In order to make the playoffs, the Oilers would need to finish as one of the top 3 teams in the Pacific Division, or finish as one of the two best teams to not finish in the top 3 in either of the Pacific or Central divisions. Instead of blindly guessing where the Oilers will finish, we need to take a look at what the other teams in these divisions did this off-season and we need to assess each of their chances.
The Pacific division is the most open division in the NHL. Nobody is certain as to what will happen. Some teams are expected to regress, while others have taken major steps towards improvement.
Vegas Golden Knights: Last Season – 109 points, 1st place Pacific
Nobody expected the expansion Golden Knights to be good in their first year. They certainly were not expected to win their division and to make the Stanley Cup Finals, but that’s exactly what they did. Their style of play more than made up for their perceived lack of skill. They played at such a fast pace that nobody could keep up with them. William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault, and Reilly Smith became one of the best lines in the NHL. Marc-Andre Fleury ended up having an incredible year in net.
This year, you could argue that they got even better. They lost James Neal and David Perron to free agency, but they signed Paul Stastny and traded for Max Pacioretty. Those two are definite upgrades over Neal and Perron. On the down side, they will be without Nate Schmidt for the first 20 games due to a suspension related to an incident with a trace amount of a performance enhancing substance. They had a lot of players that had career years last year, so they could have some prime candidates for statistical regression. Will Karlsson score 43 goals again? Will Marchessault get 75 points again? Will Erik Haula get 55 points again? Will Colin Miller get 40 points from the back end again? I doubt it.
I expect some regression here, but they are still favoured to be one of the top 3 teams in the Pacific.
Anaheim Ducks: Last Season – 101 points, 2nd place Pacific
The Ducks didn’t make many moves this off-season because they are tight against the cap. Last year was also the first time that they didn’t win their division in nearly a decade. They have a good team, but their problem is an aging core. 33-year old Ryan Getzlaf was limited to 56 games last year because of injury. Corey Perry, also 33, is out indefinitely with a knee injury. He had a major decline in his performance last year as it was, so expectations were low for him before the injury. 34-year old Ryan Kesler only had 44 games played last year due to a hip problem (yes, he is an old man in hockey terms). He appears to be healthy to start this season, but he is not the player that he once was. The Ducks have a lot of money tied into these three players, which hurts their ability to add to their roster.
On the bright side, Rickard Rakell is a stud. He got 69 points last year, and he is still young enough to improve upon that total. The Ducks were able to sign young star goalie John Gibson to a long-term deal, which is positive news for them. Adam Henrique gives them solid depth at centre ice. Ondrej Kase showed well last year. Nick Ritchie will be another valuable young piece for them once he signs his contract.
The Ducks could go either way this year honestly. They will certainly be in the hunt for a playoff spot.
San Jose Sharks: Last Season – 100 points, 3rd place Pacific
The Sharks are always in the mix. They too have an aging core, but they have enough guys that are in their prime to be effective. The elder statesman of the group, 39-year old Joe Thornton, is still an effective player. An older core means that the Sharks are in win-now mode, and their move to acquire Erik Karlsson is evidence of that. They now have the two best right-handed offensive defencemen in the league. The thought of Brent Burns and Karlsson on the same powerplay together is scary. They also singed last season’s trade deadline acquisition Evander Kane to a big deal this summer. He played well on a line with Joe Pavelski. I haven’t even mentioned Logan Couture or Tomas Hertl yet.
Two of the best defencemen in the league. Lethal powerplay. A top 6 forward group with a lot of fire power. Reliable goaltending with Martin Jones. This is a playoff team, period.
Los Angeles Kings: Last Season – 98 points, 4th place Pacific (1st Wild Card)
Like the other California teams, the Kings have an aging core as well. Anze Kopitar is 31 years old now, Jeff Carter is 33, Jonathan Quick is 32, and they just signed 35-year old Ilya Kovalchuk to a 3-year deal. They missed Carter for the majority of the year last year due to injury. The Kings are a better team just for getting him back healthy. Kovalchuk hasn’t played in the NHL in 5 years, but he’s still Ilya Kovalchuk. He makes them more dangerous, even if he isn’t the Ilya Kovalchuk we once knew. They still have Drew Doughty, who is one of the best defencemen in the league. He just agreed to a massive extension, so perhaps his play takes a step back knowing that his contract is done. A step back for Doughty is still unreal though. Jonathan Quick is still a top-10 goalie in this league, although his numbers have dipped slightly from the Kings’ Stanley Cup seasons.
