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Photo Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

GDB 66.0: Looking for Positives (5pm MT, SN1)

Watching the final 25 games of the season unfold without any playoff hope has become far too common for Oilers fans. Some years it was incredibly painful, while others seasons produced glimmers of hope.

What can we make of the final stretch this season?

You have to be careful of overvaluing what a player does in a 20-game window, but you also have to recognize when a player is showing you a glimpse of what to expect in the future.

Let’s go back to 2010, when the real dark days of Oilersnation began.

The final 20 games of 2009-2010 weren’t that bad, considering they started the season 19-37-6. They finished 8-10-2. Tom Gilbert produced 19 points in the final 20 games. He’d scored 45 points the previous season, but struggled out of the blocks with only 12 points in his first 62 games of 2009/2010. He finished very well and many felt he might be able to be a 40-point defender again. He never scored more than 28 points in his final seven NHL seasons. Dustin Penner had a great 2009/2010 season with 32 goals and 63 points. He tallied 16 in the final 20 games, and then had 39 points in the first 62 games of the next season and the Oilers traded him to Los Angeles for their first round pick. The Oilers selected Oscar Klefbom 19th overall with that pick. So Penner’s late season push did carry over to the next year and it helped the Oilers get a key player on their team ten years later.

The 2011 death march was ugly as the Oilers limped home 5-12-3. Linus Omark led them with 11 points in the final 20 games. It properly forecasted what was to come the following year. More pain.

The 2012 season didn’t start very well, with only 24 wins in their first 62 games. They did finish the season 8-8-4. Devan Dubnyk went 8-4-2 with a .929sv% and a 2.19 GAA. Nikolai Khabibulin was 0-4-2 with a .887sv% and 3.30GAA. Dubnyk showed signs he could be a solid NHL goalie.

The lockout shortened 2013 season started well. At the 36 game-mark (3/4 of the season) the Oilers were in a playoff spot. They were in eighth place, but then they went 1-9 over their next ten and dropped out of the race. They were outscored 13-33 during that run. They did win their final two games of the season by scores of 7-2 and 6-1. Nail Yakupov had five goals in those two games and many incorrectly projected what those numbers would mean moving forward. Taylor Hall scored 7-8-15 in the final 12 games and he did carry that into the following year. The problem was the team’s record indicated they weren’t that good down the stretch and it carried over. Another coaching change didn’t help.

In 2014 Hall produced 80 points, but the Oilers still struggled to a 28th place finish. They won only 20 of their first 62 games. They finished the season 9-10-1, but outside of Hall’s 24 points in the final 20 games, no one stood out.

2015 produced much of the same for this organization. They finished 28th, going 24-44-14, including 6-10-4 down the stretch. They were consistently bad all season, but then they lucked out and won the McDavid lottery. Benoit Pouliot finished the season with 6-8-14 in 20 games and Yakupov had 5-7-12. Many hoped they could be contributors the following year.

McDavid skated on the scene in 2016, but the Oilers on-ice luck didn’t change right away as he was injured in early November. Edmonton finished 29th with a record of 31-43-8, but the final 20 games did show some glimpses of what might come next season. They were 9-9-2 with McDavid in the lineup and were only outscored by three goals after being outscored by 40 through the first 62 games. Cam Talbot was very good, posting a .930sv% and a 2.17 GAA. Patrick Maroon was acquired from Anaheim and he flourished with 8-6-14 in the final 16 games. Hall struggled, for him, down the stretch with 12 points in 20 games and many fans, media and Oilers management, misread the final quarter of the season and what it meant about Hall.

2017 was a glorious season for Oilersnation. Your team made the playoffs. McDavid continued where he left off in 2016 and won the Art Ross and Hart trophies. Maroon also proved his hot-streak wasn’t just luck as he scored a career-high 27 goals. Talbot also continued his solid play and started an amazing 73 games. No player had a sudden late-season surge or fail in the final quarter of the season. Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Milan Lucic struggled in the playoffs, and Eberle was moved in the summer.

2018 was a flop. It started when Andrej Sekera was injured in the 2017 playoffs and didn’t return until mid-way through the season. When he did play he wasn’t close to the player prior to tearing his ACL. The Oilers finished 23rd in the standings. They had a slight uptick in the final 20 games, going 9-9-2, but they still didn’t win even half their games. Talbot struggled. The D zone coverage struggled and down the stretch many players struggled. McDavid was amazing in the final 20 games last year, producing 34 points. Nugent-Hopkins also finished strong with 17 points in his final 16 games. Ty Rattie produced 5-4-9 in 13 games after being recalled from the AHL and some wondered if he’d be a Maroon 2.0. It didn’t happen. Leon Draisaitl struggled down the stretch posting an ugly -15 ranking and it led too many questioning major parts of his game. He has quieted the naysayers this season.

