Sports fans and media types alike love making predictions. If we’re right, or even remotely close, we can say,” I called it,” whether our choice of crystal ball is flipping a coin, reading tea leaves, delving into analytics or relying on the still-popular combination of gut and eyeballs.
Whether you’re talking about predicting where a team will finish in the standings or how many goals or points a player will compile — be it for a mainstream publication/website or in the office hockey pool — guessing right, and it is guessing, is fun because you get to chirp your peers and pals.
When we’re wrong, as I’ve been more times than I care to remember over the last 30-plus years of scribbling for a living, we tend to mumble about things like injuries or trades nobody saw coming and quickly move on to the next prediction. The less said the better.
Which brings us to the eve of the 2015-16 NHL season and a steady stream of predictions from prognosticators ranging from in-the-know and out-of-their-minds to the boundlessly optimistic and hopelessly cynical about what we can expect from the Edmonton Oilers.
I’m not sure where I fit in that spectrum of crystal ball gazers after covering the Oilers up-close-and-personal for a couple of decades and now at arm’s length since 2007, but I’ll give it a shot, as I’m sure all of the writers here at Oilersnation and everybody else with a laptop will. Let’s have at it.
BETTER BUT BY HOW MUCH?
After nine straight years out of the playoffs, I don’t think I’ve read or heard a person with half-a-brain suggest the Oilers will be anything but better under new general manager Peter Chiarelli and head coach Todd McLellan than they were last season, when the bar was laid as low as it can get at 62 points.
The question, with the additions of Connor McDavid, Anton Slepyshev, Mark Letestu, Lauri Korpikoski, Andrej Sekera, Eric Gryba, Cam Talbot and Anders Nilsson to the roster that will open on the road against the St. Louis Blues Thursday, is how much better?
As you’d expect, there’s a huge range of opinions. So far, Terry Jones of the Edmonton Sun has come up with the most optimistic prediction I can find from any member of the MSM. Jones wrote Monday he expects the Oilers to improve by 37 points. He has them making the playoffs with 99 points. You can find that piece here.
Most people are less optimistic than that, as am I. I wrote August 28 that I thought an acceptable level of improvement would be 20 points and that 30 points would be the absolute top-end of expectations. I split the difference at 25 points, leaving the Oilers with 87 points. No playoffs.
I’m scaling that back to an improvement of 20 points, for a total of 82 points, owing mostly, but not only, to the loss of Jordan Eberle, who will miss the first 12-18 games with a shoulder injury, and a difficult schedule over the first 18 games, starting with the Blues.
FROM WHERE I SIT
- The Oilers will miss Eberle’s production on the top line with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Benoit Pouliot. I don’t see Teddy Purcell (or any of the other right wing options, if McLellan juggles the lines we’ve seen so far) capable of replacing Eberle.
- It stands to reason it’s going to take McDavid, Taylor Hall and, for now, Anton Slepyshev, time to get used to playing with each other. I like the idea of the pace McDavid and Hall can play at together, but we haven’t yet seen that translate to results. How long will it take?
- The defensive group has to be much better in front of Talbot than it was last season. It will be, overall, thanks mainly to the addition of Sekera, but by how much? Is Reinhart ready? Will Schultz be more reliable and engaged? When Ben Scrivens arrived in Edmonton he had a .931 save percentage in 19 games with Los Angeles. Talbot steps in with the same .931 mark in 57 career games with New York. No goaltender can thrive in the shooting gallery Edmonton’s defense has provided opposing forwards.
- The Oilers play nine home and nine road games in their first 18 games, starting with a three-game road trip to St. Louis, Nashville and Dallas. October sees the Oilers play the Blues twice and the Calgary Flames twice. They’ve also got Vancouver, Detroit, Washington, Los Angeles, Minnesota and Montreal. That’s tough sledding for a team that’s been buried early and often in recent years. What the Oilers don’t need is a “here we go again” mentality setting in by November if they’re digging out from a 3-9 or 4-8 start.
- Given McLellan’s record with special teams in San Jose and the addition of McDavid, I’m expecting a significant improvement in Edmonton’s power play. They were 19th last season at 17.7 per cent. I foresee them bumping up close to 20 per cent and into the top-10 this season.
Big picture, Chiarelli and McLellan represent a big upgrade over the tandem of Craig MacTavish and Dallas Eakins that started last season. Most of the moves they’ve made make sense to me, but we’ve yet to see how the group they’ll start with performs against real NHL rosters and they didn’t get any breaks with the schedule early on.
All the above taken into account, I’m expecting a 20-point improvement that will see the Oilers finish 12th in the Western Conference ahead of San Jose and Arizona. Remember, you heard it here first. If I’m wrong, never mind.
WHILE I’M AT IT
- Sportsnet had a panel of 13 people pick points totals for McDavid. The high was Jeff Marek with 82 points. Leah Hextall, John Shannon and Gord Stellick were the low-ballers with 60. The average for the panel worked out to 71 points. For what it’s worth, I pegged McDavid for 69 points in August. I have him winning the Calder Trophy.
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TSN 1260.