 8, part of a nasty five games in eight nights stretch. Two games in Alberta on February 9 and April 4, the second last game of the season, close out the five total contests between the division rivals.

Where we left off

The Oilers’ 25-point drop in the standings from 2016-17 to 2017-18 looked unpleasant and, while they probably aren’t as good as the team that eliminated the Sharks in the first round in 2017, they probably aren’t as bad as last year’s showing either. Luckily, after such a disappointing season, and with precious few years available to win Stanley Cups with McDavid in his prime, the Oilers hit the off-season running, addressing their pressing needs on defense and the wings by adding, um, Tobias Rieder.

Edmonton looks to be going all in on positive regression and a return to form from goaltender Cam Talbot to carry them back to the postseason, and maybe fans are relieved to not relive the tragedies of offseasons past. Chiarelli has presided over some of the most lopsided trades in recent NHL history, only some of which have been with this club.

Vegas Golden Knights v Edmonton Oilers Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images

We all remember that fateful day in 2016 when Taylor Hall was traded to the New Jersey Devils for Adam Larsson (the trade is one for one!) when, amazingly, trading a super star pretty consistently point-per-game left wing for a second pair defenseman straight up may not have been the worst trade that day. We remember Chiarelli going back to the trade well a year later, shipping Jordan Eberle to the New York Islanders for Ryan Strome, trading away a 20-goal winger for a 30-point center. We remember the Milan Lucic and Kris Russell contracts, because they’re still there. Maybe, at this point, doing nothing is an improvement.

2018 Entry Draft

Some off-the-board picks early in the first round benefited the Oilers, who selected a defenseman from the London Knights of the OHL named Evan Bouchard at tenth overall. Bouchard, projected to go just outside the top five by most pundits was bumped down to ten due to the Arizona Coyotes’ pick of Barrett Hayton at five and the New York Rangers’ pick of Vitali Kravtsov at nine, among others. The Oilers traded picks up on the draft floor to select Olivier Rodrigue, a goaltender from the QMJHL’s Drummondville Voltigeurs at the very end of the second round, spending the remaining three of their five picks on Ryan McLeod of the OHL’s Mississauga Steelheads, Michael Kesselring from New Hampton High School and Patrik Siikanen from the Finland Jr. League’s Blues-2.

While Bouchard is a very well regarded and versatile defensive player who is all but guaranteed to make the NHL some day, if not this season, the rest of these players are not super likely to make big waves in the near future. Both McLeod and Kesselring are decent prospects, and may become real players, but they’re still a few years from contributing at this level. As far as Rodrigue goes, well, he’s a goalie, so he probably uses magic.

What can we expect in 2019?

Success may hang pretty heavily on the pipes with the 2018-19 Oilers. Starting goaltender Cam Talbot has had streaks of inadequacy and streaks of brilliance in his short career as a starter. For what it’s worth, I think he’s closer to the latter than the former, but he will have to put together a season better than his most recent to stay relevant. If we look at his save percentages from 2016-17, we see an even strength save percentage of .919, a penalty kill save percentage of .892, and a total of .917. He peaked the following year, when his even strength rate shot up to .928. Last season, his even strength rate was more in line with his average at .919, but his penalty kill rate tanked to .846. Penalty kill save percentages tend to be pretty volatile, but if he can maintain a similar save rate at five on five and if his shorthanded rate regresses back up, he’s due for a bounce back.

If he does not bounce back, however, there has been a lot of rumbling about KHL super star Mikko Koskinen, whom the Oilers signed out of the Russian league in May. Koskinen led SKA St. Petersburg to a championship over yonder last year with a .937 save percentage in 29 starts, good for fifth among all goalies in the KHL who started at least 20 games. However, and it’s a big however, we should be a little more skeptical of how much credit we give to players who put up great numbers on that team, during that year (see, Kovalchuk, Ilya). SKA was a buzz saw last season, and it may have been by design most sinister.

