How much does the Oilers’ 3-6-1 start matter?

Has Edmonton dugs itself into a whole that will be extremely difficult to get out of? Is the team’s 3-6-1 start a hallmark of things to come?

The Last Five Years

The chart above shows every team over the last five 82-game NHL regular seasons to start with just three wins in their first 10 games played. I was surprised to find that six of the 11 teams ended up in the post-season; my assumption had been that the lousy start would have some slight predictive value but if it is there the predictive value is too slight to show up over an 11-team sample.

Put shortly, many a good team has started a year poorly. There is little to worry about inherently in a poor 10-game start.

The Caveat

The interesting item with that list is what happens when we add a category to show if the team in question had made the playoffs the year before. Of the six teams to make it into the post-season after a lousy start, five had been playoff teams the year prior and the lone exception (the 2009-10 Nashville Predators) had missed by only three points in 2008-09. Of the five teams to miss the playoffs after a lousy start, four had missed the year before and the exception (the 2009-10 Anaheim Ducks) had been an eighth seed in 2008-09.

That’s where the worry comes from. It isn’t that Edmonton has had a poor start, which shouldn’t matter much given the sample of games involved. It’s that Edmonton had a poor start and is coming off years of failure – there is ample evidence for anyone that believes this is what the Oilers really are.

Dallas Eakins had a line in training camp about rookie defencemen trying to break on to the team. After explaining that the depth chart had eight guys who were NHL defencemen, he said it was extremely hard to take a job away from players with that kind of background.

The same applies on a larger scale to teams: for any team that was on the outside looking in, it is extremely difficult to push somebody else out of a playoff position. Looking at the last two 82-game NHL seasons, three of the four teams to make the playoffs in 2010-11 made them again in 2011-12. Not that dramatic change is impossible (one of the new playoff teams was Ottawa, which went from minus-58 in 2010-11 to plus-9 in 2011-12); it’s just very difficult.

Did Craig MacTavish do enough in the summer to get the Oilers over the hump? If not, can he make a difference now? We’ll see; the early start isn’t reason enough to write Edmonton off but they’re trying to climb from a long way back.

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