The time has finally come! The Oilers are in Europe, all of the preseason games are over, and the roster has been set for opening night. Today marks the first day of the NHL regular season, even though our Oilers just finished their preseason this morning. This is the time of year where all of us “experts” try to predict what will happen this season. The question in Oil Country is about whether or not this Oilers team will make the playoffs. Experts seem to be split on this one. I’m taking a two-pronged approach to my analysis in making my prediction this year. I’ll be looking at us and the competition in two separate articles, starting with part 1 today where I’ll focus on how the Oilers look.
We need to take a step back and remember why this team fell short last season, which you can do by reading my season wrap from last April here. The first problem was that the Oilers got off to a slow start, and they dug themselves into too big of a hole to dig themselves out of by November. They had 3 wins in October. That won’t be good enough this year. They obviously start overseas this year against New Jersey, which is a challenge. They then return to North America where they have a 3-game road trip against Boston, the Rangers, and Winnipeg. The rest of October will be really tough. They play against Boston again, Nashville twice, Washington, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Minnesota. They need to be at or above .500 through those games if they hope to be a playoff team this year, or at least close to it. That will not be an easy task.
The Oilers had their share of injuries last season, especially on the back end. Andrej Sekera was out until Christmas, and he wasn’t himself when he came back from his knee injury. Sekera’s injury left a big hole that needed to be filled. That meant increased roles for Darnell Nurse and Matt Benning. Nurse rose to the challenge, but Benning took time to get his game going. Eric Gryba and Yohann Auvitu rotating in and out of the lineup to fill Sekera’s roster spot last year wasn’t effective. Oscar Klefbom had a nagging shoulder issue. Adam Larsson had an okay year on the ice, and a horrible one off of it. He missed time after the passing of his father. The injuries contributed to the team allowing 262 goals, which was 5th worst in the league.
Sekera is out indefinitely once again, this time with an Achilles tear. Chiarelli tried to bring more depth veteran defenders in this year, but most of them didn’t pan out. He signed Kevin Gravel as a depth defender this year before Sekera got hurt while training, but Gravel was unable to make the team out of camp. Chiarelli signed Jakub Jerabek in an effort to add more depth to cover for Sekera, but he was also unable to make the team. He was subsequently traded to the Blues for a draft pick. Veteran Jason Garrison was signed to a contract yesterday after earning a spot on the team in camp. His challenge will be skating well enough to keep up in today’s game. The other defencemen that are filling out the bottom of the roster are right-handed prospects Ethan Bear and Evan Bouchard. Both played well enough in camp to earn roster spots. They outplayed Gravel and Jerabek. Is that an indictment on Gravel and Jerabek, or is it a sign that Bear and Bouchard are NHL ready? The concern about the kids coming into camp was about them not being reliable enough defensively, and that is still a concern. With Sekera and Kris Russell on the IR, both Bear and Bouchard will be with the Oilers to start the year. I am on record as saying that Bear would be better off developing in the AHL this year, and that Bouchard should be back in London after a 9-game audition. I stand by that. Once Russell is back, then I expect that one of them will be sent down (most likely Bouchard).
Klefbom should be better. Nurse will continue to improve. I like Russell, especially if he is your bottom pairing left D. Garrison will probably be fine if he is subjected to limited action. The left side is fine. It’s the right side that scares me. Larsson should be better than last year, but he is having back issues. The problem will likely nag him all season. Hopefully it won’t limit him. Benning scares me as a 2nd pairing guy. Bear and Bouchard are risks at this point. They both have tremendous offensive skills, but the defensive issues could be troublesome. In an article about Bouchard last week, I noted that no team that has utilized a defenceman drafted in the first round in his draft plus one season full-time in the last 10 years has made the playoffs. I’d suggest that this is a development year for those two, and having those two developing in the NHL could mean no playoffs in Edmonton this year.
Goaltending was another contributing factor to the Oilers’ inability to keep pucks out of their net last year. Cam Talbot has been solid in the preseason. I’m not worried about him. I’m not expecting him to be as good as he was in 2016-17, but I do expect him to be good this year. Mikko Koskinen, on the other hand, I’m not so sure about. $2.5 million is expensive for a back-up, let alone one with 4 games of NHL experience. From watching the game this morning against Kolner Haie, Koskinen needs to be more efficient in his movements. He was caught sliding side to side on a couple of the Sharks’ goals today. He has been criticized for struggling to control rebounds and for not being able to catch the puck with his glove hand consistently. Those issues scare me. Koskinen was brought in to take some starts away from Talbot. 20 starts for Koskinen would be a lot, but I’m going with it for my example. That leaves 62 starts for Talbot. Talbot had 42 and 31 wins in each of the last 2 seasons. 35 wins is not an unreasonable expectation. That would add up to 70 points in the standings. Let’s assume Koskinen plays .500 hockey, which would give him 10 wins in this scenario. That’s another 20 points, which brings the total to 90. We need to factor in single points for OT losses too. The Oilers have had 9 and 6 of those in the last 2 years. Even adding 6 to the 90 I’ve outlined would be 96 points, which should be enough to qualify for the playoffs as a wild card team in the West. It’s achievable, but the odds of that happening are 50/50.
