2018-19 Season Wrap: How it Went Wrong

To say that this was a roller coaster of a season would be an understatement.

This season was a long journey full of ups and downs for the Edmonton Oilers. They have been through a cross-continental trip, two firings, three extended hot streaks, three extended stretches of brutal play, multiple injuries, career-best statistical seasons from multiple players, significant offensive regressions from multiple players, the departure of a well-liked goalie, the return of a former fan favourite, and a season seat holder breakfast that turned into a PR nightmare.

After it was all said in done, the Oilers finished the season with 79 points, which put them in 14th place in the Western Conference and in 25th place in the league. 79 points is a 1-point improvement over last season’s 78 points, but the Oilers had 1 less win than they had last season. It was basically the same result as last season, except they will likely have a slightly higher draft pick. Most importantly, they missed the playoffs by 11 points.

This season was clearly a failure. Nicholson kept Chiarelli on after last season because he believed in his plan to get the Oilers back to the playoffs, but the plan blew up in Chiarelli’s face.

Connor McDavid didn’t win the Art Ross Trophy this season, but he did set a scoring record. He set an NHL record by scoring a point on his team’s first 9 goals of the season. Those 9 goals came over the course of the team’s first 4 games of the season.

The streak was symptomatic of perhaps the Oilers’ greatest downfall this season: a lack of secondary scoring. Aside from McDavid, Draisaitl, and Nugent-Hopkins, no other forward was able to surpass 40 points. Chiasson was the closest at 36 points. After him, it was Kassian at 26 points. Milan Lucic ended up 6th among Oilers forwards with 20 points. Lucic is a far cry from a top 6 forward at this point.

For comparison’s sake, Colorado earned the final wild card spot in the Western Conference. They had 5 forwards with more than 40 points. Dallas, the first wild card team in the Western Conference, only had 4 forwards over 30 points just like the Oilers did; but they also had 3 defencemen with more than 30 points. The Oilers only had 1. Vegas, the 3rd place finisher in the Pacific Division, had 7 forwards with 40 or more points!

There is little wonder why the Oilers were only able to score 229 goals (20th in the league).

The really baffling trend among Oilers forwards this season was the number of players whose production regressed significantly in comparison to last season. I’m not talking about a regression from their career-highs… I’m only talking about their production from last season in comparison to this season. The following is a list of how the 16 Oilers forwards that played in the NHL last season produced in comparison to last season. The number is expressed as a percentage increase or decrease in each player’s points per game average with the Oilers from last season to this season (Caggiula, Strome, Spooner, and Gagner’s numbers calculated using only points scored in games played with the Oilers this season):

Chiasson: 73.3%
Draisaitl: 42.2%
Caggiula: 31%
Kassian: 23%
McDavid:12.9%
Nugent-Hopkins: 9.1%
Khaira: Even
Gagner: -4.8%
Puljujarvi: -35.4%
Lucic: -39%
Rieder: -50%
Yamamoto : -63.6%
Rattie: -65.6%
Brodziak: -67.5%
Strome: -73.2%
Spooner: -82.6%

I did not include Valentin Zykov in this list because he only played 5 games for the Oilers this season, but he scored a grand total of 0 points after scoring 7 in 10 games with Carolina last season. I also did not include Colby Cave on this list because he only played 3 games for Boston last season.

However, 9 of the 16 forwards listed regressed this season. Gagner’s production was barely lower, so he was not really a problem. That means that half of the Oilers forwards on this list regressed by AT LEAST 35%.

HOW DO 8 FORWARDS REGRESS BY AT LEAST 35% FROM ONE YEAR TO THE NEXT???

