Half-Way Mark Check In

Before I dive in here, I know I haven’t written in a while, and I just wanted to take a moment to say Happy Holidays to everyone! I appreciate all of you that make the time to read my content and interact with me on Twitter.

Alright, so New Year’s Eve will officially mark the beginning of the second half of the season for the Oilers. They will be welcoming the New York Rangers to town to kick the second half off.

I wanted to take a moment to talk about what we’ve seen from the boys so far this season, and what we can expect going forward.

The Oilers enter the second half sitting just outside of the playoff picture with 44 points in 41 games. They are 1 point back of a wild card spot, and 4 points out of the Pacific Division lead that they held for much of the first half.

They’re basically sitting where I thought they would finish the season, in the mix but ultimately just falling short. What I didn’t expect was the way that they got to this position.

I don’t think many people expected the Oilers to hold the Pacific Division lead at American Thanksgiving, especially after losing Adam Larsson for 6 weeks on opening night, but they did exactly that! They got there with a hot October and solid play through the first couple of weeks of November.

They got there on the back of other-worldly offensive production from McDavid and Draisaitl, solid goaltending from both Koskinen and Smith, and superb special teams play.

However, there were a few concerning trends during that early stretch of success that ultimately led to the ugly slide that the team went on over the last 6 weeks.

The first was a total lack of depth scoring, especially at even strength. McDavid and Draisatil are 1-2 in NHL scoring with 63 and 61 points respectively, but the next closest player is Kassian at 26 points. That’s a blistering pace for him, but the story is far graver as you go down the list.

Nugent-Hopkins is relied upon to carry the load on the 2nd line, but he only has 20 points in 35 games. 9 of those have come at even strength. He has been dealing with a hand issue, but he wasn’t all that spectacular before the injury either. It will be tough for the Oilers to make the playoffs if he can’t get going offensively.

His most common line mate has been Neal. He also only has 9 even strength points. Thank goodness he has been contributing on the powerplay, although his role on the powerplay has been shared with Chiasson in recent weeks.

The bottom 6 has provided precious little in the way of depth production. Chiasson leads that group with 12 points. Gagner has 8 points, and he has only played in 20 games! Sheahan, Archibald, Khaira, Granlund, Russell, Nygard, and Haas are all at 7 points or less on the year. All of them have fallen short of expectations offensively, and they weren’t all that high to begin with.

Draisaitl said that his game has been shitty lately on Monday. There aren’t many guys that can say anything different. Given how little the Oilers have received from their supporting cast, anything less that Draisaitl’s and McDavid’s best will lead to losses. Add in the fact that Smith has struggled and Koskinen isn’t stealing games for the Oilers, and you have an ugly slump that has seen the team fall out of the playoff picture for the time being.

The question now is what can the Oilers really expect in the second half, and what (if anything) should Holland be doing to the roster.

Holland stood pat as Arizona went out and traded for Taylor Hall, to the chagrin of many Oilers fans that were and continue to be vocal about the need for Holland to do SOMETHING to get this team to the playoffs this year.

I personally was relieved that Holland didn’t spend the assets to get a player that the team might be able to sign as an UFA in July. Hall is a pure rental, and the Oilers are not in a position to be in the rental market just yet. Some fans would come back with something along the lines of “we have two of the best players in the game, and we had the division lead on American Thanksgiving! If not now, then when??”

If the Oilers needed one more piece to put them over the top as Stanley Cup contenders, then I would’ve been on board with trading for Hall. Holland has been known to make that kind of deal in the past if he felt that his team was close, but this team is not close right now.

Does anyone really think that the Oilers are close to being Stanley Cup contenders this season? I didn’t think so.

This is Holland’s first year as GM. This is an evaluation year, and a development year for the prospects in the AHL. This is not the time to trade the farm for a chance to make the playoffs and likely lose in the first round if they even were to make it.

The Oilers have been rumoured to be in on Brandon Saad and Tyler Toffoli as well. I’m not convinced that either one of them are the answer either.

It’s been 3 seasons (including this one) since Saad has broken the 50-point barrier. He had 35 points 2 years ago, 47 points last year; and given that he is set to miss the next 3 weeks with an ankle injury, he likely won’t even get 40 this season. Even if the Oilers could squeeze in his $6 million cap hit for this season and next, I don’t see how trading for a player that is clearly on the decline that wouldn’t bring the team any more speed is the answer right now. He would become a whipping boy for Oilers fans, and that wouldn’t be good for anyone. He’s big, and he has proven that he can produce in the past, but I’d pass on Saad if it was me.

Toffoli’s $4.6 million cap hit is a little more palatable, but it would not be easy to squeeze him in this season. His 58-point season from 2105-16 was a long time ago. The kid has a decent shot, but honestly, I’ve never really been all that impressed by Toffoli’s game. He could be a nice complementary piece on a 2nd line for the Oilers, but I feel like he is a bit overrated and the return won’t be worth the price.

Chris Kreider is another name that could potentially be available at this season’s deadline. He’s been very consistent over the last few years. He’s either scored or been on pace for a point total in the low 50s in each of the last 4 years, including this one. He’s got size, and most importantly, he can skate! He is the only rental winger that I’d have my eyes on if the opportunity were to present itself this season.

