The Oilers are improving

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“They are not the Oilers of the last few years, I’ll tell you that,” said St. Louis Blues goalie Jake Allen after last night’s 3-1 loss in Edmonton.

Usually we hear the hollow complimentary comments about the Oilers at the pre-game skate. “They are dangerous,” “They have some skilled players,” or “We can’t get into a track meet,” have been uttered hundreds of times by opposing teams. It was BS. We all knew it.

The Oilers did have a few skilled players, for sure, and some nights they won, but teams were never scared of them. If they lost to the Oilers then it was because, “We didn’t play well,” or “We weren’t ready.” And in most cases it was true.

For the past decade the Oilers have been overmatched, but Allen’s post-game comments reflect an actual change in how the opposition views the Oilers.

It’s about time.

The Oilers haven’t looked this promising in a decade.

They are bigger.

They are stronger.

They are faster.

They are more experienced.

They battle harder.

The defence skates better.

The defence passes better.

They have a legit starting goalie.

They have actual scoring depth.

I recognize it is very early in the season, and the Oilers will struggle. There is no guarantee they’ll make the playoffs, but they are finally looking competitive.

The last time the Oilers started this well was in 2011/2012, but everyone knew that was a mirage.

They were 8-2-2 in their first twelve games, but they were winning on the back off unsustainable goaltending. Devan Dubnyk (2-2) had a .937 SV% in four games, while Nikolai Khabibulin (6-0-2) had a ridiculous .963sv%. They had stopped 331 of 347 shots.

Dubnyk had allowed eight goals in his four starts, while Khabibulin had the best short stretch of his career, allowing eight goals in eight games. 

Their starting defence consisted of Tom Gilbert, Ladislav Smid, Jeff Petry, Cam Barker, Theo Peckham and Andy Sutton. Corey Potter and Taylor Chorney were in the pressbox, while Ryan Whitney started the season on the IR.

The Oilers had a 1.33 GAA, but we watched the wins pile up knowing the bubble would burst.

In their remaining 70 games the Oilers went 24-38-8 and had a 3.08 GAA. They finished in 29th place.

A 4-1 start does not mean you should plan your playoff parties, but Allen’s comments reinforce that this edition of the Oilers is much closer to being a true playoff contender.

Even the most pessimistic observer will see the differences in their play.

They don’t wilt. They don’t get pushed off the puck as easily. They can actually defend and clear the puck out of tough areas, and they actually produce offence. The most overhyped facet of the Oilers in previous years was their team skill. They had a few skilled players, but they did not have a group of players who could produce offence. They were too one dimensional. 

They rarely scored on the cycle. Second and third chance goals were a rarity. They could score the pretty goals, sometimes, but not much else.

Now this team has a diverse group of forwards who can score in different ways.

LUCIC

Milan Lucic played his best game of the early season, and it shouldn’t be a surprise it came against the Oilers’ toughest opponent. Historically Lucic has proven he plays better in big games, and while game five of the regular season might not seem like a big game, I’d argue it was big for the Oilers and Lucic.

While Lucic is comfortable being a vocal leader, the best way to lead is by example and last night Lucic led his young teammates. He was ferocious on the puck. He played fast, created chances and scored the winning goal.

Yesterday morning Lucic told me the game against the Blues would be a tough test. “It will be a man’s game — hard, tough — and we need to show we can compete in those games.”

They Oilers did not wilt. They weren’t overwhelmed and after the game I asked Lucic how he felt his team responded.

“I think we showed up with the right attitude, we showed up with the right mindset,” began Lucic.

“We respected our opponent, but we didn’t fear them, which was probably one of the things that was here in the past. We’re erasing that fear. They score one and Pitlick, who’s been really huge for us so far, answers back with a big goal to get us right back in it. Those are signs of a team that is starting to move in the right direction. 

“We had the right approach coming into tonight, but we have to be aware it’s going to get harder as the season goes on,” said Lucic.

It is only five games, and I’d be willing to bet the Oilers will have a stretch of five games where they only win one at some point this season. They won’t prove they are a playoff team until they make the playoffs, but last night was a step in the right direction.

For the players and their fans, there finally seems to be some light at the end of the Decade of Darkness tunnel. 

It’s about time.

PARTING SHOTS

Ali

  • The main difference I see and hear from the Oilers organization is they are actually prepared to take the steps necessary to make the playoffs. In the past it seems like the organization always spoke about the end goal, and didn’t realize they needed to fill in the gaps between where they were to where they wanted to get.

    Last night was one step. They have many more to go, but I sense the players, coaches and management are focusing on the process more so than than just discussing the end goal.

  • Tyler Pitlick continues to impress, and he’s doing it in limited minutes. So far, 29 players have scored three or more goals, and all of them are averaging 13 minutes/game — except Pitlick. He’s only playing 8:17 per game and he has three goals on seven shots. It will be impossible to continue his ridiculous goal/min ratio, but he’s making an impact every game. 

