For the first time in a decade, the Oilers might finally be a legitimate contender.
They were once the premier franchise of the NHL.
In the 1980s, they won the Stanley Cup five times, reached the Final six times, and won the Presidents’ Trophy twice. Five players from that era are enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame, and their retired numbers include hockey greats Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Grant Fuhr, and Paul Coffey.
But, the story of the Edmonton Oilers has changed dramatically since the golden years. They haven’t been above NHL .500 in seven years, and haven’t qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs in ten seasons. They’ve had the first overall pick four times since 2010, and only two of those players are on the roster today.
After years of suffering, however, Oiler fans are finally excited again. As of Friday, November 4, the Oilers are holding first place in the Pacific Division at 7-3-1 with a three point lead over second-place San Jose (who reached the Stanley Cup Final last year). We’re only one month into the season, but any glimmer of hope in Edmonton will be met with excitement.
So the big question in this young season: are the Edmonton Oilers for real?
For starters, they’re going to always have a chance with a guy like Connor McDavid on the team. The second year forward leads his team with 13 points in 11 games, which is just one point off the league lead.
The team’s offense is led by their first line of McDavid, Milan Lucic, and Jordan Eberle, which has been the most consistently played trio this season according to Left Wing Lock. They, in order, are Edmonton’s top three scorers through the first 11 games and account for just over one third of the team’s total goals, with McDavid leading the way with five goals.
This line has led them to a +7 goal differential, which is one of the best predictors of future success and sustainability. After all, they’re seventh in the league with a 3.09 total goals for per game rate and 11th with 2.45 total goals against per game.
Another plus for Edmonton’s legitimacy is their PDO. PDO is a stat used to measure “puck luck” or unsustainable performances: both good and bad. The closer a team is to 100, the less volatile their performance is. Edmonton’s PDO through their first 11 games is 100.86.
Perhaps more promising, their expected PDO (which is based off Fenwick stats rather than actual shooting and save percentage) is 99.58, according to Corsica Hockey. This indicates that Edmonton could actually be playing to their sustainable levels.
Adding to the positives, the Oilers boast one of the best penalty kill units in the league so far. They’re currently second in the NHL with a 90.9 penalty kill success rate. Granted, a 90 percent penalty kill is likely unsustainable, but it is very encouraging to see the unit get off to a good start.
Despite all these positives, there are still plenty of question marks for this Edmonton team. While their first line is certainly firing on all cylinders thanks to the generational talent in McDavid, they haven’t been controlling the play as much as you’d like to see a playoff team do. They’re underwater in both possession stats, posting a 49.45 Fenwick For percentage and a 48.59 Corsi For percentage. For reference, only four of the 16 playoff teams from last year posted a sub-50 percent Corsi For rating.
Similarly, they’re defensive play may be overachieving at the moment, particularly at 5-on-5. Their even strength goals against per 60 minutes is 2.22, which is towards the middle of the league at 17th. However, Corsica Hockey’s expected goals against per 60 minutes (which is based on shot quality against) is 2.82, which is the fifth highest in the league. The 2.22 number could be boosted by goalie Cam Talbot’s two early shutouts (which are tied for second in the league behind only Minnesota’s Devan Dubnyk), and put him just one behind his total from all of last season.
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Individual performance, however, is not the only factor that goes into long-term success. A lot will also ride on the performance of the rest of the Pacific Division. Luckily for Edmonton, there really is no other dominant team in that division.
Defending Western Conference Champion San Jose is off to a mediocre start at 6-5, though their 53.49 Fenwick For percentage, per Corsica Hockey, does show some promise for better play as the season moves on. The Los Angeles Kings currently have six players on injured reserve, including their number one and two goaltenders, with Jonathan Quick unlikely to return until late January. The Anaheim Ducks, who were a popular Stanley Cup pick last year, are off to another bad start, scoring a third worst 1.61 goals for per 60 minutes according to Corsica Hockey.
The Oilers will certainly be one of the most intriguing teams to watch as the NHL season moves on. They have the pieces to be a consistent playoff contender. Playing in the Pacific should also give them a boost, as it looks to be the weakest division so far this year. There are certainly question marks, but the Edmonton fans who long for the Gretzky days may finally be rewarded come springtime.
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