Oilers 2017-18 Season Wrap: How it All Went Wrong

2016-17 was a great season for the Edmonton Oilers. They had 103 points in the regular season and made the playoffs for the first time in 11 years in their inaugural season at Rogers Place. They took the Anaheim Ducks to game 7 in the second round of the playoffs.

They came into this season with high hopes. Vegas gave them the 2nd best odds of winning the Stanley Cup in 2018. Connor McDavid scored a hat-trick on opening night in a 3-0 win at home against the Flames. The Oilers were invincible!

Not so fast… After opening night, they won 2 of their next 10 games. They had 3 wins in October. The odds of making the playoffs were stacked heavily against them by the end of November. They still had an outside chance in February, but they needed to sweep two separate California road trips that month in order to keep their hopes alive. They couldn’t get a win on the first trip, and their flickering playoff hopes died. The Oilers finished 23rd overall in the NHL standings with 78 points. It was a disastrous season to say the least. Perhaps expectations were a tad high.

The Oilers dug themselves too big of a hole to climb out of early in the year. They allowed 4 goals or more in half of their games in October. By the end of November, that number had risen to 10. They had played 26 games in that time… allowing 4 or more goals in 10 out of 26 games won’t get the job done.

It didn’t get much better as the season went on. In total, they allowed 4 or more goals 32 times. They lost games by 3 or more goals 18 times. They got blown out in 1 out of every 5 games.

The Oilers had a problem with allowing goals super early in games this year. They allowed a goal in the first 10 minutes of a game in 10 of their first 21 games. There were enough games in which the opponent scored on their first shot of the game for that to have been a concern. The Oilers were 14-28-2 in games where the opponent scored first. It’s hard to win games when you’re behind early in games consistently.

For the year, the team allowed 262 goals, which was good for 5th worst in the league. Last season, they allowed 207.

The penalty kill was one reason that the team allowed so many more goals this year. It finished the year at 76.7%, which was 26th in the league. They were one of the best teams at killing penalties on the road, but they were unbelievably horrific at killing penalties at home! The PK was running at about a 55% clip at Rogers Place up until mid-January. It was expected that the Oilers would allow at least one powerplay goal in every home game. It lost them a lot of games. Eventually, the Oilers appeared to change from their odd I-formation on the penalty kill to a more traditional box scheme, and the PK got better after that. It was at 91% from the middle of February onward. It looked like the players were confused by the I-formation, and the results were indicative of that.

The stark contrast between their success on the PK at home and on the road was unprecedented, and it almost certainly can’t be THAT bad at home again next year.

Andrej Sekera came back from a knee injury after the Christmas break, but he really should’ve spent more time rehabbing. From talking to friends who have had similar knee injuries, there is no way that his knee could’ve been 100% healed when he came back. You never quite have the same level of trust in the knee after that type of injury, and it does impact your ability to move. It showed with Sekera this year. He was absolutely horrible. I can’t even count how many times I watched slow motion replays of him sprawling and sliding around the ice while goals were being scored against. Sekera was -15, the worst mark on the team… and he managed to do it in only 36 games. Ultimately, his season ended a few games early because he “tweaked” his injured knee.

He wasn’t the only problem though. The group as a whole wasn’t good enough.

Matt Benning had a rough start to his second NHL season. He got beat quite badly on a couple of goals in the first few games, and he had a 3 game stretch in early November where he was -6. Oscar Klefbom and Adam Larsson were minus players in four consecutive games after opening night, which caused the Swedish pairing to be split up. Klefbom had a 3 game stretch in November where he was -9. His nagging shoulder problem reared its ugly head this year, which cut his season short. The injury was not the reason for his regression, but it wasn’t helping him either. Larsson missed time due injury as well as personal tragedy.

