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Photo Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports / USA TODAY Sports

Comparing this year’s Oilers to the 2016-17 team

The 2016-17 Edmonton Oilers were the most successful the franchise has put together in recent memory.

They finished the season with a 47-26-9 record that year, good for 103 points and a .628 points percentage. That was the best regular-season showing an Oilers team had since the franchise’s heyday in the 1980s and they snapped a decade-long playoff drought in the process.

It was supposed to be a sign of things to come. That wasn’t the case — until now.

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After missing the playoffs in back-to-back seasons since that supposed breakout year, the Oilers are back in the mix, gunning for not only a playoff spot but also a meaningful run come April.

So, how does this year’s team stack up to their predecessors from a couple of years ago? Through 66 games, this year’s Oilers and the 2016-17 squad have the exact same record of 35-23-8.

The 2016-17 team would have an incredible finish to their regular season, going 12-3-1 to ultimately finish with that aforementioned 47-26-9 record. Their 103 points were just shy of the 105 points the Anaheim Ducks had to win the Pacific Division. That team, of course, would end up losing to the Ducks in a heart-breaking seven-game series in the second round.

The 2019-20 team is sitting in a similar situation right now. They’re two points behind the Vegas Golden Knights for the top spot in the Pacific with 16 games to do. They also have a couple of other teams, the Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks, close on their tail. A hot finish this year like the one the 2016-17 team had could certainly result in the Oilers taking the Pacific Division crown.

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Through 66 games, the 2016-17 Oilers and this year’s Oilers are identical in terms of success. The difference between the two teams will be shown by how this year’s group closes out the regular season in its final 16 games. Can they be as good as the 2016-17 team? Can they be even better?

Jan 31, 2020; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; The Edmonton Oilers celebrate a third period goal by forward Leon Draisaitl (29) against the St. Louis Blues at Rogers Place. Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

While these two renditions of the Oilers have ended up at the same place after 66 games, their path has been wildly different. Just about everything went right for the 2016-17 team. They had a historically-healthy season, with only depth players missing any significant time due to injury.

The 2016-17 Oilers’ top-six forwards of Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Patrick Maroon, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle, and Milan Lucic missed one game due to injury that season. Their blueline also remained mostly unscathed, as Oscar Klefbom played all 82 games, Andrej Sekera played 80 games, and Adam Larsson played 79 games. The most significant injuries the 2016-17 Oilers would face were to second-pairing defenceman Kris Russell, who missed 14 games, third-line centre Drake Caggiula, who missed 22 games, and third-pairing defenceman Darnell Nurse, who missed 38 games.

That obviously hasn’t been the case this year. It’s been a long time since the Oilers have iced their ideal lineup. The team is currently navigating an injury to top defenceman Oscar Klefbom and they just got through an injury to Connor McDavid. Leon Draisaitl, Ethan Bear, and Darnell Nurse are the only skaters who have played in all 66 games this season. Every other key player has dealt with some kind of injury, or, in the case of Zack Kassian, a suspension.

If the Oilers can get healthy and stay that way for the final few weeks of the season, we could absolutely see them have a similar finish that the 2016-17 team had. The Oilers’ ideal lineup is one we haven’t yet seen this season because of Ken Holland’s trade deadline additions. An Oilers squad with a health Klefbom along with additions Tyler Ennis and Andreas Athanasiou and internally-developed players Kailer Yamamoto and Caleb Jones would make the Oilers even better than the team that got off to a 7-1 start to the season. It might even make them better than the 2016-17 team.

Feb 29, 2020; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers goaltender Mike Smith (41) makes a save during warmup against the Winnipeg Jets at Rogers Place. Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

The 2016-17 team finished eighth in the league in goals for, eighth in the league in goals against, fifth in the league on the power-play, and 17th in the league on the penalty kill. This year’s team is 12th in the league in goals for, 16th in the league in goals against, first in the league on the power-play, and second in the league on the penalty kill.

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So, this year’s team hasn’t fared as well in terms of raw goals for and against, but they’ve been better on special teams than the 2016-17 team. But, that said, we still haven’t seen this year’s team operate at full-strength yet. How does the 2016-17 team stack up against this year’s ideal, healthy roster?

A key strength for the 2016-17 team was their deep offence. They boasted a top-six group of forwards who scored 30, 29, 27, 23, 20, and 18 goals. They also got 16 goals from a bottom-six player, Mark Letestu, who saw a lot of power-play time.

This year, the team looks to be more top-heavy at a glance, featuring a 43- and 32-goal scorer at the top of the list and a couple of 19-goal scorers and a 15-goal scorer. But a fully healthy forward group becomes even deeper than the one featured by the 2016-17 team. An ideal, healthy top-six consisting of Draisaitl, Nugent-Hopkins, and Yamamoto and McDavid, Tyler Ennis, and Andreas Athanasiou would surpass the production of the 2016-17 top-six. Add in James Neal power-play production and depth offence from bottom-six players Josh Archibald and Zack Kassian and it’s a deeper group than the one from 2016-17.

What about the blueline? The 2016-17 Oilers, when fully healthy, rolled with Oscar Klefbom and Adam Larsson on the top pair, Andrej Sekera and Kris Russell as their second, more defensively-oriented pair, and Darnell Nurse and Matt Benning as the third pair. This year, the fully healthy blueline would again feature a Klefbom and Larsson top pair, a Nurse and Ethan Bear second pair, and a third pair with a combination of Caleb Jones, Kris Russell, Matt Benning, or Mike Green.

It’s a difficult comparison. I think the Klefbom of now is better than the Klefbom of then but the opposite is the case for Larsson. I don’t think there’s a defender as steady as Sekera on this year’s roster but there also weren’t young defenders as poised with the puck as Bear and Jones on the 2016-17 team. This discussion could go either way.

Finally, there’s goaltending. Cam Talbot was absolutely lights out for the 2016-17 Oilers, putting together one of the best seasons in franchise history. He started a franchise-record 73 games and posted a .919 save percentage. This year, Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith have combined to post a .908 save percentage. Smith is hot right now, owning a .917 save percentage since Dec. 31. This year’s Oilers also have a better contingency plan in Koskinen than they did in 2016-17 in either of Laurent Brossoit or Jonas Gustavsson. I would take a 2016-17 Talbot over this year’s duo but a streaking Smith is no slouch.

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Jan 11, 2020; Calgary, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers defenseman Oscar Klefbom (77) against the Calgary Flames during the second period at Scotiabank Saddledome. Mandatory Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

So, all told, through 66 games, these two Oilers teams have ended up at the exact same spot despite taking incredibly different paths. The 2016-17 was a beast that drove with consistency and stability as they enjoyed incredibly good fortune when it came to health throughout the season. The 2019-20 team has had a wild, winding road, featuring a hot start, a cold snap, a bunch of injuries, some amazing contributions from call-ups, and a big day at the trade deadline.

At this point in three years ago, we hadn’t yet seen the best from the 2016-17 team. They would cruise through the final few weeks of the season, posting a 12-3-1 record in their final 16 games to finish second in the Pacific Division. I don’t think we’ve seen the best of the 2019-20 team, either. If this year’s group can get itself healthy, they’re capable of going on a run similar to the one we saw from the 2016-17 team to close things off.

Given how wide-open the Western Conference is, there’s reason to believe that this year’s group does more damage in the playoffs than the 2016-17 team. Of course, a lot of that comes down to health.