As 2019 comes to a close and we enter 2020, the Oilers have played just over half of the 2019-20 campaign– 42GP– and rang in the new year with an effin’ bang! The New Year’s Eve game has been cruel towards the Oilers throughout their history– they haven’t won since 1985, until tonight. This can’t cloud the fact that it’s been a bit of a fall from grace for the Oilers after a very promising start to this season, with lately fans clamouring for roster changes– from the minute to the substantial– in an effort to bail the water out of this sinking ship.
But, is this the right course of action? We have to ask: what, ultimately, did we expect going into this season?
Where They Sit
The Edmonton Oilers currently sit fourth in the Pacific division, with a 21-17-4 record. Not so bad, but it seems incredible when you look at their 5v5 counts:
After the Oilers 42nd game played last season– which wasn’t played until 6 January 2019, FWIW– they sat at 20-19-3; only three points worse than this year’s team. In fact, the possession numbers this season are somehow worse; last year’s squad had a 48.7 5v5 CF% at the same mark; the goal differential right now is -9, while last year it was -13 at the same. No team from the Western conference has made the playoffs since the Wild Card format has been instituted.
This isn’t promising.
I haven’t even mentioned that the Oilers nearly blew a 6-0 lead on NYE against the New York Rangers.
Anyway, this what the Oilers’ 5v5 offensive attack has looked like so far this season.
This is how it compares to last season.
Honestly, this just shows how bad last year’s team was. This year’s team is at least generating a little more offence from more points around the offensive zone.
This is attack that this years’s team is allowing against:
… Compared to last year’s team:
The 2019-20 Oilers have gotten a lot better at stopping the attack in the high Danger areas against. It’s an improvement. A three point improvement. But, an improvement none-the-less.
Oilers fans, for as long as I can remember, have had a feeling of disrespect from the pundits and prognosticators heading into every NHL season. This past summer, with a new GM and coach, and two top-flight players in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl heading into another season in the prime of their careers– and the jettisoning of problematic Milan Lucic– fans thought that this season was going to be different.
Out of five major publications– nhl.com, NBC Sports, Sports Illustrated, ESPN, and TSN; Sportsnet just did a “bold predications” article, predicting the Stanley Cup winners and other weird categories, but didn’t have a final standings predictions– none of them had the Oilers qualifying for the 2020 playoffs.
Here’s what TSN, ESPN, and Sports Illustrated wrote:
Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl will see a drop in points, but the Oilers will be better for it this season, hitting the 90-point mark. Too much needs to go right – goaltending, more depth scoring and health on defence – for Edmonton to end up the top three in the Pacific, a division that will only qualify three for the postseason.
… Edmonton does not have a playoff-caliber roster, despite having the best offensive hockey player on the planet, Connor McDavid. Can Tippett get more out of this group than Hitchcock and Todd McLellan could?”
… The middle of the division is a toss-up. Even though the Oilers need to dress 12 forwards, Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins might be enough on their own to sneak into wild-card race…
NBC Sports had the Oilers finishing sixth in the division– their blurb was worthless and thoughtless, so it wasn’t worth including.
The most telling might be what nhl.com predicted. Out of twenty writers, not a single one of them had the Oilers qualifying for the playoffs. They all had some combination of the Vegas Golden Knights, Calgary Flames, and San Jose Sharks* finishing as the best teams in the division, with the Coyotes sneaking either in the Wild Card or top three of the division– Rob Reese was the only writer to have the Vancouver Canucks in, with the Flames out.
*It’s actually pretty fascinating to see how many of these publications had such huge praise for the Sharks; nearly every writer in the nhl.com article– save for columnist Dave Stubbs– not only had them qualifying for the playoffs, had them in a top three spot in the division, while the other sites had them competing head-to-head with the Golden Knights for the division crown.
So, are the Oilers nearly living up to expectations?
New Year’s (Re)Solutions
The competition at the bottom of the Western conference playoff picture is tightening up, with the Flames behind by one point with the same amount of games played, the Nashville Predators behind by four points, but also have four games in-hand (ahead of the Winter Classic against the Dallas Stars); the Minnesota Wild are three points back, but also have one game in hand; and even the Chicago Blackhawks are suddenly flirting with a wild card spot at four points back and one game in-hand.
Personally, for what this blogger’s opinion’s worth, I still think that this is a playoff team. But they start the new year on a five game road-trip– against the Buffalo Sabres, Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens, and Calgary Flames– before coming back home to play two crucial games against the Predators and Flames, before hitting their bye week. Frankly, they have earn at least 7 points on this road-trip to stay in the playoff race.
But it’s the next five weeks that might really make or break the Oilers’ playoff hopes.
While every game heading into the second half of the season is important, the Oilers have nine critical games that have massive playoff implications; they play the Arizona Coyotes twice (18 Jan at home & 4 Feb in Arizona), the Nashville Predators twice (14 Jan & 8 Feb, both at home) and the Calgary Flames three times (29 Jan at home and 11 Jan– Nation trip!!– & 1 Feb in Calgary), while also facing divisional rivals the San Jose Sharks at home on 6 Feb and the Chicago Blackhawks at home on 11 Feb. But it’s the four game stretch against the Predators and Coyotes, bookended by a road and home game against the Flames from 11 January to 29 January (they hit the bye week after the Coyotes game), that very will might swing this team’s season either towards the playoffs, or another disappointing finish on the outside looking in.
It’s disappointing, plain and simple. Yes, it was a nice win on NYE, but the team has not been good lately.
But that being said, this team is playing with house money. Ken Holland did not set any expectation in the offseason that the Oilers would be a challenger for the division lead. In fact, he pretty much said the inverse. He preached patience and a longview for turning the Oilers around into a perennial playoff– and eventual championship– contender.
The thing is, no one who cheers for the Oilers wanted to, or wants to, hear that.
This team has just plainly been bad for too long, and the beaten down fans deserve better. But the truth is that everyone– from the players and fanbase– is still paying for the roster trading sins of Peter Chiarelli.
Is is fair? Certainly not. Particularly if you’re Connor McDavid who has a Hart Trophy, two Ted Lindsay Awards, and two Art Ross Trophies– and may very well be on his way to a third– to his name. But, unfortunately, this is the reality for the team, from the offseason to now.
But hey, maybe Kailer Yamamoto– and an eventual Tyler Benson call-up– might be all this team needs to defy expectations and make the playoffs for the second time since 2006.