The problem with the Kings is that they have trouble scoring goals. Kovalchuk and a healthy Carter can help remedy that for them. They are a definite threat to be a playoff team.
Calgary Flames: Last season – 84 points, 5th place Pacific
The Flames made some changes after missing the playoffs last year. Coach Glen Gulutzan was fired and is now an assistant with our Oilers. He was replaced by Bill Peters, formerly of Carolina. Their defence group was one of the best in the league on paper, but it did not perform that way on the ice. That and some rumoured locker room issues led to Dougie Hamilton getting traded to Carolina along with gritty winger Michael Ferland and top prospect Adam Fox in exchange for rising young stars Noah Hanifin and Elias Lindholm. The Flames made a splash in free agency as well by signing James Neal. They also signed Derek Ryan, who I think will fail to live up to the contract he was given.
Their forward group got significantly better. They now have two legitimate scoring lines. Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, and James Neal look to be a dangerous trio. Lindholm, Mikael Backlund, and Matthew Tkachuk are a formidable second line. The defence group appears to have taken a step back though. Hanifin projects to be a star defenceman, but he’s not on Hamilton’s level yet. Mike Smith can be a dominant goalie at times, but he also goes through long spells where he isn’t good.
Will the advancement of the forward group outweigh the step back on defence? Time will tell. The Flames are a bubble team. They could get in, or they could flop.
Vancouver Canucks: Last Season – 73 points, 6th place Pacific
Canucks fans have a lot to be excited about. Brock Boeser was a machine last year, scoring 29 goals in only 62 games. Bo Horvat is continually improving and is trending toward being an impactful player in this league. Rookie Elias Pettersson tore the Swedish league apart last season, and he appears poised to make some noise in the NHL this year (for my fantasy team’s sake, he had better). 2018 7th overall pick Quinn Hughes looks like an incredible prospect on defence.
I’m trying really hard to make Vancouver sound like a threat, but none of that will add up to them being relevant as a team this year. They have very little on defence, their goaltending is questionable, and they lack forward depth. Year 1 of the post Sedin era should be a long one in Vancouver.
Arizona Coyotes: Last Season – 70 points, 7th place Pacific
The NHL players picked Arizona as one of the two best sleeper picks for this season. They were one of the hottest teams in the league after the All-Star break, and they still only managed 70 points. That tells you how awful their start was. The team was ravaged by injuries. Goalie Anti Raanta never got going until late in the year. Niklas Hjalmarsson and Jacob Chychrun were hurt for most of the year. They will be a better team this year simply because they are healthy.
We can’t talk about Arizona without talking about their young forwards. Clayton Keller appears to be the real deal after his rookie season. The Christians (Fischer and Dvorak) both continue to show improvement. The same can be said for Brendan Perlini. Ryan Strome’s brother, Dylan, is the more skilled of the two brothers and looks to have a full-time role in the NHL this season. 2018 5th overall pick Barrett Hayton was a surprise in the draft, and he has surprised once again by making the opening night roster. The Coyotes made a big move prior to the draft when they traded Max Domi to Montreal for Alex Galchenyuk. Galchenyuk is hurt to start the year, but he makes their team way more dangerous. The group is lead by veteran centre Derek Stepan. It’s an interesting group that is reminiscent of the Oilers from seasons past where they had a lot of young talent that is largely unproven.
The difference between this Arizona team and those Oilers teams is that they actually have a good defence group. Oliver Ekman-Larsson is a star. He is anchored by a dependable group of veterans in Hjalmarsson, Alex Goligoski, and Jason Demers.
I’m not saying they will make they playoffs, but they could surprise some people this year.
That is our competition in the Pacific. The Canucks are the only ones that definitively do not have a chance at the playoffs, and Arizona isn’t much better off. Vegas and SJ will be two of the top three spots. LA, ANA, EDM, and CGY will fight for that last spot. I don’t think the Oilers are better than all three of those teams. I would give that last spot in the Pacific to LA. That means that if the Oilers are to make the playoffs, they will have to do it as a wild card team.