The hope was that Puljujarvi would take a step forward this year. His successful summer of training and his confidence in September had me feeling a bit optimistic about him breaking out this season; but no, he wasn’t ready yet. His hip issues may have also had an impact on his play, but he didn’t appear to be ready to produce offence consistently. Lucic had a disastrous season last year, and he managed to lower THAT output by 39% this season! Many Oilers fans were penciling Rieder in alongside Draisaitl on the 2nd line at the start of the season. He struggled last season, and he managed to produce at HALF of THAT pace. He didn’t score a bloody goal all season, despite the fans’ best efforts to get him one near the end. Yamamoto only had a 9-game audition last season, but he got fewer points in almost twice as many games this season. He clearly took a step backwards this season, which isn’t a good sign based on how thin the Oilers are at the wing spot. Rattie had 9 points in 14 games last season, and he led the NHL in pre-season scoring. His production fell by almost two thirds! Brodziak’s 33 points in St. Louis last season were a bit of an anomaly, so I was expecting him to regress a little bit… but 9 points?? 9?? He was a big disappointment, even though the expectation was set pretty low in my eyes. Strome appeared comfortable producing in a 3rd line centre role last season, but this season his production went down by almost three quarters while he was still in Edmonton! Then there was Spooner… what a disaster! An 82.6% drop in production says all that you need to know about Spooner’s performance this season.

We also have to look at how players that played on other teams in addition to the Oilers this season fared in other cities compared to how they fared in Edmonton. Strome ended up with 33 points in 63 games with the Rangers, which was a 78.8% increase over his pace in Edmonton from early in the season. It was also a 10.9% increase over his pace from last season. Caggiula had 12 points in 26 games in Chicago after being traded there, which is a 31.6% increase over his pace with the Oilers from early in the season. Colby Cave’s production went from 0.25 points per game in Boston earlier in the season to 0.09 points per game in Edmonton after being claimed on waivers. That is a 64% drop!

Only 6 Oilers forwards experienced an increase in their production this season. One of those was Caggiula, who is no longer on the roster and saw even more production in another city. One of those was Kassian, who only had 3 points when the calendar flipped to 2019… 3!! He had a hell of a second half playing with McDavid. Three of them were McDavid, Draisaitl, and Nugent-Hopkins; and the last one was a PTO tryout. Good on Chiasson, but no one saw his season coming.

My question is what the fuck was it about playing for the Edmonton Oilers in 2018-19 that resulted in so many players having their production drop so significantly??? It must’ve been the water ;).

I will honestly never be able to explain such a massive drop in offence from such a big group of players. I understand that some of them should have been expected to regress, but what we witnessed this season was just ridiculous.

The lack of scoring also increased the amount of ice time that McDavid and Draisaitl were forced to take on. They were the two forwards that played the most minutes in the entire league this season! McDavid was threatening Pavel Bure’s record for ice time per game for most of the season, but he ultimately fell short of that. Meanwhile, the 4th line would consistently get around 10 minutes per night. The Oilers were essentially playing with 3 lines this season, and they were only really getting production from one of them. McDavid and Draisaitl are incredible athletes, but even the most athletic people have their limits.

Increased ice time was also dished out to players like Nurse, Larsson, and even Caleb Jones while the Oilers were dealing with their injuries on defence. They were up 5-1 to start the 3rd period against Colorado on December 11, and they won 6-4. That game also saw the Oilers lose Oscar Klefbom and Kris Russell to injuries. They were missing two of their top 4 defencemen until January 6. The Oilers would not have both of them in the line-up at the same time again until February 5. Including Andrej Sekera, who missed the first 58 games of the season, the Oilers were down 3 of their top 6 defencemen.

The Oilers went 2-7-1 without Klefbom and Russell. They went 6-12-3 without Klefbom. They then lost 6 of their next 7 once Klefbom returned. That is a 28-game stretch where the Oilers went 7-17-4. They can find the reason that they missed the playoffs somewhere within that 2-month stretch.

Nurse was the recipient of the biggest increase in ice time during that time. In that stretch, Nurse played over 30 minutes 3 times (including Dec 11, the night Klefbom and Russell went down). He played over 29 minutes 6 times. He played over 27:30 in 10 of those 22 games. His season average was 23:49… he was logging a TON of minutes! Nurse was the being pushed the most, but the effect was seen throughout the defence group.

