When I picked the Edmonton Oilers to make the playoffs last season I was playing a hunch despite plenty of evidence I’d be wrong. I was, of course, as the Oilers made it seven straight years out of the post-season.
Picking the Oilers to miss the playoffs in 2013-14 is no such matter. It is, despite my sense there has been more optimism about Edmonton’s chances from pundits around the NHL, not to mention long-suffering fans in the City of Champions, going with the odds instead of against them.
No matter which way you lean, of course, it’s all crystal ball stuff. Taking hope and want – two emotions that are the very essence of fandom – out of the equation as "objective observers" should, doesn’t mean you’ll be right, as I proved last season, when I mistakenly thought the Oilers might excel in a 48-game sprint instead of an 82-game marathon.
Do I think the Oilers will push the playoff pace this season after fading down the stretch last season? Yes. Do I think the Oilers, with a new head coach in Dallas Eakins and a roster that’s seen significant turnover – for the better – are improved? Yes.
Do I see a playoff spot? No, for two reasons – a tough schedule and injuries, and how they’ll intersect at the beginning of this season. This is a team that’s been dealt some tough cards on both fronts. Close, but no cigar.
Despite a 5-2-1 pre-season, one which wrapped up with a 4-0 loss to the Dallas Stars in Oklahoma City Friday, Edmonton’s much discussed lack of depth at centre, a black hole made darker by the ongoing recovery from shoulder surgery of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and the loss of Sam Gagner to a broken jaw, can’t be overstated.
With RNH and Gagner out, Taylor Hall, making the switch from left wing as a fill-in, is the team’s top center. Behind him, Mark Arcobello, Boyd Gordon and, it appears, Will Acton. Anybody who thinks that group is good enough (assuming GM Craig MacTavish doesn’t bolster it), is leaning far too heavily on hope and want and ignoring the obvious.
While I think the Oilers have wisely been taking a pessimistic approach to the return of RNH, pegging it at the end of October, I suspect he’ll be back closer to Oct. 1 than Nov. 1. I’ve said it before and I’m saying it again. Let’s split it right down the middle and say he’ll be back Oct. 15.
Even if that’s the case, that’ll put RNH out for the first seven games of the season. I don’t think it’s a stretch or looking for an unduly negative angle to suggest it could take him the rest of October, a total of 14 games, to get back into game shape and get his timing back.
Compound that with Gagner, the team’s No. 2 centre, being out until the end of November, which translates to 27 games (plus additional time to knock off the rust), and I don’t see Edmonton’s paper-thin collection of men in the middle being nearly good enough against real NHL line-ups – something they saw little of during the pre-season.
Even if the Oilers had a full line-up that wasn’t punched full of holes down the middle by injuries, the schedule-maker, as Jason Gregor has already pointed out, didn’t do them any favors.
The Oilers play at Rexall Place just six times in their first 19 games, a stretch that sees them make a six-game swing to the east in October and a four-game trip in November.
That’s 13 of 19 games where opposing coaches get the last line change and the upper hand in match-ups up front and in defensive pairings against Hall, David Perron, Jordan Eberle and Nail Yakupov. Those are match-ups, it goes without saying, already made easier by the absence of RNH and Gagner.
Take a look at the schedule and tell me how many points you see the Oilers getting out of those first 19 games, even if Nugent-Hopkins gets back after, say, seven games. Do they get 10, 12, 15? More?
MAKE IT EIGHT
What I see is a team undermanned by injuries in concert with a very tough schedule having to play from back in a re-aligned Pacific Division pack from the end of November on. How far back? I don’t know, but the start the Oilers are facing takes away much of any margin for error they have.
I expect the line-up MacTavish has assembled to improve as the season wears on, even though there’s questions about the bottom six forwards and the defense, which looks better and marginally deeper on paper, but has yet to prove it on the ice against real NHL line-ups.
That said, even if the Oilers can stay relatively healthy after they get RNH and Gagner back and after living out of a suitcase for most of those first 19 games, has this team improved enough to charge from behind and earn a playoff spot after folding with the money on the table last spring?
I don’t see it.
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TEAM 1260.