Next year officially arrived Sunday when the Edmonton Oilers were mathematically eliminated from playoff contention with a 3-2 loss to the Colorado Avalanche at Rexall Place. That’s not exactly stop-the-presses stuff, given the Oilers have been out of it for months, but Sunday made it official on Fan Appreciation Night – 10 straight years out of the playoffs.
That decade on the outside of the post-season looking in ties an NHL record for futility, previously established by the Florida Panthers, who didn’t get a sniff from 2000-01 to 2010-11. At 29-39-7 for 65 points with seven games to play, the Oilers won’t finish within 20 points of playoff berth in the Western Conference unless they have an out-of-body experience and run the table in their remaining games.
While injuries have put the Oilers at or near the top of the man-games lost list all season and have played a significant part in that modest 65-point total, the hurt-parade isn’t what scuttled a playoff berth. What injuries, notably to Connor McDavid, Oscar Klefbom, Jordan Eberle, Benoit Pouliot and Brandon Davidson, did was keep the Oilers from getting as close to a playoff spot as we expected they would be. The vast majority of fans picked the Oilers to miss again, but to be in the conversation longer.
Framed in that, and with fans awaiting the opening of a brand new arena downtown and McDavid’s push for an Art Ross Trophy in his sophomore season, I wonder if the Oilers might find themselves standing alone in terms of playoff futility when the 2016-17 season is done. There’s still a helluva lot of work to do with this roster and even if GM Pete Chiarelli puts together a remarkable run of wheeling and dealing to fill holes this off-season, I’m not so sure the Oilers crack the top-eight next season.
LONG WAY DOWN
The Oilers finished eighth in the Western Conference with 95 points when they made their unlikely run to the 2006 Stanley Cup final against Carolina. Their highest point total since is 88, in 2007-08, and that wasn’t enough to get them in. They had 85 points in 2008-09, Craig MacTavish’s last season as head coach. No cigar. Suffice to say, there’s still a lot of work to do just to get this team to the 85-88 point mark.
On the plus-side, the Oilers have checked some significant boxes since last season. McDavid has lived up to his advanced billing and is, from where I sit, one of the top five centres in the game. McDavid is already elite, and with Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Chiarelli and coach Todd McLellan have depth where just three years ago there was none. I also like the addition of Zack Kassian and Patrick Maroon on the wings. Much-needed size and toughness capable of playing in the top nine.
It looks to me like Cam Talbot checks another box in goal. He’s been terrific most nights in the second half of the season. That’s significant, given the follies we’ve seen in the crease in recent years. There’s still a question as to who’ll caddy for Talbot – Laurent Brossoit hasn’t grabbed the job – but finding a back-up is easier than acquiring a starter. If Chiarelli can find a veteran to compete with Brossoit, goaltending doesn’t stand out as a huge question mark for me going into the new rink.
The blue line remains the biggest concern and most obvious area of need. It’s no secret Chiarelli needs at least one defenceman who is a proven first-pairing guy. He likely needs two of them. If accomplishing that means dipping into his forwards for Travis Hamonic, so be it. Even with Klefbom, Davidson, Darnell Nurse, Mark Fayne and Griffin Reinhart in the mix, this group isn’t good enough. All this, we already know.
We’ll spend the next several months discussing what needs to be done and what it’ll take to do it. I have no doubt, as I’ve already said, Chiarelli will tackle his to-do list with gusto and put just about everybody on the table in an attempt to get what he needs. That said, trades are two-sided arrangements and free agents have options, so there’s no guarantee making the calls and pressing the flesh gets it done..
Even if Chiarelli runs the table this off-season, even if the Oilers have a healthy McDavid tearing it up during his second season in a shiny new rink and even if Talbot is the real deal – a lot of “ifs” there – the Oilers are coming from a long way back with a lot of teams to vault over if they’re going to put 10 years out of the playoffs in the rearview mirror. A lot of cards have to fall their way.
WHILE I’M AT IT
- McLellan talked about re-setting the team for the final 18 games after the trade deadline. We’re 11 games into that, a stretch in which the Oilers have gone 6-5-0. Individually, McDavid has easily been McLellan’s best player, leading the way with 4-7-11. Taylor Hall has 3-1-4, Eberle is 2-2-4, Draisaitl is 2-2-4 and RNH has 3-0-3 in just five games since returning from injury. Maroon has 2-4-6 in 10 games since being acquired and Mark Letestu is also 2-4-6.
- Considering Reinhart just hit the 30-game mark in the NHL against Colorado, I’m not as ready as some people are to write him off. While Reinhart is never going to live up to being taken fourth overall in the 2012 Entry Draft in a class that produced Morgan Rielly, Hampus Lindholm, Mathew Dumba, Jacob Trouba and Olli Maatta, he’s put together some effective, workmanlike games of late. He’s 22.
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TSN 1260.
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