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Photo Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Oilers: Improve From Within

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.

2016-17 2017-18
Player GP Goals Assists Points GP Goals Assists Points
Blake Wheeler 82 26 48 74 81 23 68 91
Patrik Laine 73 36 28 64 82 44 26 70
Nikolaj Ehlers 82 25 39 64 82 29 31 60
Mark Scheifele 79 32 50 82 60 23 37 60
Kyle Connor 20 2 3 5 76 31 26 57
Dustin Byfuglien 80 13 39 52 69 8 37 45
Bryan Little 59 21 26 47 82 16 27 43
Mathieu Perreault 65 13 32 45 70 17 22 39
Tyler Myers  11 2 3 5 82 6 30 36
Joel Armia  57 10 9 19  79 12 17 29
Andrew Copp  64 9 8 17  82 9 19 28
Josh Morrissey  82 6 14 20  81  7 19 26
Jacob Trouba  60 8 25 33 55 3 21 24
Adam Lowry  82 15 14 29 45 8 13 21
Brandon Tanev  51 2 2 4 61 8 10 18

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.

PLAYERS PLAY

Mar 29, 2018; Vancouver, British Columbia, CAN; Edmonton Oilers goaltender Cam Talbot (33) awaits the start of play against the Vancouver Canucks during the first period at Rogers Arena. Mandatory Credit: Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

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.

Recently by Jason Gregor:

  • OriginalPouzar

    Manny Viverios and Trent Yawney – the potential to be the most material additions of the off-season.

    What are two of the most important parts of the game? Goaltending and special teams.

    Well, the numbers show that last season was the outlier for Talbot and he should be much better – not to mention a healthier defence in front of him being advised by one of the best coaches of d-men in the world.

    The PK was already much improved last year (best in the NHL from February 1 through the end of the year) and its added two plus PKers up front.

    The PP will almost undoubtedly be better – I can’t imagine McDavid, Drai and Nuge running the league’s worst PP again. Not to mention it will get more opportunities. Of course, having one of the brightest offensive minds, a coach known for innovation on the PP, well, that should help.

    Its going to be a great year!

    • Van isl Oiler

      I’m not sure it’s the key difference, but it’s intriguing for sure. Gritty, character guys are an important element to a good hockey team. This is a big reason Lucic was brought in, but he is aging and his ability to produce as he did in the past is questionable and he knows it and he knows everyone else knows it…tough to keep your swagger under those circumstances. Chia pet probably shoulda hung on to Hendricks for at least one more year…maybe two.

  • Uncle Jonny

    I guess you could say Chia Pete is banking on internal improvement. You could also say he didn’t do jack squat this summer and he is a bust as a GM

    • Big Nuggets

      I like the small moves Chia made this offseason And the drafting has been stellar. The cap crunch is because of some poor decisions. The Russell contract to me was obviously going to cause some problems, although Russell has been important with all the injuries we faced. The buy outs were dumb and some overpays and missed opportunities with cheaper options didn’t help.

  • VK63

    Quoting JG.

    “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.”

    As obvious as the above sounds. A contrarian look at the fallibility of “battle harder” as proposed by the guy who works with Zack Parise and other pro athletes. I don’t endorse the opinions but do find some of Garret Kramers insights quite profound as they are so contrary to most everything else out there. Might not be anyones jam but here is an except.

    http://garretkramer.com/the-pitfalls-of-issue-based-coaching-or-counseling/

    • Jason Gregor

      I like his stuff. Battle harder is essentially working harder. Oilers puck retrieval effort on the PP last year was far from good enough in my eyes. To me that falls under Battle harder.

      • VK63

        Solid point. Effort and attitude are within the realm of self influence. When absent and negative (respectively) pretty darn toxic, and given that in your example the best players are on the ice, (PP) thats a pretty strong indictment on organizational culture. For lack of a better word.
        As noted on this forum before, I was, and remain, a big Ralph Krueger fan, if for no other reason than he was not constrained by conventional approaches and methodologies. It also informs my opinions on what made Clare Drake uniquely great, his teams were amazing but that did not compel him to rest on those laurels.
        In many seasons they were so much better than everyone else that they competed against their own best versions of what they had accomplished previously. An organizational growth mindset as it were.

        the current Oilers challenges are far different. LOL.

  • GK1980

    “The Oilers also need one forward to surprise offensively. Jesse Puljujarvi, Drake Caggiula, Jujhar Khaira, Ty Rattie or Tobias Rieder ”

    No love for Yamamoto for some reason. This kid has game and his skills will surprise. I personally think he will be better offensively then Jesse. That’s just my opinion.

  • Hemmercules

    I maintain that they will be better simply because they were so bad last year but Im still very skeptical that they make the playoffs. The season is long and injuries are a given. If those coaching changes can improve the special teams and maybe get a little more out of some of the players then they have good chance of being in the hunt in March.

    “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.”………..This feels like a tall order to me but it has to happen if the team wants to be competitive.

  • AlexTheOilersFanSince2006

    I like this approach. Not everything has to be acquired through FA or trades. Sure patience is required, but like all things, it’ll payoff in the long run.

  • Ben918

    I agree. We would succeed too if we kept our talented young players and let them develop like the Jets did. Pulj is no Laine and quite frankly the Oilers should have taken Tkachuk in that draft. Still we traded Hall and Eberle away for nothing. Had we kept them, we might be in the same place as the Jets are. As it is, we are rebuilding around 3 forwards and hoping our rookies can make us a playoff team. We needed to sign a better backup. There were tons of options that went for the same price as our KHL hopeful did. We also could have used a versatile winger like Vanek or Perron. Even Riley Nash would have been good. Yet we signed a player not good enough to play for Arizona. The team is screwed until we get rid of Chiarelli and the ALL the UFA’s he has signed.

  • Vanhellian

    I’ve said before they needed to experience some adversity. I also love the attitude and comments lucic has made recently. Mentally, they’ll ne more ready. Battle harder

  • The Future Never Comes

    The Oiler’s were out-willed by their opponents 75% of the games it seemed. It looked as if they just thought showing up to the rink would simply win them the game. Boy were they ever wrong.

  • TKO

    So, Edmonton is going to better this because….
    New players brought in bring up the talent? Nope
    New coach and systems? nope
    Players will try harder? Yes….
    Good strategy, I’d definitely think this team will be better this year cause they gonna try harder!!

  • OilersBro

    I love the optimism and confidence the players have for both themselves and their teammates. This is a different culture than the decade of darkness and you could tell that losing last year really bothered this group and they’re coming back pissed. They also know they can win. Last year there was:
    -An outlier year for Talbot
    -Horrible PK
    -Horrible PP
    -Significantly fewer PP chances than the rest of the league
    If all 4 of those things became average, the Oilers are not just a playoff team but a contender