Edmonton’s Problems Must Be Addressed From Within.
While the hockey season is still young, the current standings are surprising based on many preseason predictions. While Tampa Bay at the top and Arizona on the bottom could have been predicted, a more shocking development is the 5-8-1 start of the Edmonton Oilers, good for 29th in the NHL.
After a season in which franchise cornerstone Connor McDavid won both the Hart Trophy for the NHL’s MVP and the Art Ross Trophy for most points, and after a heartbreaking Western Conference Semi-Final exit, the franchise seemed to finally be on the upswing after years of finishing in the league’s basement. The team had failed to finish with more than 75 points before hitting the century mark last season.
The emergence of McDavid, his compliment center/wing Leon Draisaitl, and pieces like d-man Oscar Klefbom and goalie Cam Talbot pushed this team to new heights, with Vegas even deeming them the second favorite to win the cup this year, behind the back-to-back champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
While the season is young, the small sample size of the Oilers points out issues that may not be so surprising.
Talbot’s Play Hasn’t (And Won’t) Save This Team, But Must Keep Them Afloat
Last year, Cam Talbot finally broke out. No goalie played more games, faced more shots, made more saves, or had more wins than Cam Talbot (tied with Braden Holtby). He started all but nine games for the Oilers and finished 10th in save percentage and ninth in goals against average.
The story with Talbot is his usage. The Edmonton goaltender played 73 games last year, seven more than any other goaltender in the NHL. He allowed the most goals in the NHL last year due to his playing time, and had 10 “really bad starts,” categorized by when a goalie puts up a save percentage of .850 or lower, which historically leaves the team with a 90% chance of losing the game.
While Talbot’s stats are good, and he was a top 10 goalie in the NHL last year, he is not the player that the Oilers can rely on to save them. Edmonton was eighth last year with 2.96 goals per game, and sixth in goal differential, scoring .44 more goal than their opponent every night.
Fast forward to today, and Talbot is allowing 2.90 goals per game (26th worst among goalies with at least three victories) and a .912 save percentage (21st among the same group). Even if the high-flying Edmonton offense matched last year’s scoring prowess, which will come into play later, the team would be looking at a very small goal differential at .06, with no team except for the Ottawa Senators at -.05 making the playoffs last year.
If Talbot is to be relied upon down the stretch, and especially if backup goalie Laurent Brossoit doesn’t see the ice, he must make up ground and get back to the Top 15 range to help this turnaround start. Fortunately for the Oilers, this problem relies on one man who has proven he can do the job, where as their other problems may be just beginning.
The Oilers Must Find Secondary Scoring From Within
Last year, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl set the league on fire, scoring 100 and 77 points respectively, and overshadowing the lack of secondary scoring on the team.
McDavid may be the greatest player in the NHL, but there is only so much an individual can do for one team. Currently, he is behind only Anze Kopitar and Alexsander Barkov when it comes to average ice time among forwards at 22:13. He is also taking almost minute-long shifts at 54 seconds per, tied for seventh in the league. When you have a player on the ice that long and are relying that much on him, there has to be some form of help from the bottom three lines.
An accurate depiction of the team’s problem is their PDO, which is their save percentage plus their shot percentage. As mentioned before, Edmonton is a team that needs a boost from their offense, and can’t rely on Cam Talbot night in and night out. Their current PDO is 96.8%, which is fifth worst in the NHL. While a modest 90.4 save percentage, which is 18th in the league could be improved, the team is dead last in shot percentage at 6.4%.
McDavid is pulling his weight, with 18 points and six goals through 15 games this season, posting a +5 plus/minus. Draisaitl has missed a few games with injury, but has still posted over a point per game at 12 in 11 games. These two guys are stars, and were rewarded as such over the offseason.
According to cap friendly, Draisaitl’s contract is taking up over 14% of Edmonton’s entire cap at $8.5 million. While McDavid’s contract will kick in next season, his $12.5 million cap hit will take up anywhere from 16.7% to just under 20%, depending on whether the Oilers hit the cap ceiling or make any additions in the offseason. Together these guys are taking up 30% of the cap, and while that isn’t necessarily the biggest issue, the guys under them being paid need to produce.
Milan Lucic and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins both are making $6 million a year and are relied on to anchor a second line that can also put up goals. Nugent-Hopkins is actually on pace to have his best goal-scoring season ever, and at 0.4 goals a game he is contributing what he should be relied upon for. Lucic, on the other hand, is on pace for about the same amount of points as last year.
RNH still is young, and at 24 still has a chance to grow before his contract expires after the 2020-2021 season. Lucic not only is on the other side of the peak at 29, but is owed six million a year through the 2022-2023 season. If these two guys cannot get it done on the second line this year, the team may be in trouble as underperforming guys with big contracts will not yield returns that will help this team.
Edmonton already saw the exit of Jordan Eberle — a winger who put up 51 points last year and three 60+ point campaigns for the Oilers since 2011 — sent to the New York Islanders for a younger, cheaper Ryan Strome, in advance of McDavid’s and Draisaitl’s contracts kicking in.
Strome put up a career high 50 points in 2014-15, but has not put up more than 30 since last season. He currently is on pace for a disappointing 27 points, assuming he plays all 82 games. Only in his best year did he play more than 80 games, not topping 71 in any other season.
Star defenseman Klefbom has only put up three points so far this season but is on pace to dwarf the 38 he point up last season. Veterans like Jussi Jokinen (one point), Zack Kassian (two points) and Mark Letestu (three points) have not helped on the scoreboard at all.
What Must Happen
As a whole, this team must start scoring, period. While they may have the best player in the league with McDavid, he cannot make up for issues this big, especially when management sent a top winger like Eberle packing for someone who has not sustained consistent success. While the team can figure out which veterans could come in and provide offense for low salaries, they are tied up with Nugent-Hopkins and Lucic for the foreseeable future, and won’t have the cap room to bring players in at higher salaries.
The team has young prospects like Jesse Puljujarvi and Kailer Yamamoto waiting in the wings, but they did not impress with the big club in their limited time on the ice. The Oilers made the decision to go with the guys they have, and while the season is young and there is still hope, blame will be shifted to GM Peter Chiarelli or Coach Todd McLellan if their record doesn’t improve.
NHL fans should expect this team to turn around at some point, as it is for the most part the same team as last year minus Eberle. Save for a repeat of McDavid’s tragic injury two years ago, this team can make it back to the playoffs as long as he is on the ice.
Edited by Jeremy Losak.
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