The Edmonton Oilers have played four games now. They beat Vancouver to start the season, and all was well. They got smoked by the Sharks, and things were awful. They beat the defending champions in overtime, and all was well again. Finally, on Saturday they lost to Calgary and once again things were terrible.
Are they the team that went toe-to-toe with Western powers Vancouver and L.A., or the team that was humiliated by San Jose and outplayed by the Flames? My guess is that they’re somewhere in the middle.
What That Guess Isn’t Based On
In 2011-12, the Oilers played their fourth game of the season on October 17. They beat Nashville, putting them 2-1-1 on the year – the same as this year in other words, save with a shootout loss in place of one regulation loss. In the East, the Rangers, Bruins and Panthers would eventually win their divisions; on October 17 only the Panthers were in the playoff picture and the Rangers were languishing in last place in the East. Out West, eventual division champs Vancouver, St. Louis and Phoenix all sat well down in the standings, with the Canucks and Blues outside the playoffs with a losing record and the Coyotes tied with four teams for sixth place.
I’ve seen lots of comments along the lines of ‘how long can ____ afford to be patient?’ – not just in Edmonton, but also elsewhere. Washington Capitals fans have been particularly antsy on my Twitter feed – their team started 0-3-1 (before winning on Sunday night).
I get it, because a sports fan lives and dies with his/her team’s every loss, and with a shortened season everybody is acutely aware that every point matters. The problem is that a team’s performance over four games has minimal predictive value. Last year the Oilers went on a six-game winning streak to close out October, traded a win and a loss, and then lost four straight. If that six game winning streak happens at the opening of the year, they’re the young team finally putting the pieces together; if it’s the four-game losing streak than they’re bound for another first overall pick.
What The Guess Is Based On
Because we know that a very good team can have a rough start to the year – we’ve listed a bunch of examples above – and because we know that even a lousy team can have a good start to the year (the Edmonton Oilers went 6-2-1 under Pat Quinn to start the 2009-10 season, as one recent example), the first few games, even in a shortened season, should not dramatically alter our preseason expectations.
When I say that the Oilers are probably somewhere between world-beaters and a team that loses regularly to Calgary, that’s because I pegged them to finish just outside the playoffs before they had played a game.
I could very well be wrong on my prediction: I don’t have any more ability to see into the future than anyone else does. But I have no compelling reason to change my mind; the factors I weighed in the off-season (if I did a good job) are more likely to be predictive of the Oilers’ final finish than their record over four games.
When Will We Know?
We likely won’t really know where the Oilers are going to finish, exactly, until the bitter end. With that said, the first-quarter mark of the season – 12 games in – is the time where I’ll probably start reading something into the standings. Last season, 10 of the 16 playoff teams were in post-season position by then (side point: looking at the standings after 48 games – roughly the end of January 2012 – results in the same 10-of-16 figure).
There were still frauds at that point – on November 3rd, Toronto led the East with a 9-3-1 record and Edmonton was second in the West at 8-2-2. There were also some very good teams that hadn’t come on yet – Boston sat near the East’s basement with a 4-7-0 record, while St. Louis was 5-6-0. But there was enough information to start getting a read on what was happening around the league.
Two weeks from now, on Sunday, February 10, the Oilers will play their 12th game and their regular season will be one-quarter complete. That’s the point where I’ll start revising my expectations.