When the sun rose on October 13th, the pressure was on within the Oilers organization. The team was off to an 0-2 start and were in New York to play the Rangers. Daryl Katz had flown into New York to attend the game and the sense around the hockey world was that if the Oilers didn’t start winning in a hurry, someone was going to lose their job.
A win 2-1 win over the Rangers didn’t really settle the nerves around Oilersnation. The team was staring at an incredibly tough stretch of their schedule and many fans (and media members) wondered if Head Coach Todd McLellan would survive the month (he was the betting odds favourite to be the first coach fired this season).
Oh boy, did this Oilers team ever flip the script.
Including that win at Madison Square Garden, Edmonton is 6-1-1 and they’re beating some damn good hockey teams in the process… but still there’s a section of the fanbase that’s a little weary, and I can kind of see why.
While the Oilers supporting cast is starting to play better, and chip in with some offence, they still aren’t a very good team with Connor McDavid off the ice.
At even strength, they only have five forwards with a CF% over 50% (Strome, Rattie, Puljujarvi, Nugent-Hopkins, and Yamamoto). Two forwards (Draisaitl and Chaisson) are under 40%, which is straight up awful.
They do have seven forwards with an even-strength goal for percentage better than 50% (Rattie, Chiasson, Nugent-Hopkins, McDavid, Strome, Draisaitl, and Rieder) but they also have four forwards who are under 30% (Puljujarvi, Khaira, Brodziak, and Lucic) and as that isn’t ideal.
During the wins over Washington, Nashville, and Chicago, I’ve noticed the team playing much better when Connor McDavid isn’t on the ice, and that is a very encouraging sign.
Leon Draisaitl appears to be finding his legs after looking very bad in the first few games of the season. He still isn’t at the level that the team would like him to be at, but he’s been taking positive strides nonetheless.
Ryan Strome, Milan Lucic, and Drake Caggiula have played 25 minutes together during this three-game winning streak and despite only being on the ice for one goal, they’ve gotten 57% of the scoring chances while they’ve been on the ice. I’ve been impressed with their ability to create offence and generate a cycle.
The fourth line of Zack Kassian, Jujhar Khaira, and Kyle Brodziak don’t need to be worldbeaters offensively, but if they can generate a little offence and not get dominated in their own zone, it will help the Oilers win hockey games.
Connor McDavid will continue to produce, I have no doubt about that, but if the Oilers want to keep winning games at this pace, they’ll need the groups I just mentioned to keep taking strides forward.
The first month of the season was viewed as a big test for the Oilers and they passed it but in today’s NHL, the second you feel safe, you get in trouble.
The month of November will be equally as difficult and even more meaningful when you consider how many divisional games they have to play.
During the first 15 days of the month, the Oilers will play seven games against seven different opponents. While only three of their opponents made the playoffs last year, those teams have a combined record of 35-24-15. Only two teams, Detroit and Florida, have a losing record so far this season. Add on the fact that four of those games are on the road, and you have another very tough stretch of hockey for Edmonton.
The last 15 days of the month feature seven games, with six of them being against Pacific Division opponents. The Pacific doesn’t look particularly strong this season and in previous seasons, the Oilers have played pretty well within their own division over the past few years, so there are reasons to be confident in the team heading into this stretch.
During this coming month, they also play a pair of back-to-backs. The first set comes on November 5th-6th as they’re on the road to take on the Capitals and Lightning, two offensive powerhouses, then on the 17th-18th they’re home to the Flames and Golden Knights, two teams they’ll be fighting with until the end of the season for a playoff spot.
That means there will be two nights this year where the Oilers will have to throw Mikko Koskinen. The first will be against an offensive juggernaut and the second will be for a very important divisional game. Koskinen played like a $2.5 million backup this weekend against Nashville and he’ll need to hold that level of play.
In today’s NHL, any sort of extended slump can absolutely kill your playoff chances, especially if you start dropping points against teams in your own division.
The Oilers will need even more from their bottom six than their currently getting, they’ll need Leon Draisaitl to kick things into another gear, and they’ll need to keep getting above average goaltending from Cam Talbot, which they’ve gotten recently.
It’s only November, the stakes are going to be incredibly high as the Oilers move into the second month of the regular season. They’re playing great right now, but the second you start feeling comfortable is the second you get into trouble.