So, are the Edmonton Oilers actually as lousy as their record at the halfway point of their schedule or have they under-achieved through their first 41 games?
While I didn’t see the Oilers as Western Conference playoff contenders this season, I’m leaning heavily toward the latter when I look at a team that is an underwhelming 13-24-4 for 30 points after reaching the halfway pole by coughing up a 2-0 lead in a 4-3 shootout loss to the Philadelphia Flyers at Rexall Place Saturday.
Are the Oilers as bad as their record? No. Does that mean this first half has been nothing more than an unlucky aberration and everything will be fine if people just sit back, relax and let things fall into place? Not a chance. I’m not even going to try to blow that brand of sunshine up anybody’s backside, and anybody who does should give their head a shake.
The issues are many. Too much of the same thing up front. A defensive group that lacks enough actual NHL defensemen and a true top pairing. Lack of size and grit. Consistency in goal. Not enough veteran leadership . . . blah, blah, blah. GM Craig MacTavish has much work to do. All this we know.
That said, there’s no question this group of players, holes and all, didn’t come close to playing as well as was reasonably expected under NHL rookie coach Dallas Eakins in the first half. A tough schedule early played a part in that. So did injuries. So have horrid performances by players who have a record of being better.
Are they this bad? No. Are they good enough? No.
In the Second Half
I expected the Oilers to be .500 in terms of points this season. That’s not going to happen through 82 games with the terrible start they had, but I expect they’ll be at or near .500 in their final 41 games. Even if MacTavish doesn’t make a single roster move – he will — I see the Oilers winning 18-20 games. I see them finishing with 70-74 points.
I know, big deal. Playing .500 in the second half won’t be enough to get a playoff spot, making it eight years out of the post-season. If that’s your bottom line for reasonable progress four years into the "official" rebuild, I get it. I didn’t think a playoff position was a realistic expectation going into the season, but believing the Oilers would stay within hailing distance of the top-eight didn’t seem like too much to ask.
The Oilers went 19-22-7 for 45 points in 48 games last season. They had 74 points from a record of 32-40-10 in 2011-12. I didn’t expect to see the Oilers take a step back so far this season. A step, not a leap, ahead? Yes. Back? No, but here we are.
So, back to why I expect the Oilers to be markedly better in the second half than they were in the first . . .
The Who and How
DEVAN DUBNYK: No way Dubnyk struggles in the final 41 games like he did in the first 41, posting a .896 save percentage and 3.24 GAA on the way to a 10-15-2 record. I expect we’ll see Dubnyk in the .914 to .920 range — his season numbers the previous two seasons — in the second half.
ILYA BRYZGALOV: I was one of the people who thought it was nuts to take a chance on Bryzgalov and his baggage when he was sitting around waiting for the phone to ring. What we’ve seen so far is a goaltender who can still play and is better than Jason LaBarbera any day of the week.
SAM GAGNER: To understate, it’s been a forgettable season for Gagner, who busted his jaw in pre-season, came back too early from surgery and struggled mightily when he did. I’ll leave the same old arguments about Gagner to you, but he’ll be better in the second half. He can’t be worse.
NAIL YAKUPOV: Yakupov’s sophomore season has been all over the place, with the overriding theme being how he’s been used, or not used, by Eakins. This is a talented kid with holes in his game you expect from a 20-year-old. I don’t know how or if he’ll pan out long term, but look at his numbers today and tell me with a straight face he won’t be better in the second half.
THE FIT: Facing another year out of the playoffs, fans don’t want to hear this, but here’s always an adjustment period with a new head coach and we’ve seen it with Eakins. He needs to get a feel for the players and where they best fit. They need to get a feel for him. Expectations laid out early in the tenure of a new coach get tweaked over time on both sides of the equation. That’s not an excuse for the record, but it plays into it.
The Bottom Line
You have to look at who might fall off their pace and performance of the first half, not just who should improve, but in projecting the second half, I don’t see anybody who over-achieved to the extent they’re destined to drop off the edge of the earth in the final 41 games.
I doubt we’ll see a 60-point season from David Perron. He’ll likely drop off a bit. Outside Perron, nobody among Edmonton’s top-five scorers is scoring at a pace we haven’t seen before. In fact, I expect Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who started the season coming off shoulder surgery, to be better.
The back end? Will Justin Schultz eliminate some of the glaring errors in his game and be better at picking his spots on the attack? I’d hope so. Will Anton Belov improve in the second half? I’d like to think so. I didn’t see anybody on the back end play better than I expected through 41 games.
This team remains several players from being a playoff contender, but my expectation is the Oilers will have a significantly better second half and give everybody, notably MacTavish, a truer picture of what remains to be done than we got in the mess that was the first 41 games.
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TEAM 1260.