So, we’re 20 games into the season and the Edmonton Oilers are in a far worse position in the standings than even the most jaded and cynical critics had them in when everybody was making their bold pre-season predictions. Remember all the talk about the Oilers being Stanley Cup contenders after serving notice last season when they put up 103 points? Sure you do.
I was one of those people talking that way. Even with some holes in the roster, I saw the Oilers as Cup contenders – not favourites, but in the mix for sure – because of the confidence and experience they had gained going two rounds deep into the playoffs after spending a decade out of the post-season. In my books, those things matter, or should, when sizing up what comes next.
What we’ve seen so far in 2017-18 does not remotely resemble that. This is not what I (and I’m guessing many of you) saw coming. That’s not even a guess, actually. It’s easy enough to look up what media folks and fans alike said and wrote going into this season. Here we are today and the Oilers are 7-11-2 for 16 points after Saturday’s 6-3 loss to the Dallas Stars. They had 23 points from a record of 11-8-1 at this juncture a year ago.
Here in Oil Country, where you can pretty much set your watch to people overreacting for good or for bad, everybody is wondering what the hell has gone wrong here. That’s troubling on two fronts. First, while it’s good fun to poke a passionate fan base over getting too easily worked up one way or another, I don’t think that’s the case now after 20 games. Second, when it comes to figuring out what the hell has gone wrong, the answer is multiple choice. Why are the Oilers so bad? Let us count the ways. That’s trouble.
WHERE TO START?
With the Oilers assuming a prone position near the bottom of Western Conference standings, as close to Stathlete John Chayka’s Arizona Coyotes as they are to a playoff spot, the problem is you can’t put your finger on just one or two aspects of the game that have put the team where it is now. Coach Todd McLellan and GM Pete Chiarelli have issues on multiple fronts.
The I-Called-It Crowd will say they saw some of it coming. There were questions about depth on right wing. The argument Chiarelli shoulder have bolstered the blueline rather than go with what he had until Andrej Sekera returned from injury had some merit (more than “some,” it appears). Many observers, me included, saw those holes as blemishes rather than fatal flaws that would be mitigated by talents like Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Oscar Klefbom, Adam Larsson and Cam Talbot. Obviously not.
Klefbom has not been close to the player he was on either side of the puck during his breakout season of a year ago. Neither has Talbot, who has a .903 save percentage now after going .919 last season. Despite producing points at a slightly better rate (1.25 PPG to 1.22) than he did on the way to winning the Art Ross Trophy a year ago, McDavid hasn’t been able to drag this mess to success because he doesn’t get nearly enough help.
There are some common threads. The Oilers don’t score enough goals (ranked 29th with 50 and 27th in GPG at 2.50). While the power play has crawled into respectability in terms of percentage (10th at 21.4), the penalty kill remains miserable (29th at 74.3). The numbers aside, the complicating factor, as I see it, is the Oilers haven’t been able to put enough aspects of their game together on any given night to win or, at the very least, get points.
When the Oilers manage to score enough, Talbot has an off-night or the defence gets loose and they give up too many. When Talbot is on and the team is tight defensively, the Oilers attack can’t put the puck in the ocean off the end of a pier. When the power play is clicking the penalty kill is awful, or vice-versa. Too often, when McDavid and Draisaitl are held in check, the secondary scoring isn’t there. On and on . . .
NO EASY ANSWERS
Simply put, McLellan and Chiarelli can’t point at any one aspect of this team and say, “Here’s the fix.” The return of Sekera, as good as he was last season, won’t be a cure-all on the blueline. Splitting up McDavid and Draisaitl, by itself, isn’t a magic bullet up front. I see the acquisition of Mike Cammalleri as a good bet, but is it a game-changer? I think not. Big picture, that’s OK because from where I sit it looks like several little fixes and upgrades in different areas are what this team needs.
The problem is that approach takes time. Time is something Chiarelli had plenty of this past off-season but does not have now. Twenty games in, the Oilers aren’t even close to what most of us thought they’d be and are in danger of missing the playoffs – as McLellan talked about after the loss in Dallas. Without the luxury of tweaking over time, it follows that the next move might be something bigger and more immediate. Will Chiarelli choose to play that card? If that’s his master plan now, he’d better get on with it.