Back in March, Oilers Entertainment Group Executive Officer and Vice-Chairman Bob Nicholson hopped on Hockey Night in Canada to discuss the Oilers’ disappointing season with Sportnet’s David Amber, Cassie Campbell, and Doug MacLean. Nicholson wasn’t happy with the season, and talked about evaluating, high expectations, and patience.
Twitter blew up. Oilers fans heard it all before during a decade of other hopeless seasons, but Nicholson emphasis on The Plan stuck out.
Nicholson’s interview preached patience and continuity. He said, “the fans will buy-in if they can understand the plan once we make those changes,” which sounded like a big deal. He’s one of the more influential voices in the Oilers organization and he’s on national television trying to tame an angry fan base. When someone that high up keeps referencing a plan, I listen. This is a team with the best player in the league. He’s only 21 and he’s already churning out MVP-caliber seasons like it’s nothing. You need some sort of plan with that player on your roster. But is this it?
The Oilers have followed Nicholson’s words that night. They made changes to the coaching staff, switching out all the assistants, kept Peter Chiarelli on as general manager despite numerous questionable trades and signings, and signed a few depth players. The key players on the roster are the same.
The biggest improvement will come internally, whether that’s players rebounding from poor campaigns or young players asserting themselves at the NHL level. Cam Talbot’s 2017-18 season is clearly the outlier of his career. Fatigue could be a factor, but he hasn’t posted a season close to the .908 save percentage before last season, so he should be much closer to the .917 and .919 seasons he’s had as the Oilers’ starter. Jesse Puljujarvi is at an age where other European players have broken out as a top-six scorer. Kailer Yamamoto made the team last year and the Oilers are notoriously thin as his position.
This summer the Oilers added Tobias Rieder, Kyle Brodziak, Kevin Gravel, Mikko Koskinen, Jakub Jerabek, as well as Scottie Upshall and Jason Garrison on professional try-out contracts. Those additions don’t inspire the same confidence Nicholson had on that March night against the Rangers. With Andrej Sekera injured again, they’re relying on the same defence. Oscar Klefbom needs to return to form after shoulder surgery and Darnell Nurse has to sustain his play as a top-four defenceman all season.
Is it enough?
The Plan is another bet on the Oilers being more like the 2016-17 Oilers than the 2017-18 Oilers and a combination of goaltending and special teams improving them in 2018-19. There’s merit to it, too. Talbot should be better than he was last season and whatever they were doing on the penalty kill should be exorcised by opening night. A player usually surprises and becomes a useful player, like Jujhar Khaira in 2017 and Matt Benning in 2016.
Seven forwards dressed in that game seven against Anaheim in 2017 aren’t on the team anymore, including Jordan Eberle and Patrick Maroon. The defence is largely the same. Sekera was injured in game five and wouldn’t play again until December of next season.
The Oilers are relying on youth and a few depth moves to get them back in the playoffs. It lacks a sense of urgency when you wield a generational talent at the top of your roster, and doesn’t feel like enough was done for the second summer in a row.