It’s been an awfully nice 10-game run for the Edmonton Oilers. The team has gone 5-2-3 in that span, and with Devan Dubnyk between the pipes (5-1-1 in that stretch) there’s a possibility that the team finishes the year strongly.
That’s good news for a lot of people – particularly for Tom Renney, in the last year of his contract; for Steve Tambellini, who publicly stated that the team should finish outside the NHL lottery. Let’s face it, it’s nice for fans too, who have seen a lot of losing hockey since that run to the Finals in 2006.
How much impact has it had on the standings?
For some time, there was a clear hierarchy at the bottom of the league: Columbus was terrible, the Oilers were a little better, Montreal was a little better still, and then there were a bunch of other teams a ways off. While the official standings show that same order, the gap between teams has closed.
While the projected finishes (simply based on extrapolating each team’s current points percentage over their remaining games) suggest Edmonton still has some clearance over 28th-place Montreal, that could change in a hurry.
Montreal and the Islanders aren’t the only threats to the Oilers’ draft position. Minnesota has gone 10-19-4 since January 1 and in less than three months have tumbled nine spots down the Western Conference standings. Toronto is 8-15-3 over the last two months. Both clubs have fallen from playoff contention to lottery contention thanks to some of the worst stretches of hockey in the NHL this year. Both teams could potentially bull their way past Edmonton – especially since Minnesota will see nothing but teams either in the playoffs or desperately fighting for one of the last few spots the rest of the way.
If nothing else, the Oilers’ recent run of strong play has added some wrinkles to the last few games of the season, games that previously looked entirely meaningless. We’ve already discussed what those games could mean for Tambellini and Renney, both in the last years of their respective contracts, and for guys like Hartikainen, Omark, Petrell, Peckham and Dubnyk those games could also have a massive impact on their NHL career. The incentive to keep winning must be far stronger for all of those parties than the cold comfort of slightly better draft position.
It also leaves Oilers fans in a difficult position.
From a coldly rational perspective, in the here-and-now draft position is the only tangible thing the Oilers can alter. This will leave some hoping for the team to fail, to hang on to that second overall (pre-lottery) slot. People in this camp can point to things like 2006-07, when a 3-2 Game 82 decision over Calgary bumped the Oilers out of the draft lottery. The Oilers picked Sam Gagner; the team they passed went on to win the lottery and the right to draft Patrick Kane.
On the other hand, many fans have hoped for this exact sort of situation to develop ever since it became clear the Oilers would not be competing for a playoff spot. The rebuild has gone on long enough, they reason; the Oilers have benefitted from a series of high draft picks. They could (and have) argued that the intangible benefits of a strong finish and some wins for the Oilers young players will not only help the team next season, but also help separate the wheat from the chaff, showing which guys will not quit on the team no matter how bleak the standings look.
It has certainly made the season’s last seven games more interesting to watch.