In the Central, things are a little clearer. I fully expect Nashville and Winnipeg to be two of the top teams in that division. St. Louis got significantly better by trading for Ryan O’Reilly, and signing Tyler Bozak and Patrick Maroon. Their depth at centre is matched by few. They have a sensational scoring line in Vladimir Tarasenko, Brayden Schenn, and Jaden Schwartz. They have a solid defence lead by Alex Pietrangelo, Jay Bouwmeester, and Colton Parayko. Jake Allen is a bit inconsistent in net, but they should be the third playoff team in the Central division.
That means if the Oilers were to make the playoffs as a wild card, they would need to be better than at least 3 of these teams in addition to ANA and CGY:
Minnesota Wild: Last Season – 101 points, 3rd place Central
They have a deep group of forwards, but it is troubling that they were led by 33-year old Eric Staal. Good on him for having an incredible year last year, but injuries took their toll on the Wild. Zach Parise was hurt for a large portion of last season. Charlie Coyle and Nino Niederreiter both fell with injuries very early in the year, and neither could get their games going at any point. They will all be back and ready to go this season. Jason Zucker had a breakout year last season, and I expect him to keep that pace up playing on the top line with Staal and Finnish star Mikael Granlund. They also have three legitimate scoring threats from the blueline in Ryan Suter, Matt Dumba, and Jared Spurgeon. Oh yeah, they have Devan Dubnyk too, who is a top-10 goalie in the NHL.
The Wild always give the Oilers fits, and this year should be no different.
Colorado Avalanche: Last Season – 95 points, 4th place Central (2nd Wild Card)
Nathan Mackinnon resurrected this team from the dead last year. He exploded for 97 points and carried his team to the playoffs. He formed a dynamic duo with sophomore Mikko Rantanen. Beyond that, they don’t have much else. Gabriel Landeskog is an effective player, but he doesn’t move the needle much. Defensively, their number 1 guy is Erik Johnson, but their biggest offensive threat is Tyson Barrie. We have to remember that this team was historically bad two seasons ago. They barely snuck into the playoffs last year. I’m not expecting them to make the playoffs again this year.
Dallas Stars: Last Season – 92 points, 6th place Central
The Stars have one of the best lines in the league in Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, and Alexander Radulov. They also have one of the best offensive defencemen in the league in John Klingberg. Beyond that, they don’t have much else. Radek Faksa is a rising star, but he isn’t a top 6 player yet. Jason Spezza is getting to be too old to have an impact anymore. Valeri Nichushkin is an exciting young player, but no one knows how he will do after his stint in the KHL. Rookie defenceman Miro Heiskanen gives them another young puck moving defenceman, but he is also a question mark. Ben Bishop has proven that he can be an elite goaltender in the NHL, but he wasn’t anything close to that last year in Dallas. Injuries didn’t help, but he was largely inconsistent. It’s hard to expect this team to make the playoffs coming out of the Central division.
Chicago Blackhawks: Last Season – 76 points, 7th place Central
The glory days in Chicago appear to be over. Patrick Kane is one of the best players in the NHL, but he needs help. Jonathan Toews is not an elite offensive player, and neither of Artemi Panarin or Marian Hossa are coming back. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook aren’t getting any younger. Seabrook took a massive step backwards last year. Corey Crawford was having health problems last year, which he may or may not be over this year. There are issues in Chicago.
They need a bigger contribution from Brandon Saad. He simply needs to be better if Chicago has any chance of competing this year. Alex DeBrincat had a nice rookie year, and Nick Schmaltz is a good, young player for them. They didn’t help the team succeed last year, and I’m not expecting them to this year either.
I think that the Oilers are better than Colorado, Dallas, and Chicago. Minnesota is a better team in my opinion, so I will give them the first wild card spot. I believe that the second one will go to Anaheim. The Ducks seem to have our number, and I think they will best the Oilers in the standings by a narrow margin.
Unfortunately for Oilers fans, I don’t think there will be playoff hockey in Edmonton this spring.
I really hope I’m wrong! I do have a solid track record of being wrong, so there’s that. Whatever happens, I’m excited to watch the season and to see how it will unfold.