The Oilers also need a 3C, and JG Pageau is highly coveted by many fans. He’s fast, gritty, and on a scoring tear this season (18 goals in 40 games). Now, this is entirely speculative of me, but I feel like Pageau is a really good fit in Ottawa, and he probably won’t have the same level of success elsewhere. I feel like a team is going to pay a lot for his crazy goal scoring pace this year, and be disappointed with him in the coming years, if they can even re-sign him this summer. His numbers look good, and he has a lot of what Edmonton needs, but I feel like that would be a mistake waiting to happen. I remember reading that he also has little desire to leave Ottawa because he has roots there. I think he would be a rental for anyone trading for him this season. Buyer beware.

My preference is to have some of our prospects that should be close to NHL ready by now to get an opportunity to show what they can do in the NHL. Kailer Yamamoto is getting that chance starting on Tuesday night. He’s not breaking any scoring records in Bakersfield, but he has been doing a lot of the little things well in Bakersfield by all accounts. He has some NHL experience already, so I’m hoping that he will be comfortable enough to make an impact in the NHL in the coming months.

Tyler Benson is the other guy that will likely get a look at some point this season. The Oilers have taken the slow approach with Benson, which has been the right approach. He is the next closest to being NHL ready. He is a playmaking winger that might be able to get guys like Nugent-Hopkins and Neal going potentially. That’s merely speculation on my part, but I do hope to see him get a chance this season.
The Oilers won’t ride the wave of Yamamoto and Benson to the Stanley Cup Finals this season, but the added depth could potentially aid in a playoff push.

The other prospect that appears to be getting a look is William Lagesson. He has called up once already this season, but he did not suit up in a single game. Based on the lines from Monday’s skate, it looks like he will be paired with fellow Swede Adam Larsson in what will surely be a physical and defensive minded pairing.

Caleb Jones will come out of the lineup to make way for Lagesson. Both will be RFAs at the end of the season, and the organization is loaded with left-handed defence prospects. I still contend that trading Jones as a part of a package for a scoring winger in the summer is the play because Jones’s mobility will make him more attractive to other teams. Regardless, both are getting a chance to show what they can do this season. The question is are they auditioning for Holland, or for other NHL GMs? Time will tell.

The shortcomings with the Oilers roster are clear. They need scoring wingers and they need a 3C. However, there’s no guarantee that making any trade would propel the Oilers to the playoffs. Remember, this is an evaluation year and a development year for Holland and the Oilers. The playoffs should always be the goal because this is professional hockey, but I would be content if Holland were to sit on his hands this season, even if it resulted in a 13th playoff miss in the last 14 years.

I would rather see Holland hold on to his bullets until the 2nd day of the 2020 Draft at the earliest than see him spend potentially important assets on a rental for the CHANCE of a playoff berth this season.

My expectations for next year will be MUCH different.

Aside from holding on to assets and being better prepared for a busy summer, the other reason to stand pat right now is because the Pacific Division is a wide-open turtle race. The Oilers are one of 5 teams within 4 points of the division lead. If guys even play close to their potential, then McDavid and Draisaitl might be able to do enough to get the Oilers playing hockey in the second week of April.

McDavid and Draisaitl are in mini-slumps, and the bottom six is showing signs of life. Archibald and Sheahan are starting to put the puck in the net. Nygard has 4 points in his last 10 games. Haas has started to look more comfortable using his speed here on the smaller ice surface. I’d hope that the depth scoring can at least start trending towards the averages that made Holland go after them this past summer.

Here’s what I think will have to happen for the Oilers to make the playoffs this year, assuming no major trade is made:

McDavid and Draisaitl will have to carry the load. Obviously.

Koskinen will need to get about 65% of the starts going forward. The start share is 23-18 for Koskinen right now (56% for Koskinen). 65% of the remaining starts for Koskinen is 27 for the big Finn, and 14 for Smith. It’s basically 2 starts for every one of Smith’s. Koskinen is clearly the better goalie this season, so he needs to be played like it. They also can’t overuse him again. Smith will need to figure his shit out if the Oilers have any chance of playing playoff hockey this season.

Any 4 of Archibald, Sheahan, Khaira, Granlund, and Nygard each need to score 5 or 6 goals in the second half. They need to play like the 10-goal scorers that Holland was expecting them to be this summer if the Oilers are going to make the playoffs.

Lastly, one of Yamamoto or Benson needs to stick and be reasonably productive in the NHL for the second half, especially if there’s no trade coming.

The Oilers can go on a bit of a run if the group as a whole can come out of its slump, but the reality is that the playoffs would be a bonus this season. I’ve been riding the emotional roller coaster of the season with my predictions as the year has gone on, but I’m feeling like the Oilers will not make the playoffs and Holland will not make a major trade. Oilers fans will be PISSED at the lack of urgency to get the team to the playoffs, but it’s the right move for long-term sustained success in Edmonton in my opinion.

That’s my two cents. Enjoy your New Year’s, and enjoy watching the second half!

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