Connor McDavid’s broken collarbone sucks on so many levels, not the least of which being he was a helluva lot of fun to watch and he was going to be a much-needed distraction for fans during yet another year out of the playoffs for the Edmonton Oilers.
For starters, McDavid was living up to the ridiculous hype heaped on him coming into the season sooner than even many optimists thought he might. He was creating a buzz, not just in Edmonton but around the NHL. I don’t think it’s overstatement to say McDavid was Edmonton’s best player when he was injured against Philadelphia Nov. 3.
Now, with the Oilers off to yet another miserable start at 5-10-0, facing a difficult stretch in the schedule and McDavid out until the end of January or thereabouts, the optimism in the air a month ago has turned sour and fans are settling in for yet another season of discontent.
The 2015-16 Oilers, based largely on the addition of McDavid, were supposed to be much better under new coach Todd McLellan and GM Peter Chiarelli. I thought so. You thought so. Now, as they take on the Anaheim Ducks tonight, the Oilers are off to an even worse start than they were last year at this time, when they were 6-8-1. Now what?
In a pre-season roundtable leading into the season Oct. 9, Oilersnation writers were asked, among other things, to give their predictions about how many points the Oilers would finish 2015-16 with. The whole item is here. We saw it as follows:
- Lowetide 93
- Jeanshorts 90
- Henderson 90
- Gregor 86
- Willis 85
- Baggedmilk 82
- Brownlee 82
The top-end of the range of expected improvement in points was 31, while the bottom-end was 20. Suffice to say, we were all optimistic. We made the picks knowing Jordan Eberle was out, but not knowing McDavid would take a header into the boards. I expected the goaltending and blue line, while far from being proven or deep enough, to be at least marginally better. I felt the team would be in better hands under McLellan than it was under the thumb of Dallas Eakins. A points total in the 80s seemed reasonable.
Not now. With just 10 points and 67 games to play, even the low end of our predictions is out the window, as are yours. The Oilers will need 72 points in the games remaining just to get to 82. Without McDavid, and with the flaws still apparent with this roster, it isn’t happening.
The point projection for the Oilers now? Is it 60, 65, 70? Your guess is as good as mine. How many games will McDavid miss? Is it a 10-week injury or a 14-week injury? Will Chiarelli get busy if the team doesn’t turn north? Will the goaltending – all over the place so far — get more consistent behind a defensive group still trying to find itself?
What, with McDavid in a sling instead of in the line-up and a sense of here-we-go-again creeping in, are reasonable expectations? Fans are nine seasons into the same old, same old. Chiarelli and McLellan, meanwhile, have been on the job mere months, not years. I’m far more interested in the answers to those questions than picking a new point total out of a hat.
Even without McDavid, my sense is this team is better – in terms of player personnel, coaching, systems and buy-in by the players – despite the flaws and inconsistencies that remain, than it was a year ago, even if the results after 15 games don’t show it. Maybe I’m out to lunch. I don’t think so.
There’s peril in having four young defensemen on the roster, so rolling out Oscar Klefbom, Darnell Nurse, Brandon Davidson and Griffin Reinhart comes with inherent problems. For me, Klefbom has had a tough start. He needs to settle in. I want to see more of the same from Reinhart – keep it simple, move the puck, take the body. Nurse? He’s a horse. He just needs time. That said, the kids need some help from Andrej Sekera and Mark Fayne. They have to be way better.
Goaltending tandems can work, but I want to see Cam Talbot or Anders Nilsson grab the crease, and I’m sure Chiarelli feels the same. Talbot has had his moments, but he’s struggling right now with a streak of four straight games with a save-percentage under .900. He is .893 overall. Not good enough, even behind this blue line group. Nilsson has been better in his five appearances. He’s at .911. Somebody take the job.
McLellan hasn’t had a group of top-six forwards to work with that includes McDavid and Eberle. That’s not going to change until McDavid gets back. That’s a challenge. What I want to see in the meantime is for Nail Yakupov to regain the form he found alongside McDavid. It won’t be easy, but I’d hate to see him take a big step back after the strides he made beside No. 97. More of the same from Leon Draisaitl, please.
Checking off those boxes won’t put the Oilers in a playoff race or even get them to the most modest points totals we projected, but it will set up what remains of the season after McDavid returns and give us a better idea where this team is at than the first 15 games have. While that’s not nearly as much fun as watching McDavid wheel and deal, it’s where we’re at.
WHILE I’M AT IT
- Even with this 5-10-0 (.333) start, McLellan has a regular season career point percentage of .629 – he was .637 in seven seasons with San Jose. That’s fourth among active NHL coaches behind only Dan Bylsma, Bruce Boudreau and Dave Cameron.
- I’d love to give Chiarelli a shot of truth serum and ask him about Craig MacTavish’s signings of Fayne, Andrew Ference and Nikita Nikitin. Fayne has a chance to rebound, but Nikitin and Ference are spent money.
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TSN 1260.