That stretch played a big role in why the team allowed 271 goals (T-25th in the league).

Goaltending was the other factor in that issue. Cam Talbot came in as the starter, but struggled to a 3.36 GAA and an .893 save percentage before being traded to the Flyers. Mikko Koskinen was a big question mark coming from the KHL this season. He was brilliant at times, and he was horrific at others. His overall numbers were 2.96 GAA and a .906 save percentage. While there were a lot of good stretches for Koskinen, the cumulative just wasn’t good enough for the Oilers to make the playoffs this season. He certainly has some work to do this summer to get his game where it needs to be to be a legitimate starter in the NHL next season.

The Oilers went through two coaches this season, which is usually an indication that the coaching wasn’t good enough. Todd McLellan and his newly assembled crew of assistants talked a big game about getting the Oilers to play a faster game. I don’t know what specific tactics he was trying to employ, but they clearly didn’t work. McLellan’s fate was sealed with a stretch where the Oilers lost 6 out of 7 games, capped off with a disappointing 6-3 home loss to Vegas. It seemed as if the team had stopped playing for their coach during that stretch. Every coach has a shelf life, and McLellan’s had expired.

It became clear that McLellan and Peter Chiarelli weren’t on the same page regarding a few things. The most high-profile of their disagreements was regarding the usage and development of Jesse Puljujarvi. Chiarelli wanted Puljujarvi in the NHL, and McLellan kept on making him a healthy scratch. Puljujarvi was healthy scratched in four straight games at the end of October, and then for another against Tampa Bay on November 6. He would play one more game before finally being sent down to the AHL.

Their other reported disagreement was over whether or not to keep prized prospect Evan Bouchard with the club for the duration of the season. Bouchard played in 7 of the first 8 games for the Oilers this season. He then sat out for 4 straight games.

Bouchard and Puljujarvi each took turns sitting out 4 games consecutively. They were healthy scratched in 3 of the same games during each of their 4 game stints in the press box: October 27 vs Nashville, October 28 vs Chicago, and October 30 vs Minnesota. Bouchard was sent back to London on November 2, and Puljujarvi was sent to the AHL on November 10. You can tell approximately when McLellan and Chiarelli were having their disagreements based on those events.

Ken Hitchcock was hired to replace McLellan. Hitch took the city by storm with his enthusiasm and excitement for the chance to coach his hometown team. He quickly became a media darling. He said all of the right things about how he could take these players places where they couldn’t get to on their own, and about how he knew what was wrong and that he could fix it in a matter of days.

Hitchcock’s first big move was to ask Chiarelli to bring Puljujarvi back up from Bakersfield. He wanted to take responsibility for Puljujarvi’s development. He stated that teams need players like Puljujarvi in order to win in the Western Conference, and that he could be a top 6 forward in 2 months time (by the end of January). Many fans and pundits felt that Puljujarvi should’ve just stayed in Bakersfield for the rest of the season, but Hitchcock wanted him in Edmonton. Chiarelli claimed that he had proven that he could do it in the AHL and that it was time for him to figure it out in the NHL. Puljujarvi ended up being stuck in the bottom 6 with the exception of a couple of brief looks higher in the lineup.

The team started 9-2-2 under Hitchcock, and they had a strong start to March (8-4-1 from Feb 28-Mar 26). Hitch was in charge of the Oilers when they were struggling with injuries to the defence, but that can hardly be blamed on him. Hitchcock has always been known as a defence-oriented coach, but star players seem to excel under him. Mike Modano was at his best under Hitchcock. Vladimir Tarasenko was as well. So was Tyler Seguin. We can now add Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid to the list. I mean, most people expected McDavid to surpass his career high offensively this season; but NOBODY expected Leon to contend for the Rocket Richard trophy this season! Leon deserves all of the credit, but Hitchcock may have played some small role.

