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Photo Credit: James Guillory/USA TODAY Sports

Four things need to go right for the Oilers to sneak into the playoffs

After two incredibly disappointing years on the outside looking in, there’s a sense of urgency for the Oilers to make the playoffs. Fans have grown restless and are responding with their wallets and key players on the team are looking frustrated. There’s an overwhelming desire for playoff hockey in Edmonton. I don’t have to tell you that.

That said, there’s also a new wave of optimism in the air thanks to the hiring of Ken Holland as general manager. Holland brings pedigree and stability to the organization, which is something badly needed after Peter Chiarelli seemingly steered the ship for a few years with his eyes closed. Holland took a very conservative approach this off-season, setting the Edmonton Oilers up for the long haul rather than diving in to compete immediately.

The Oilers are heading into the 2019-20 season as a fringe team with a slight chance of making the playoffs. When you have the best player in the world on your team, anything is possible. It might not be likely, but you can’t count the Oilers out right off the hop.

When looking back at what went right back in 2016-17 and what went wrong in the two years that followed, I’ve come up with four things that need to happen in order for this fringe Oilers squad to sneak into the playoffs.

Health: 

Something often overlooked with that 2016-17 playoff team was the incredible fortune they had when it came to injuries. Not a single key player on that team missed significant time to injury.

Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Jordan Eberle, Milan Lucic, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Oscar Klefbom played in all 82 games, and Andrej Sekera, Patrick Maroon, Mark Letestu, Adam Larsson, and Zack Kassian only missed a handful of games each. The only injuries to speak of were to depth players like Drake Caggiula, Benoit Pouliot, Matt Benning, and Kris Russell.

The following season, Edmonton’s blueline got derailed by an injury to Sekera that was suffered back during the 2017 playoffs. That season’s woes were compounded by injuries to Klefbom and Nugent-Hopkins. In 2018-19, the Oilers appeared to be rolling in November after hiring Ken Hitchcock as head coach, but an injury to Klefbom again derailed things.

Given the Oilers’ top-heavy roster, health is massive for the team to squeak into the playoffs. McDavid, Draisaitl, and Nugent-Hopkins are obvious ones. If the team loses any of these three forwards, it becomes incredibly hard to create any kind of balanced attack. Another key, like with last year, is Klefbom. Without him, the Oilers lose their blueline’s best passer and quarterback and the offence takes yet another hit.

This team doesn’t have much depth. As lame and corny as it sounds, the Oilers need some luck when it comes to injuries.

Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

Solid goaltending: 

Likely the biggest fall from grace after the 2017 run came from Cam Talbot.

Talbot was incredible for the Oilers in 2016-17. He played in a franchise-record 73 games, posted a .919 save percentage, and gave the Oilers a chance to win pretty much every night. That simply wasn’t the case in either of the following seasons. While some issues can likely be pinned on an inadequate blueline, Talbot wasn’t the same rock those seasons, posting a .908 and .893 save percentage in 2017-18 and 2018-19 respectively.

Mikko Koskinen had a nice start to his Oilers career and it resulted in him getting an incredibly puzzling three-year contract extension. For better or worse, he’s Edmonton’s starting goalie this season. The team also added veteran Mike Smith to split the net with Koskinen this year, hoping he could rebound and push the Finn to be better.

Smith had an ugly campaign for the Flames last year, posting an .898 save percentage. While that looks really bad at a glance, Smith did post a .912 save percentage after the All-Star break. He also played well for the Flames in their brief five-game playoff run. He was the only one on the team that bothered to show up, really.

This is a pretty obvious one. The Oilers need solid goaltending this season to compete. We all know this team full of random scratch tickets isn’t going to light the world on fire offensively, so there isn’t much room for error defensively. Smith and Koskinen are going to have to be, at the very least, league average for this to work.

Breakout performance: 

While McDavid and Draisaitl were the stars in 2016-17, the Oilers had a fairly deep offensive lineup as seven different forwards chipped in with at least 15 goals. Mark Letestu scored 16, Nugent-Hopkins scored 18, Jordan Eberle scored 20, Milan Lucic scored 22, and Patrick Maroon scored 27.

Chiarelli traded Eberle in the off-season to open up cap room and it was expected a committee of Ryan Strome, Anton Slepyshev, and Drake Caggiula could easily replace his offence. That didn’t happen. The team also saw a steep decline in offensive production from Lucic, as he scored just 10 goals in 2017-18.

We can assume McDavid, Draisaitl, and Nugent-Hopkins are going to produce offence, but where is the rest of it going to come from? The Oilers finished 2016-17 eighth in the league in goals with 247. Three players can’t accomplish that alone.

Holland has added a lot of scratch tickets to this roster in hopes that something can work out. Can Josh Archibald, Markus Grandlund, Tomas Jurco, and Joakim Nygard produce more depth scoring than we’ve seen in the past couple of years? Can James Neal improve on Lucic’s production? Can Kassian be as effective alongside McDavid as Maroon was? What about Alex Chiasson? It’s fair to count on these players to chip in with some offence, but what the Oilers really need is to replace what they lost when they traded away Jordan Eberle.

The Oilers badly need a breakout this year. They have three good forwards who are carrying virtually all of the load and adding a fourth would be huge for the offence. Maybe Tyler Benson, who had a huge rookie season in Bakersfield, is that guy. Having one of these scratch tickets work out would be a big game-changer for what, on paper, appears to be a very underwhelming offence.

McDavid goes insane: 

I honestly feel a little dirty asking for anything more from Connor McDavid.

McDavid won the Hart and Art Ross Trophies in 2016-17 with 30 goals and 100 points, playing a key role in the team ending its playoff drought. McDavid was no worse in the following seasons. He shoulders zero blame for the team’s failures. McDavid has scored 41 goals in back-to-back seasons and has reached a new career-high in points in every season he’s been in the league.

Still, McDavid finding another gear would be huge for the Oilers. As noted above, it isn’t going to be easy for the Oilers to find secondary scoring. It isn’t a sure thing for Neal to bounce back to the player he used to be. It isn’t a sure thing for Tyler Benson to burst onto the scene at the NHL level. It isn’t a sure thing any of Archibald, Granlund, or Jurco can be useful depth scorers.

If McDavid finds another gear and explodes for more than 50 goals, those issues don’t matter quite as much.

What does it all mean?

None of this is really groundbreaking stuff. This is pretty much what went right for the Oilers in 2016-17, vaulting them into a playoff spot that appeared to be the end of the Decade of Darkness.

I’m not going to come out and say that the Oilers are anywhere near likely to make the playoffs, but I will say there’s a chance. When you have Connor McDavid in the fold, there’s always a chance. That said, the team really does need a few things to fall into place.

The team needs injury luck like it had three seasons ago. A key player missing significant time would be devastating for this top-heavy group. Goaltending needs to be better. Talbot’s struggles played a key role in the team’s collapse over the past two years. We don’t need that much from Koskinen and Smith. They just need to be passable. The Oilers also need to find another major offensive contributor. There are some scratch tickets and some interesting prospects in the mix. Someone needs to catch fire.

Finally, there’s the trump card. If all else fails, the Oilers need Connor McDavid to find another gear. It’s a big ask given how good he already is, but McDavid putting up a 50-goal, 130-point kind of legendary season would compensate for a lot of inadequacies on the roster.