    This summer Pitlck was very honest about his play last year, which began with an ineffective training camp. “I laid an egg. I don’t know what happened, but I didn’t play well,” he said. I spoke with him the day he signed a one-year extension. “I’m sick of playing in the AHL. I know I’m good enough to play in the NHL, but I have to prove it. It’s on me and I plan on going to camp and making sure I get noticed,” he continued.

    He didn’t blame anyone and didn’t have any excuses. He vowed to be better and so far he’s done exactly that. Good for him.

  • Early in a season, one game can really alter a goalie’s statistics. Talbot leads the NHL with four wins, but he only has a .904 SV%. In his four victories he has a .930 SV%, but he and the Oilers struggled in their lone loss to Buffalo allowing six goals on 23 shots. One game has made his overall SV% look worse than how he’s played.

    Unlike the 2011 start, this time the Oilers team SV% is one that should improve and not plummet from unsustainable levels. Talbot’s performances on Tuesday and Thursday, before and after his twins were born, earned him huge praise and respect from his teammates. He was stellar, and his ability to respond after an off-night versus Buffalo, as well as dealing with the birth of twins, showed he’s mentally tough. 

    The Oilers are still young and they will have growing pains this year, but Talbot is showing signs he’s ready to be the guy they can rely on, and more importantly be a goalie who can win them games regardless of the opponent.

  • Its interesting to think how tenuously close Pitlick was to going down again, Todd had him healthy scratched for a home preseason game. Someone got nicked up or something and Pitlick got the late call, scored, set up a beauty and physically engaged.

    Been a key cog ever since.

  • dsanchez1973

    I think everyone needs to pump the brakes a bit.

    It’s great that we are 4-1. Saying they’ve turned the corner based on these five games, or that they’re a “different” team is way way too early a conclusion to draw. They’ve won for three reasons:

    1) Talbot has played extremely well in four of the games
    2) McDavid dominated several games
    3) They have had substantial third/fourth line scoring

    How many of those three factors do you think we can count on continuing? Talbot maybe, McDavid certainly, 3rd4thLine kinda doubtful.

    • whateverhappenedtoearledwards

      Agree 5 games way too small sample size to get excited about. Having said that, being 4-1 makes me feel a lot better than 1-4.

      Before the start of the season I suggested that 3 keys to Oilers success this year would be:

      . Talbot establishes himself as a true No. 1 goalie;
      . LD plays like the player from his 1st 40 last year, not his last 30;
      . another “Brandon Davidson” is needed (i.e. a solid defenceman shows up unexpectedly, Russell might be this guy).

      I would say arrows pointing up on all of these.

    • Hemmercules

      I agree on the pumping the brakes a bit but you are discounting good performances from a bunch of other players. The same goes for any NHL team, all the players have to be on the same page and playing well to have success.

      I for one have really liked Lucic’s attitude overall. He’s a leader and it shows on and off the ice.

      The compete level and desire is there, these guys finally look like they really want to win, just have to keep that going.

      Not entirely sure if playoffs are in the cards but think injury might be the biggest obstacle. If they can avoid a season like last year they might be ok.

    • Stack Pad Save

      Guess what.

      Good teams win because they get good goaltending.

      Good teams win because they have a star that can take over a game.

      Good teams get depth scoring.

      Just maybe, just maybe, negative nancy, you proved the Oilers are a good team. We should stop pumping the breaks and start planning for better things to come.

    • Harry2

      Have you noticed how the defenceman are actually competent? Theyve been able to brek up cycles and successfuly execute outlet passes to McD and those 3rd and 4th line fwds

      To me that is by far the biggest difference

  • Jakethesnail

    I’m done with worrying about Yakupov and Hall anymore. This team is headed in the right direction and Larson is going to be a big part of it at just over 4ml /season.
    Larson is quickly making me think that this trade is evening out for us really well. He is young and he is only going to get better.
    I am surprised by how solid this guy is.

  • Admiralmark

    As others have stated.. Really good signs from the team at this point. But There’s a glaring hole at RHD. Russell does not bring enough offence to be in that role all year. If Chia does nothing in this regard i’m quite certain playoffs will be out of reach. Still a much more competitive team and thats a good sign.

  • madjam

    Deleting Hall and Yakupov one would have expected an adverse reflection in team play and results . We lost some individual speed and high talent in both , albeit maybe not necessarily team talent . Such does not appear to be the case early this year , as team bonding seems highest it’s been in years . Have to wonder if their apparent lack of team skills was holding us back all along ? Like most , figured Hall leaving would have a far worse negative effect on team than has shown in reality . Maybe still to early to draw any definitive conclusions as yet .

  • Old Soldier

    I think too many people associate “soft” or “tough” with being physically aggressive on ice. I think its a factor, definitely……and very necessary to have that toughness along with skill and speed.

    What I think Hall lacked was strength of character. Its a difficult thing to describe, but as a soldier I spent a lifetime around men who didn’t have to go to the bar every night to beat someone up, but you respected them and knew inside this was not a guy to screw with, and when they spoke you listened, and when the moved you followed.