However, everyone knows that Hitchcock can be abrasive behind the bench. His way of dealing with players isn’t necessarily the way that this generation of players responds to well typically. His constant juggling of the lines was also incredibly frustrating! The most frustrating part about it was how guys like Puljujarvi and Rattie would get a shot on the top line, only to be taken off of the line like a period into the game whether they were playing well or not. Part of that is certainly because the team wasn’t scoring many goals, but the players need some level of consistency if they are to develop chemistry with each other. It is also tough for players to excel in top roles when they are playing with the fear that they will be punished for any little mistake that they make. Hitchcock wasn’t perfect, but the coaching improved after the McLellan firing.

The Oilers could look to a few other smaller reasons why they missed the playoffs this season. Their PK was 30th in the league. Part of the reason that Chiarelli brought in Rieder and Brodziak was because they were supposedly good penalty killers… that didn’t work out so well clearly. Their home record was 18-19-4, which was one of the worst such records in the league. They had far too many embarrassing efforts at Rogers Place this season. They also had far too many embarrassing losses to teams at or near the bottom of the league, such as an ugly 4-0 loss in LA, a 3-2 home loss to Detroit, and an overtime loss to Ottawa at home in March. There were also two critical losses to teams with approximately 7 regular players injured: a shootout loss to Arizona in February, and a home loss to the Devils in March. Those were games that playoff teams would have won.

The low point (or the high point depending on your perspective) came on the night of January 22. The Oilers lost 3-2 at home to the Red Wings in what was an abysmal effort. During the 2nd intermission of that game, Peter Chiarelli was fired. The announcement came later that night.

Chiarelli’s tenure has been covered and discussed at great length, but I will focus on the moves that he made during this season. Those that have read my work for any length of time know that I supported most of the moves during Chiarelli’s time in Edmonton, but the trades that he made during this season were just bad.

Ryan Strome got off to a slow start this season. He recorded just 1 goal and one assist in 18 games with the Oilers before being traded to New York for Ryan Spooner, who was similarly struggling to start the season. Strome was the return in the Jordan Eberle deal. Strome had found a niche as the 3rd line centre in Edmonton. He could’ve held that position for the foreseeable future, but no… Chiarelli moved him because the team needed a jolt offensively. Spooner had 41 points in 59 games with Boston and New York last season, so there was a chance that he could’ve been more productive than Strome. Spooner turned out to be entirely ineffective. He got 3 points in 25 games with the Oilers before being traded to Vancouver for former Oiler Sam Gagner. Gagner was a fan favourite in Edmonton during his first stint here, but he was a former teammate of Eberle’s! The Oilers gained less production and a new hole on the roster at the 3C spot in exchange for Strome.

The most questionable move that Chiarelli made during the season was trading Drake Caggiula and Jason Garrison to Chicago for public enemy Brandon Manning and low impact prospect Robin Norell on December 30. Caggiula was 4th on the team in goals at the time of the trade. Caggiula is not a player that moves the needle offensively, but he was a useful player on a team that was lacking depth scoring. The problem was that the team was even more depleted on defence, and the team was in a tail spin. Chiarelli had traded Chris Wideman (another in-season acquisition that didn’t work out) and a 3rd round pick for Alex Petrovic earlier that day, which made the Caggiula/Manning trade even more peculiar.

Manning and Petrovic were upgrades over Garrison and Wideman at the time, but they did not have the intended effect of stabilizing the defence until the group got healthy. Manning was sent to the AHL on February 19. Petrovic hasn’t played a game since February 16. I wasn’t all that high on Caggiula, but it was a steep price to pay for a defenceman that didn’t help the team win while it was short-handed, is now playing in the AHL, and is signed for $2.25 million through next season.

It was clear that Chiarelli was making trades out of fear for losing his job.