The Oilers only scored 228 goals last year (2.78 goals per game). The biggest reason for that was due to the ineptitude of the wingers. Jordan Eberle got traded for Ryan Strome, which was a downgrade offensively. Eberle’s production wasn’t replaced. It was left up to guys like Jesse Puljujarvi, Drake Caggiula, Anton Slepyshev, and Iiro Pakarinen. None of those guys produced. Then there was the decline in production from Patrick Maroon and Mark Letestu, both of whom were moved by the deadline. We can’t forget about Milan Lucic’s epic slump in the second half. Jussi Jokinen was useless, and was traded for Mike Cammalleri. He was alright, but he didn’t move the needle most nights.
Things appear to be headed in the right direction with the wingers this year, especially on the right side. Slepyshev, Pakarinen, and Cammalleri are gone. Puljujarvi looks like a new man after a hard summer of training and an adjustment to his stick. Kailer Yamamoto scored his way on to the team this preseason, which was a nice bonus that Oilers fans weren’t expecting. Oh yeah, and Ty Rattie led the league in scoring this preseason. He couldn’t NOT score while playing with McDavid and Nugent-Hopkins. It’s a young and unproven group on the right side, but it is exponentially more talented than the group the Oilers had last year. Zack Kassian is an important contributor on the 4th line as long as he is skating well and being physical.
The left side should be improved too. Lucic has to be better simply because he can’t be any worse. The biggest improvement comes in the form of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who was moved to McDavid’s left side at the end of last season. He is the top 6 left winger that Oilers fans have been aching for. His challenge will be staying healthy. Tobias Rieder is a speedy free agent signing that can get around 30 points. He adds scoring depth. Caggiula and Jujhar Khaira will be better off with established roles in the bottom 6 instead of jumping up to the top 6 at times. Alex Chiasson earned a contract yesterday. His Stanley Cup championship experience and his simple game will be positive additions, albeit in limited action by my estimation.
Centre depth is the strength of this team. McDavid is the best player in the game. Leon Draisaitl had a bit of a dip in points last year, but I have no doubt that he will be good. The challenge will be finding suitable wingers to play with him. That will likely be a story that drags on for the whole season, unless Todd McLellan finds magic early. Ryan Strome is an ideal 3rd line centre. He can contribute on both sides of the special teams, and he can score. Kyle Brodziak is an ideal 4th line centre because he plays a responsible defensive game, and he can kill penalties.
You know your team has depth when your third line is Rieder, Strome, and Puljujarvi. It’s important to be able to have that type of quality on a third line. This group of forwards will be greatly improved so long as Rattie, Puljujarvi, and Yamamoto are truly ready to produce on a consistent basis.
The other massive problem with the is team last year was the special teams. The powerplay was the worst in the league. That shouldn’t happen when you have the best player in hockey running it. McLellan and his new coaching staff have come up with an all left-handed top powerplay unit with McDavid, Draisaitl, Nugent-Hopkins, Lucic, and Klefbom. I like it because it forces them to move around in order to create passing lanes for themselves, which has been missing for years in Edmonton. I don’t like it because not having a right-handed trigger man reduces the number of one-timers that they can take. A left-handed player on the left side of the ice can’t shoot a one-timer when the puck is passed to him from the right. We’ll see how it goes, but it can’t possibly be as bad as it was last year.
The penalty kill was Jekyll and Hyde. It was brilliant on the road, and legendarily bad at home. It’s an anomaly that won’t happen again, but the aggregate wasn’t good enough. Chiarelli addressed it by bringing in guys like Rieder and Brodziak. Khaira, Kassian, Caggiula, Strome, Nugent-Hopkins, McDavid, and Draisaitl can all play on the penalty kill as well. They have no shortage of forwards who can do it. I believe that it was a strategy problem last year. One forward would pressure the puck at the point, and the other forward would slide behind him in the middle of the defensive zone. I would love to know the rationale behind this because I can’t figure it out. It caters to the umbrella-style powerplay that most teams use because it leaves the half-wall and the faceoff circles open. If the puck is moved to that spot, then the middle forward has no time to get over there. The guy pressuring the point man can’t move faster than the puck, so he won’t get there either. From there, it is really easy for a player on an NHL powerplay to pass the puck across the slot between two defenders who are standing still. Dallas Eakins used this strategy when he was coaching here, and it failed. McLellan used it last year, and it failed. I’ve seen it in this preseason as well, and teams have created a ton of chances against it. If this is the strategy, then the Oilers will get lit up on the penalty kill. The personnel are fine, but they can’t outplay a bad strategy. That and their lack of discipline from this preseason concerns me.
Another little thing from last season was the amount of times that the Oilers surrendered the first goal against early in a game. It happened on the first shot of the game or within the first five minutes of games enough for it to be a concern. I view that as an anomaly, and I don’t expect it to happen again. It can’t happen again.
Chiarelli didn’t make any sexy moves this offseason. He didn’t blow up the core. He didn’t trade for a right-handed puck moving defenceman. Instead, he chose to try to plug the holes with strategically placed veterans. It worked with Rieder, Brodziak, and Chiasson up front, but it didn’t work with Gravel and Jerabek. He set training camp up so that any prospect would have to earn his way on to the team instead of being given roster spots. Yamamoto, Bear, and Bouchard took advantage and played their way on to the roster. If they are truly ready, then the team is much stronger. If not, then they haven’t gained anything. Once healthy, I do believe that this team is better than last year’s failed edition of the Oilers, but how much so remains to be seen. I think the lack of certainty on the right side of the defence and the potential PK problems I’ve outlined could be the Oilers’ undoing this year. I do think that this team CAN be a playoff team, but this is only half of the analysis. In part 2 of my Season Preview, I’ll take a look at the competition that the Oilers will face for playoff spots in the Western Conference.