    A good example might be Sakic, who was not a physically aggressive player but when he put his game face on….you followed. Same with Gretz, and hopefully with McDavid(small sample but so far so good)

    Hall to me is a complimentary player, a very good one, but not someone who should be in a leadership role, and as has been the problem with my Oilers the last decade, was someone who was not slotted properly. Other than bringing in what I think is a very solid defenceman, I think the trade was more a bit of housecleaning, and I think Hall knew that which was perhaps why he was so offended by the move.

    • OilBlood

      “Hall to me is a complimentary player, a very good one, but not someone who should be in a leadership role, and as has been the problem with my Oilers the last decade, was someone who was not slotted properly. Other than bringing in what I think is a very solid defenceman, I think the trade was more a bit of housecleaning, and I think Hall knew that which was perhaps why he was so offended by the move.”

      This X 10000000 likes.

      I agree with everything you said especially the housecleaning part!

  • bazmagoo

    Anyone who dislikes the Larsson-Hall trade at this stage must just enjoy losing. I like the fact we are competitive again! We’ll probably not resign Russell though, who knows maybe we end up with Burns next year – that would be sweet. I think Nuge ends up getting traded as well.

  • bazmagoo

    Anyone who dislikes the Larsson-Hall trade at this stage must just enjoy losing. I like the fact we are competitive again! We’ll probably not resign Russell though, who knows maybe we end up with Burns next year – that would be sweet. I think Nuge ends up getting traded as well.

  • '68 Fire Chicken

    Hall was a whiner. Good riddance. Yaks was a whiner. Good riddance. Hard to win games when 2 players put themselves before the team.

    We didnt lose any trade. We used to ship out players for magic beans. We lost alot of trades.

    Hall is doing what he does best in NJ. Garnering alot of talk and attention and not delivering.

    Hall adds nothing to this team we need. All I read was bloggers here bemoaning how we lost a player who drives the play.
    Its refreshing watching players drive the play now and not have it die on their stuck 90% of the time.

    2 cancers gone and a 4-1 start. Maybe before you judge the trade let the season play out. NJ could use Larsson right now more than we could use Hall.
    Thats a win in my books.

    • madjam

      Hall scores overtime winner for NJ , and Yak sets up winning goal by St.Louis tonight , not exactly delivering are they smart one . Maybe you should give more time before you make any more dumb comments .

      • '68 Fire Chicken

        Really ? Miss Hall that much huh ? Guy can score. But he is not a leader. He is not someone to build around.

        Its nice watching a team that seems to play for each other. That dont have hissy fits when things are going south. Or ask for trades due to ice time/centres.

        It was bad enough watching the Oil get wrecked night in and out. But watching Hall sulk and smash sticks then yak whine made it even worse. Was like watching a bunch of babies.

        I will take this team sans Hall and Yak and be damn happy about it. Seem to be a hell of alot better without both of them.

        • nuge2drai

          I dont understand the need for Oiler fans to bash Hall on here.

          He played with heart every night and was our highest scoring player for half a decade.

          He was an all star almost every year and represented the Oilers on team Canada numerous times.

          Show some class, this type of behavior is really disgusting and makes all us Oiler fans feel shameful.

      • Boom76

        I gotta agree with Fire Chicken on this one. Larsson is far more valuable to the Oil than Hall or Yak… and neither seemed to inspire teammates to rally around them or any larger cause. I wouldn’t go so far to say Hall/Yak were cancers, but they sure were NOT galvanizers.

        The Oilers — with McJesus, Drai, Lucic, Eberle, and Pully don’t need the goals Hall and Yak just scored, they need DEFENCE!

        And, I find it interesting how you subliminally (or maybe subconsciously?) in your last sentence there self-proclaimed yourself the official authority on dumb and not-dumb comments. I know a few hockey forums (one rhymes with BoilPans) that are chalk full of petty negativity like that. You should check them out.

    • dsanchez1973

      Did you really just say “2 cancers gone and a 4-1 start” followed *immediately* by “maybe before you judge the trade let the season play out” ?

      The results so far are good – the scoring we thought we’d be lacking without Hall has been coming from secondary sources. The defence and Talbot have done what they need to. No one is unhappy about this.

      However, there is (as you say) a lot of season to play out. Maybe Talbot hits a slump. Maybe Kassian/Slep/Letestu/Pitlick/etc stop generating any offence. We go on a lengthy streak where we are losing most games 4-1 and it seems like we can’t get any offence going because our defence is contributing nothing. Criticisms then that “The Hall trade was a disaster!” won’t be any more valid than “The Hall trade was genius” are now.

      The early results are good. There are valid concerns about the sustainability of the results. We’ll see.

  • foureyedmike

    I’m genuinely happy for the Oilers, and it seems they’ve pulled around. I’m happy for guys like Kassian and Pitlick who are taking advantage of their opportunities. Seems like the team is gelling.

    I’m still a bit concerned about wing depth and goaltending for the Oilers. Cam Talbot is alright, but no Hasek.

    As a Flames fan it’s been a pretty dismal year so far. I wish the Blue Jays were still playing.

  • Great article, that one season where the Oilers started out fantastic needed to be brought up, because I do see that things are different this time around.

    One of those early wins from Khabibulin was a 1-0 shut out vs the Habs that we had no business winning. We can’t say the same of any of the wins so far.