Ice Hockey - Winter Olympics Day 12 Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Koskinen played on a team that led the KHL by 14 points (in a 3-2-1 points system), lost five games in regulation during the 56 game season, and had a goal differential of +130. 130! The next highest goal differential in the entire league was +86. SKA’s roster boasted names like Kovalchuk, Nikita Gusev, Viktor Tikhonov, and Slava Voynov, among others. Kovalchuk led the KHL in points with 63, Gusev has 62, and the next highest scorer had 55. I’m a little hesitant to ascribe too much credit to the numbers of a goaltender who played on the most dominant team in the league, filled with superstars, owned by the state energy conglomerate and Vladimir Putin, that was specifically constructed and favored to win the championship to foster chemistry for an Olympic team that didn’t even play against NHL players.

I’m not saying Koskinen is a bad goalie, but fans heralding the end of the days of Laurent Brossoit and Anders Nilsson may be being overly optimistic. The Finn has struggled in Edmonton’s preseason games so far, but that could very well just be small ice jitters or a bad small sample, and shouldn’t be given too much credence.

The Oilers’ defense, while not looking like a crew befitting a contender, could be a lot worse. Their right side is a problem, to be sure, but their left side could take some real steps this year. Signing Darnell Nurse to a two-year, $6.4 million bridge in time for him to get in time at training camp was a coup, and Oscar Klefbom should be able to produce more during a full healthy season. The absence of Andrej Sekera will be felt, though, and this is where Bouchard could come into play. After the Oilers waived Kevin Gravel yesterday morning, any one of Bouchard, Jakub Jerabek, or Jason Garrison could crack the roster as a seventh defenseman.

All of this is nice and fun and cute, but the bottom line is that the Oilers will go as far as Connor McDavid can carry them. The 2015 first overall pick is probably the best hockey person in the world, and had a historically good season last year on a very bad team. McDavid’s 76 even strength points on the way to his second consecutive Art Ross trophy led the league by 15, and he led the NHL with a penalty differential of +21, tied with fellow speed freak and Alberta boy Johnny Gaudreau. In fact, it might be faster to list the categories in which McDavid didn’t lead the NHL: penalty minutes, giveaways, goalie starts, things done slowly, blocked shots, etc.

Behind McDavid, Edmonton’s center spot is strong. The Oilers look to be running Leon Draisaitl and the aforementioned Strome. That is a very strong one through three down the middle, but there should be some concern as to how much their weakness on the wings will limit their productivity. McDavid will be fine playing with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and newcomer Ty Rattie, who put up nine points in 14 games with the phenom at the end of last season and looked perfectly comfortable doing it (McDavid would be fine if his wingers were Milan Lucic and a large bag of sand tied to his foot), but the depth on either wing is no cause for optimism.

Edmonton Oilers v Vancouver Canucks
Is... is that a compliment?
Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images

I actually think the addition of Rieder in the offseason was a good one, but it solves a problem the Oilers didn’t have. They have plenty of bottom six wingers, that’s the problem. There’s a chance that 2016 fourth overall pick Jesse Puljujarvi takes a step this year, and that 2017 first rounder Kailer Yamamoto makes the big club, but Jujhar Khaira, Drake Caggiula, and Zack Kassian will struggle to keep pace with players like Draisaitl and Strome. Throw in Lucic and his -16 penalty differential last season (tied for sixth worst in the league with Brooks Orpik) and the impact outside of the club’s top two centers looks problematic.

A big part of the Oilers’ probably-not-quite-good-enough bounce back this year will come on the power play. Edmonton’s power play was ludicrously ineffective last season: their 14.8% efficiency was the fourth worst over the last four seasons and, with a man advantage unit with that much skill, will almost definitely regress upwards. Their power play unit ranked last in the league in shooting percentage at 9.14, well below what we should be expecting from McDavid, Draisaitl, and company, and that regression will probably also be a part of Klefbom’s return to relevance as its quarterback.

While Edmonton’s roster is far from a contender, they are blessed to play in a pretty weak looking Pacific division. Most pundits have the Sharks at the top, followed by a dart throwing exercise all the way down to the Vancouver Canucks at the bottom. I would be surprised if the Oilers made the postseason this year, simply because the depth of roster on teams like Anaheim, Calgary, Los Angeles, Vegas, and maybe even Arizona outstrips theirs, but it’s not totally outside the realm of possibility.

They’ll need big bounce back seasons from Talbot, Klefbom, their power play, and pretty much everyone else not named McDavid in order for their management and coaching staff to feel safe heading into the 2019 off-season, and by the time they visit San Jose on November 20, we’ll know an awful lot more.