Last season, the Oilers stunk. They were one of the most disappointing teams in the league. The players were frustrated, and today, the previous season means nothing. But the young group learned a lot. After a successful 2017, the Oilers started the 2017/2018 season with high expectations, within their locker room and across the league, but they didn’t come close to matching those lofty goals.
They struggled early, had a slight rebound before Christmas, but then sunk down the NHL standings and landed with a thud in 23rd spot.
The Oilers management didn’t make any major moves in the off-season. They added NHL veterans in Tobias Reider and Kyle Brodziak, signed Jakub Jerabek and took an expensive risk on goaltender Mikko Koskinen. Veterans Scottie Upshall and Jason Garrison are in camp on PTOs. General Manager Peter Chiarelli is hoping the young Oilers can improve from within. Their best players are still young. Connor McDavid will be better, which is great for Oilers fans, but terrible news for the rest of the NHL. Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Darnell Nurse, Oscar Klefbom, Jesse Puljujarvi and others have room to improve and they, along with the rest of the Oilers, will need to work smarter and harder.
Can a team improve that much, without making significant changes? Yes. The Winnipeg Jets did last season.
In 2017, the Jets finished 20th in the NHL with 87 points. They were outscored 255-246.
Last year they finished with 114 points and outscored their opponents 269-216.
They improved by 27 points and went from a -9 goal differential to +53.
The did it with the majority of the same players.
The main new faces up front were Kyle Connor, Jack Roslovic (31 games) and Matt Hendricks, in place of Drew Stafford, Nic Petan and Chris Thorburn. On defence they added Dmitri Kulikov in place of Paul Postma.
In 2017 Tyler Myers only played 11 games, but he returned from injury and was solid in 2018. Schiefele played 20 fewer games in 2018, but the Jets were still much better despite losing their top centre for one quarter of the season.
Connor Hellebuyck was the starter both seasons, while Michael Hutchison was the back up in 2017 and replaced by Steve Mason in 2018.
Jets management didn’t change much, and their players rewarded them.
They played better offensively and defensively. Either head coach Paul Maurice added a new wrinkle defensively, or simply held his players more accountable, because the Jets defensive zone play was infinitely better.
The reality was Hellebuyck was much better. Just look at his numbers from 2017 to 2018.
W-L-OT GAA SV%
2017 26-19-4 2.89 .907
2018 44-11-9 2.36 .924
The Jets backups weren’t great in 2018. Mason had a .906sv% in 12 starts, while Hutchinson had a .907 in three starts and Eric Comrie had a .872sv% in three starts. They combined to go 8-9-1 in 18 starts.
The major changes for the Oilers occurred on the coaching staff, and I believe the new coaches will help a lot, but ultimately the players impact the outcome of the games the most. They need to be more consistent, battle harder, be more competitive and find the consistency they had in 2017.
Cam Talbot has to be better. Of course the defensive breakdowns in front of him didn’t help, but he needs to play like he did in 2017 and from December to April in the 2015/2016 season. He is capable of carrying a .919sv%. If he does, the Oilers chance of getting back in the playoffs improve immensely.
Leon Draisaitl can be better on the powerplay. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins will be a full-time left winger and playing with McDavid should lead to a career year. Milan Lucic can’t be worse and he openly admitted earlier this week much of his struggles came from within. I don’t think there is any chance he will score only one goal in 46 games. No chance. He will be better.
The Oilers also need one forward to surprise offensively. Jesse Puljujarvi, Drake Caggiula, Jujhar Khaira, Ty Rattie or Tobias Rieder — one of them has to take a big jump offensively. The rest just need to be solid contributors.
On the blueline, Klefbom and Larsson are capable of playing better than they did last season. They are both healthy and hopefully, for Larsson he doesn’t have to deal with another major loss in his family. Darnell Nurse took a step last season, and I think he has more room to grow. I’m not sure he will play much more than the 22 minutes/game he did last year, but he is capable of being even more of an impact player.
Matt Benning is hungry to rebound from a subpar year. Kris Russell could play the left side regularly this year, and that will help him, but so too will the arrival of Trent Yawney.
The Oilers underachieved last season. I’m not sure they can become a 100-point team again like they were in 2017, but making the playoffs should be very attainable.
The Oilers took a big step backwards in 2017/2018, but there is no reason the same group can’t rebound and take a big step back into the playoffs this season. Their best players are still young. They have room to improve, and if this group wants to get back in the playoffs, they simply need to listen to their captain.
During the NHL media tour today, McDavid said this: “We came in (last October) and just expected stuff to happen. We got a little too excited and eager. We didn’t want to work for it. We forgot that you have to work for those things. We’ve got to go back to two years ago, when no one really [picked] us, and we can do our thing.”
The Oilers have skill. Now they have to prove they have the willingness and commitment to consistently do the small things it takes to win most nights in the NHL.