A lot of people would argue that the roster that Chiarelli constructed just simply wasn’t good enough. I would argue that the majority of the forwards didn’t produce anywhere close to their capabilities. You can’t tell me that the roster wasn’t good enough when 8 forwards’ production dropped by at least 35%! There was far more talent on this roster than the standings would have you believe. You can’t tell me that the defence wasn’t deep enough when the 10th defenceman on the organizational depth chart (Jones) played in 17 games. No team’s defence would be as good if 3 of their top 6 defenders were out at the same time for a month, or if at least two of them were out for 28 games (especially if those two are in the top 4).

I’m not saying that the Oilers would’ve been a playoff team if they had gotten normal production from their forwards or if the defence had been healthy, but the result would have been far superior if that were the case. I’m not buying the argument that inept management was why the team performed the way it did this season. Chiarelli didn’t’ help his cause with his in-season moves, but the roster construction wasn’t as horrible as people make it out to be. The players simply needed to be better.

Keith Gretzky took over for Chiarelli after the firing. He made two big trades. One was trading Cam Talbot to Philadelphia for Anthony Stolarz. Talbot’s fate as an Oiler was sealed once the Oilers signed Koskinen to his contract extension. They needed to create cap space in order to activate Sekera from the LTIR. Trading Talbot was not their only option for getting back under the cap, but that was the move that would’ve created the most cap space at the time given the available options. The return was Stolarz, who wasn’t all that great with the exception of his first start against the Leafs. Stolarz is going to be a group 6 UFA this summer. That might not stop the Oilers from signing him, but they are likely going to seek a more experienced back-up for Koskinen going into next season. Basically, Gretzky got nothing but cap space for Talbot.

Gretzky’s other trade was Spooner for Sam Gagner. Gagner has been decent for the Oilers, with 10 points in 25 games. It was a significant feat to move Spooner after the season he had, and getting a player as effective and well-liked as Gagner was a bonus.

There was a lot to be negative about this season, but there were also a lot of things to be happy about. McDavid set a new career-high in points with 116. Leon Draisaitl obliterated his career-high in points with 105. McDavid and Draisaitl are the first pair of teammates to score over 100 points each since Ovechkin and Backstrom in 2009-10. They are the first Oilers teammates to do so since Jari Kurri and Jimmy Carson did it in 1988-89. Draisaitl became the first Oiler to score 50 goals since Craig Simpson did it in 1988, although only 43 of those were scored as an Oiler. Wayne Gretzky and Jari Kurri both surpassed the 50-goal mark in 1987.

The career-highs didn’t stop there. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins had a nice season. He reached new career-highs in goals (28) and points (69) in a year where he finally enjoyed a full, healthy season. Alex Chiasson broke the 20-goal plateau for the first time in his career on his way to a 22-goal and 38-point season. Zack Kassian set a new career-high with 15 goals after a successful stint on a line with McDavid and Draisaitl which started in January. Darnell Nurse became the first Oilers defenceman to score more than 40 points in a season since 2008-09, when Sheldon Souray and Tom Gilbert both achieved the feat.

Perhaps the biggest positive was not an Oilers positive at all. Bakersfield has had a tremendous season. Tyler Benson leads all AHL rookies in scoring, and he is in the top 10 in AHL scoring. Cooper Marody had a strong campaign as well. Caleb Jones, Ethan Bear, and William Lagesson all had solid seasons too. Jones showed quite well while he was with the Oilers this season. Kailer Yamamoto didn’t fare quite as well as many people hoped he would, but he does still remain a good prospect for the Oilers. Bakersfield enjoyed a 19-game winning streak earlier this season, and they have the 2nd highest winning percentage in the league behind the Charlotte Checkers. Hopefully they get a deep playoff run in Bakersfield this spring!

It was a strong season for Oilers prospects at other levels as well. Evan Bouchard was great in London once again, including a dominant performance in the first round of the OHL playoffs where he got 10 points in a 4-game sweep. Dmitri Samorukov really emerged as a strong prospect on defence. Kirill Maksimov excelled offensively in Niagara.

See? It wasn’t ALL bad.

There was a lot that went wrong for the Oilers this season… but we can agree that it’s clearly Toby’s fault! ;p

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