The First 41: Halfway Where?

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.

  • Serious Gord

    Just looked at the schedule. Other than Winnipeg (away on Jan 18) and Nashville (home Jan 26) I can’t see another game in January we can win. Realistically looking at 2-13 over the next 15 games. Thank God I’m going away for a while (although still will be unlikely to resist NHL gamecenter. Damn)

    Happy New Year, ON. Always next year!

    • Alsker

      I was just doing the same thing and maybe we get one of the Phoenix games but outside of that if we can grab 8-9 points we’ll be lucky. Hope we’re wrong but I doubt it.

  • This site has gradually become mouth-breather central. The comments section is usually a whining cesspool of wasteful negativity. I feel sorry for the writers here, not that they need or ask for it. What a waste of their talents.

    Even a year ago this site was still a great place to come to. Now it has been reduced to a stinking corner of the undernet where small yappy dogs come to relieve themselves on top of each other.

    What a shame.

    • camdog

      Not too long ago a sacred Oiler jersey was thrown on the ice at Rexal. Right now the odds are 50-50 that another jersey will hit the ice before the end of the season. It isn’t just this site that is full of negativity directed at the Oilers organization. Morale hasn’t been this Lowe in e-town since the days of Pocklington trying to move the team out of town.

    • So true. A better set of fans wouldn’t be so constantly negative. However, being able to stay positive for 7/8 years out of the playoffs is pretty good. And so is selling out the building the whole time.

      But in light of your comment, here are some positives.

      Hall has truly elevated his game, and while he can’t single handedly make this team a playoff team, he’s often been the main reason we are even in some games. His big turnovers are still in his game, but they occur with far less frequency.

      Perron was such a steal of a deal, man did we fleece STL.

      Bryz is infinitely better than LABarbara and slightly better than Dubnyk. At first I figured there was ZERO chance of him resigning with us because if he plays awful we won’t sign him, and if he plays wel he will sign with second else, but he seems to really get along with the boys so who knows.

      9-9-2 in the second 20(including a 6 game skid against the best teams). I expect better than this, but it is a big step forward from the first 20 games.

      Gordon, amazing pick up. I don’t even want to think about what our GAA would be without him. Often been our best player when nobody else shows up.

      Arcobello. Skates well, hits hard, and makes plays. Great surprise, breathing down gagner’s neck for the 2C spot.

      While Ebs hasnt looked himself, he’s still managing to produce and will likely finish with 65-70 points.

      Hemsky. Leads the team in takeaways. Primarily due to backchecking. His play has been great IMO. His minutes have been varied but he’s still going to produce 40-50 pts.

      Dubnyk looks like his game is back on track.

      Belov is finally shooting(god he needs a goal).

      The injury problem isn’t so bad right now.

      Nuge looks slightly improved in all areas of his game comparedto last year. I think ffaceoffs are starting to improve over the last 7-10 games as well for him.

      Nurse is captain of the first place team in the OHL. He plays the toughest QualComp in the ENTIRE LEAGUE, he’s a ppg, he’s big, and he’s mean as hell on the ice. Sutter and Canada likely won’t even beat the Czechs without him… oh wait.

      Last but not least, at the Philly game on Saturday I noticed something about the play of the players and how it was affected positively and negatively by the fans. In the third period for some reason the fans all decided to help the team with a good old fashioned ‘Let’s go oilers!’ Chant, and I’ll be damned if it didn’t work. For those brief moments, the team sped up and huge chances were generated. You might think the 6th man shouldn’t make a difference to a pro, but I swear to you it does. If you don’t think the crowd can have a major impact on the outcome of the game go to a seahawks game. I know the players havent earned it, but part of the fun is that the fans can feel like part of the team, and right now we aren’t doing our job. I’d like to see the fans just say F You to the opposing team. Maybe our players don’t show up every night but I’ll be damned if I don’t do everything I can to fire up our boys and heckle the crap out of the opposition. Mr.Katz, lower your $1287 beer prices, it’s time people started getting kicked out for cheering too loudly again.

  • D-Unit

    Eakins picking Gagner for the shootout reminded me of the rookie coach we had last year. Well sort of … but having a rookie coach was not a great idea. I presume or hope that he will get better.

  • S cottV

    The position the Oilers find themselves in – after 41 games is a disaster, almost a lost year toward development into a playoff contender.

    This team should be .500 with some degree of hope to make the playoffs, that would have driven performance above .500 for the remainder of the year. Hope and staying alive in the hunt are powerful motivators that are lost to Eakins and I really dont think he has the leadership skills to otherwise rally this group.

    Eakins seriously underestimated the situation at hand from the get go. He bit off too much change too soon, sacrificing short term results in the process. Worse – his “Eakins hockey vision” became a trial and error mess, that has surely eroded player group confidence in him.

    Under the circumstances, I think .500 hockey will be a stretch for the remaining half of the season. It will be hard for Eakins to hold this one together.