The biggest difference defensively from last season to this season in my view was how physical they were in their own zone. If teams got set up in the Oilers’ zone last year, it wasn’t long before a hit was made because the Oilers were more aggressive in defending the wall. This season, they were much more passive while defending in their own zone, meaning that they would be closer to the middle of the ice rather than the boards. That made it easier for opponents to protect the puck, it gave them more space to work with, and it made it harder to hit them. That also meant that it was much harder to create turnovers. That passiveness was likely the result of how many goals they had allowed early in the season. They defended like they were scared to get scored on, which resulted in getting scored on more often.

Being physical isn’t just about hitting people. Puck battles are also a part of being physical. These are one-on-one or two-on-two scenarios where the puck is trapped along the boards, and the goal is to dig it out. The Oilers lost far too many puck battles this year.

The other aspect of the team’s defence that was worse this year than last was their support positioning. If someone lost a man, help was simply too far away in too many cases. Being in a support position also allows the defence to create more traps, which means a skater with the puck is forced to be trapped between two defenders. More traps means more turnovers, which means better defence. That was missing this year.

Support of the puck while they had possession in their own zone is also a part of support positioning. When the puck was separated from an opponent last year, another defender was in position in either take the puck and go the other way, or another defender was in a good position to receive an easy pass from the player that made the original hit. That was not the case this year. The team’s passing in their own zone was awful. It was partly because of the lack of defenders in good supporting positions, and it was partly because the passes were either off-target or simply mishandled. The result of that was more time spent in the Oilers’ zone, more defensive breakdowns, and more goals against.

*UPDATE: Chiarelli basically reiterated these thoughts on the lack of support. He expanded on it to include a lack of support positioning in all three zones, which prevented the Oilers from playing fast.

The defence group was essentially unchanged from 2016-17 to this year. Being physical, being aggressive in defending the wall, being in support positions, and passing are all things that this group did well in 2016-17 and that they should be able to improve on for next season.

The forwards had a lot to do with the team’s poor defence as well. The Oilers played a man-to-man defence. If one guy loses his man, someone else has to leave his man to help out the man that got beat. Too often, the Oilers forwards lost their men which resulted in defensive breakdowns. They would often leave the defensive zone early looking for offence because they were anticipating an Oiler getting possession, only to have to turn around because the Oilers did not have possession. They also struggled to win puck battles in their own zone, which lead to more defensive breakdowns.

*UPDATE: Chiarelli supported the thoughts on the forwards cheating for offence in stating that he and the players agreed in their exit interviews that there was a lack of commitment to the system and to playing defence.

Speaking of the forwards, the Oilers scored 228 goals this season compared to 243 last season.
One reason that scoring was down was because the powerplay was the worst in the league, operating at just 14.8%. It was 5th in the league at 22.9% last year. It’s crazy to think that a powerplay that features Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, both of whom were tied for 8th in the league in powerplay points with 27 last year, could be as bad as it was. How is it that the league’s leader in points was on the league’s worst power play?

My observation is that the power play was far too stagnant, meaning that the players were standing still too often. It lacked movement. The players weren’t creating space by moving around the zone or by passing the puck quickly enough. This lack of movement meant that defenders didn’t have to move, and that meant that there were rarely gaps to shoot or pass through.

Oscar Klefbom has a great shot from the point, but if the power play is going to be run by McDavid and Draisaitl on the right half wall, then they need a right handed shooting option at the point. Klefbom would be more effective on the power play if it were run from the left side instead of the right side because he would be able to take one-timers and make passes on his forehand faster while receiving passes from the left side than he is able to when receiving passes from the right side.

There also needs to be a right handed shooter that can score on one-timers from the left face-off circle. Letestu could, which was one reason why the powerplay was so successful last year. Puljujarvi has the potential to be that guy if given a chance on the top unit next season. They also need an upgrade on Lucic around the net, whether it comes in the form of a rebound year from Lucic himself, or in the form of another player.

The Oilers also struggled when penalty killers were aggressive. That speaks to a lack of composure and a lack of execution. There were lots of times where the Oilers couldn’t even gain entry into the opponent’s zone on the powerplay. Teams could just line players up along the blue line and totally stifle the Oilers. They could send one penalty killer into the Oilers’ zone and the Oilers would have trouble breaking out of their own end. That was just sloppiness on the part of the Oilers.