WHAT CAN WE LEARN?

The most important thing I’ve learned is to look at the team’s record. If they don’t win half their games or come very close, then they still need to change a lot before next season. Talbot showed in 2016 he was capable of playing well for a long stretch, and he carried that over to 2017. Did playing 73 games fatigue him? Maybe, but I think his struggles were as much mental as the weak team defence in front of him. Maroon showed he could think and play with elite players, while Rattie proved his streak was just that. The difference was Maroon had a longer track record of success, even in small spurts with Anaheim, but also in the AHL. He could score at the pro level.

Down the stretch, I will be watching to see how Koskinen handles more minutes. So far he’s been good playing more frequently, posting a .923sv% in eight starts since the Talbot trade. I realize it is a small sample size, but it is all we have to go off of. It is important to monitor how he does when he knows he is the bonafide starter and gets into a rhythm of playing regularly.

When I watch players like Josh Currie and Colby Cave I’m watching to see how they handle the pace of the NHL and facing NHL players regularly. If Currie can continue to produce in a bottom six role that would be much more exciting than if he scored playing with McDavid. I don’t buy the theory it is easy to score with McDavid long-term, but in a short window, a player could get hot. If Currie can score at around a 30-point pace while playing bottom six then I could see arguments for him being there next year.

Cave’s play is more about his defensive acumen than his offensive production. The Oilers have to find a way to limit their goals against. From goaltending to defence to the forwards it all must improve. It isn’t a surprise to me that the bottom eleven teams in GAA are all non-playoff teams. Yet three of the bottom eleven teams in goals/game are playoff teams. The Islanders, Stars and Wild are in the playoff picture because of their team defence, and Arizona is one point out and they average the fourth fewest goals/game. Are they Cup contenders? No, but your chances of making the playoffs are much more likely if you can learn to defend regularly instead of score regularly.

For me, Koskinen is the most important player to watch down the stretch. If he plays well in his final 14-15 starts like he has recently, then at least the Oilers can go into next season feeling they have a capable goalie. He doesn’t need to be all-world, just consistent.

LINEUP

Oilers

Draisait-McDavid-Kassian
Lucic-RNH-Chiasson
Rieder-Cave-Currie
Gagner-Brodziak-Rattie

Klefbom-Larsson
Nurse-Russell
Sekera-Benning

Koskinen

Same lineup as the one who controlled the entire game against Columbus. Now the challenge is to put forth another strong effort tonight. The 50 watch for Draisaitl continues. Both in goals and assists. It is rare a player scores 50 goals nowadays, and even more rare when they score 50 and add 50 assists.

Sabres

Skinner-Eichel-Reinhart
Sheary-Rodrigues-Okposo
Wilson-Mittlestadt-Pominville
Girgensons-Larsson-Thompson

Scandella-Ristolainen
Dahlin-Bogosian
Hunwick-Montour

Hutton

The Sabres have crashed out of the playoff race going 2-6-1 in their last nine games. I like the addition of Montour on their backend as it gives them a solid puckmover in each pairing, but now they need more scoring depth. I’m very curious to see how they handle the Skinner contract. He will likely surpass 40 goals and 65 points for the first time. I would be very hesitant to give him a long-term contract. I’d rather give him five years if I was Sabres GM Jason Botterill. Their cap situation looks pretty good, outside of the Kyle Okposo anchor. Will the Sabres be gun shy after signing that deal? I like Skinner, but I wouldn’t want to pay him more than $7.5 million at the most.

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING…

From Die by the Blade:

1. Familiar path’s cross

The Sabres and Oilers are pretty much mirror images of each other in their respective conferences. Both teams drafted star players in 2015, but haven’t been able to build enough around them.

Four years later they’re both on pace to miss the playoffs by a considerable margin.

2. Top line battle

Both the teams live and die off of the success of their top lines. We’ll see if the Sabres big three can outperform Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl tonight.

TONIGHT…

Photoshop: Tom Kostiuk

GAME DAY PREDICTION: Oilers are playing better, while Buffalo is struggling. Oilers finish off a very successful road trip with a 4-2 victory.

OBVIOUS GAME DAY PREDICTION: Buffalo is the only team in the NHL Zack Kassian has double digit career points against. He has ten points in 11 games, and tonight he picks up his 11th point against the team who drafted him.

NOT-SO-OBVIOUS GAME DAY PREDICTION: Kris Russell only  has one career point against the Sabres, the fewest against any NHL team. He scores his first career goal against the Sabres. In each of the past five seasons Russell had at least one occasion where he would pick up a point in the game following a two-point game. He had two points in Columbus on Saturday and extends his streak of picking up three points over a two-game stretch at least once a year for the 6th consecutive season.

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Source: NHL, Official Game Page, 3/4/2019 – 12:00 pm MT