If most of the cards fall their way, I won’t be shocked if the Edmonton Oilers improve by 20 points this season. I will be surprised, however, if they end an eight-year playoff drought and make it to the post-season in the Western Conference for the first time since reaching the Stanley Cup final in 2006.
Twenty points is a considerable increase over the 67 the Oilers managed last season with a record of 29-44-9, but it’s one that’s attainable if they can take advantage of a favorable schedule to start the season — one which sees them play eight of their first 11 games at home – build some confidence and avoid the terrible start they had a year ago.
The Oilers were face down after 21 games in 2013-14 when they staggered to a 4-15-2 start thanks, in large part, to abysmal goaltending from Devan Dubnyk and Jason LaBarbera. They were in chase mode the rest of the way and never did catch up because they didn’t score enough goals (especially five-on-five), and dug the puck out of their net far too often.
The good news is the Oilers, who open the season against the Calgary Flames Thursday, would be hard-pressed to duplicate such a miserable start and that they appear to have improved to some degree in goal, on defense and up front. A 20-point improvement isn’t out of the question.
The bad news is that while that would represent a quantum leap and a more-than-reasonable gain, history tells us it’ll leave them short of a playoff spot. The Dallas Stars finished eighth in the conference last season with 91 points and it’ll take at least as many this season. Points aside, the Oilers have to vault six teams in the standings.
Even with questions about the lack of experience at centre and depth on the blue line, I think most observers believe the Oilers are going to be better than they were last season. The bar, after all, has been set low. That caveat aside, I see some definite positives.
- While Ben Scrivens and Viktor Fasth have yet to establish themselves as bona fide starters capable of keeping the crease for 60-plus games a season, they should push each other as a tandem and will provide an upgrade on Dubnyk, LaBarbera and Ilya Bryzgalov. The Oilers allowed 270 goals last season, dead-last in the NHL.
- There were plenty of bumps in the road, especially early, a year ago as Dallas Eakins took over from Ralph Krueger as head coach. Eakins’ swarm defensive scheme was a disaster. His power play alignment was a shorthanded goal waiting to happen. Eakins was at odds with sophomore Nail Yakupov. We saw a willingness to adapt from Eakins late last season and he has made an attempt to get on the same page as Yakupov this off-season. The growing pains should be out of the way. The addition of Craig Ramsay is a plus.
- GM Craig MacTavish addressed the lack of size up front by bringing in Benoit Pouliot and Teddy Purcell. While neither are big bangers, especially Purcell, they are seasoned veterans. Pouliot fits the bill in the puck possession game Eakins wants to play. Add rookie centre Leon Draisaitl and the forwards are bigger and a reasonably skilled group. Pouliot is starting the season with a tender hip-flexor
- While Taylor Hall scored 27-53-80 in 72 games last season, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, coming off shoulder surgery, had a so-so season with 19-37-56 in 80 games. I fully expect Nugent-Hopkins to have a bounce back campaign. If RNH is more productive, I expect the same from Jordan Eberle, who scored 28-37-65 in 80 games.
- The blue line. Paired or not, acquisitions Mark Fayne and Nikita Nikitin, who is nicked with a twisted ankle, add size and experience to a group that needed both. They’ll eat some tough minutes previously force-fed to Jeff Petry, Andrew Ference and Justin Schultz.
With this much turnover on the roster as we’re seeing, there’s bound to be some questions and the Oilers line-up as it stands now presents many.
- Men in the middle. No breaking news here, but there’s a big question down the middle below RNH and above reliable face-off man Boyd Gordon in Draisaitl and Mark Arcobello. As impressive as he was during the pre-season, Draisaitl will face a step up in competition and we won’t know how he’ll handle it until he actually faces real NHL line-ups. Arcobello has 41 games on his NHL resume. If either one of them falters, the option, at least right now, is Will Acton. What could go wrong?
- The kids. Draisaitl aside, are Darnell Nurse and Oscar Klefbom ready for primetime? Keith Aulie did nothing during pre-season and has been sent to OKC of the AHL. Aulie was supposed to be the seventh man, the guy who split time between the ice and the press box. Instead, Nurse and Klefbom start the season here. Brad Hunt is also in the mix. It makes no sense to have Nurse or Klefbom sitting.
- If Draisaitl and Yakupov can find some chemistry and avoid being a defensive liability – they’ll get help from Pouliot on left wing – the Oilers could have two decent scoring lines. That’s a big “if.” Yakupov needs to rebound after a difficult second season and Draisaitl has to feel his way into the league at the same time. David Perron is coming off a career year with 28 goals. Encore?
- Special teams. The Oilers power play compounded mediocre production (it was ranked 21st with 46 goals) by allowing an NHL-worst 13 shorthanded goals against. It has to be better. Will Eakins tweak his approach? Will he better utilize Yakupov? Will Nikitin add a shot from the point the Oilers haven’t had in a while? The penalty kill was ranked 15th last season and it can’t slide. With better goaltending and the addition of Fayne, I don’t expect it will.
- Getting the pieces to fit. Oddly, Eakins didn’t use his last couple of pre-season games to roll out his starting line-up, so the Oilers are going to have to find out who fits with whom in terms of lines, defensive pairings and special teams at the start of the season. At the same time, if the Oilers are going to take advantage of that favourable early schedule, they’ll have to find the right mix quickly.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The non-playoff teams in the Western Conference last season where Arizona (89 points), Nashville (88), Winnipeg (84), Vancouver (83), Calgary (77) and Edmonton (67). Even if Arizona and Nashville slide a bit, there’s a lot of ground for the Oilers to make up to catch them. The Canucks, with the John Tortorella era over and done in one season, should be better.
If the Oilers make some hay in those first 11 games of the season while settling in their line-up, I can see them overtaking the Flames and the Jets. Anything beyond that seems a very hopeful reach. I see the Oilers finishing 12th and missing the playoffs for the ninth straight season.
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TSN 1260.