Connor McDavid did Connor McDavid things, improving on his incredible season from last year and winning a 2nd consecutive Art Ross Trophy with 108 points. He got a point on 47% of all of the Oilers’ goals. 47%. On an NHL team with 20 skaters that play every night, McDavid was a part of almost HALF of all of the goals that the team scored. This was partly because McDavid is amazing, and partly because his teammates were not producing.

Leon Draisaitl’s production was down slightly from last year, as he finished with 70 points. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was on pace for a career year of 62 points, but an injury in January forced him to miss an extended period of time. He finished with 48 points. Those are positive contributions, but McDavid needs more help than that.

Ryan Strome had his second best offensive season as a pro, and seemed to find a home as a 3rd line centre. Strome finished 5th on the team in points. A 3rd line centre should not be one of the team’s top 6 scorers.

Milan Lucic gets a paragraph of his own (he’s also got an article of his own). Simply put, he was brutal this year. He couldn’t win puck battles, he struggled to complete passes to his teammates, he gave the puck away on blind passes to the middle of the ice consistently, he routinely failed to receive passes from others, and he continually fumbled the puck while stick-handling. It was the same in 2016-17 as well. What really stood out this year was his lack of production. He started off well with 26 points in 37 games; but once Christmas hit, he was a different player. He went 29 games without scoring a goal… that’s over a third of the season! His 1st goal in 29 games was the only goal that he scored in the last 45 games of the season.

1 goal and 7 assists in 45 games. That’s it.

This is a man that is being paid $6 million. This is the man that was signed to play on McDavid’s wing, and this was the man that was signed to replace Taylor Hall’s production at left wing. That level of production out of Lucic was simply not good enough.

Despite all of his struggles, Lucic still finished tied for 4th on the team in points. THAT is how weak the majority of the Oilers’ forwards were this year.

Patrick Maroon only had 14 goals prior to being traded on February 26. He had 27 last year. Jesse Puljujarvi, Drake Caggiula, and Anton Slepyshev were all young wingers that were expected to take steps forward this year. None of them did. None had more than 20 points, which is not good enough to be a top 6 forward. Zack Kassian had a down year, scoring only 19 points after scoring 24 last year. Mark Letestu was unable to repeat his offensive performance from last season, and he was dealt at the deadline.

Strome and Caggiula were tied for 4th on the team with 13 goals each. For comparison’s sake, the top 5 scoring teams in the league (Tampa Bay, Vegas, Toronto, Pittsburgh, and Winnipeg) all had at least 5 players with more than 20 goals. Tampa Bay, Vegas, and Pittsburgh each had 6 (if you include deadline acquisitions JT Miller, Tomas Tatar, and Derrick Brassard). Toronto also had 6, including 3 players with more than 30 goals.

Last season, the Oilers had 5 players with more than 20 goals, and they made the playoffs. This year, they only had 3 players with more than 13 goals. That really brings the Oilers’ weakness on the wing into focus.

A lot was made of the Oilers being a “slow” team early in the year. That didn’t necessarily mean that they were slow skaters. That means that they did not move the puck fast enough or think the game fast enough. That boils down to experience, intelligence, and execution. The Oilers didn’t have enough of those things at the wing position.

Watching how the Oilers set up for breakouts can partially explain why they appeared to be so slow. Discombobulated, disorganized, and sloppy are three words that I would use to describe their breakouts. One forward would set up at the far blue line, basically eliminating him as a passing option. In a league where moving the puck through the neutral zone efficiently is of vital importance, eliminating a passing option is not a smart strategy. The best that a player in that position can do is tip the puck deep into the offensive zone if it were fired at him. Another forward would be set up near the far blue line as well. This player would end up coming back towards the puck. The idea of that would be to have this player be able to pass the puck to the trailing forward who would have enough speed to carry the puck through the neutral zone. However, there were too many times where that player’s momentum would take the puck right back into the defensive zone. This would slow the play down, and force the Oilers to re-organize. That’s easier said than done with another team trying to steal the puck. This style of breakout was easy for teams to defend against because the puck was moving the wrong way too often, and it took far too long to set up.

The Boston Bruins took a simpler approach this season. They would not have any forward ahead of the play. All 5 of their players were on the defensive side of the puck, which is just good team defence. That made it easier to create turnovers. Once they got the puck, the forwards moved up the ice together in a group of three. They would execute short passes while moving the puck up the ice rather than hoping that long passes to the far blue line or across the ice would connect. This was something that the Red Wings used to excel at when they were winning Stanley Cups in the late 90s and early 2000s. The Bruins finished 2nd in their division and 4th overall in the NHL this year.

Goaltending is another area that saw a drop-off in performance this year. Cam Talbot’s save percentage dropped from .919 in 2016-17 to .908 this year. Talbot had a rough start to the year. I won’t totally blame him for that because the team’s defence was awful in front of him. However, Talbot wasn’t quite the goalie that he was in 2016-17. It would be a lot to ask of any goalie to repeat the kind of performance he had last year because he was unbelievable. I feel that he played too many games last year. 73 starts is a lot for any goalie, especially one in his second full year as a starter. As a result, he had a rough start to this year and he got injured. He also said in his exit interview that he will not be playing for Canada at the World Championships in May because he was “banged up” near the end of the season. Having a more reliable back-up like Al Montoya for next year will allow Talbot to be better.

Questions have been raised over whether or not Todd McLellan should be the coach next year. There can be arguments made for keeping him or for letting him go. He was the coach of a great San Jose team for a long time, and he won a Stanley Cup as an assistant coach in Detroit before that. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has had 5 different coaches in his 7 year career so far. This Oilers team is still quite young, and it would be well served by having some consistency behind the bench.

On the other hand, there were strategic aspects of the Oilers’ game this year that weren’t good enough. The penalty kill being so awful at home for such a long period of time was a problem. Part of that was on the players, part of that was luck as well; but that also falls on the coaching staff. The strategies used on the powerplay were also decided by the coaches. It is unacceptable that this team featuring McDavid and Draisaitl had the worst powerplay in the league. The poor strategies used on breakouts were also the coach’s decision. McLellan was unafraid to change the lines when the team wasn’t scoring; you can’t just maintain the status quo if you’re losing, so it makes sense that he would change the lines if the team wasn’t scoring. However, some people have criticized this strategy because changing the lines so often prevented players from having an opportunity to develop chemistry.

Craig MacTavish, while working as an analyst for TSN at one point, quipped that he was looking to get back into coaching because he was looking for something with a little less job security. When the team fails to live up to expectations, it’s usually the coach that takes the fall.

For those reasons, I would not be surprised if McLellan and his staff were fired. I would hope that there would be a guarantee that there would be another coach with similar pedigree to what McLellan had upon his arrival in Edmonton before making that decision. Alain Vigneault was just fired by the New York Rangers. Joel Quenneville of the Chicago Blackhawks could also potentially be looking for work. Depending on how the Capitals’ playoff run goes, Barry Trotz could be available as well. Dave Tippett is also available. Any of those coaches would be suitable potential replacements should McLellan be fired.

I’m going to finish this article off on a positive note. Darnell Nurse took a huge leap forward this year, which was great to see. Ethan Bear showed us that he could potentially be the right handed offensive defenceman that the Oilers so sorely need. Jujhar Khaira emerged as a productive, everyday NHLer. Klefbom’s game improved as the year went on. Nugent-Hopkins started producing offensively again. Talbot’s save percentage over the last month and a bit of the year was comparable to that of last season.

Last and not least, Connor McDavid continued to dazzle everyone with his incredible skill while winning his 2nd consecutive Art Ross Trophy as the NHL’s leading scorer. The chance to watch him alone is worth the price of admission, even if the team is losing. He always gives the Oilers a chance to win.

Look out for my State of the Oilers 2018 article coming out soon, articles outlining potential scenarios that could unfold for the Oilers this off-season, and previews of the draft and NHL Free Agency.

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