Photo Credit: Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

Game Notes, Canucks @ Oilers: Where does this year’s team rank in the franchise’s post-80s era?

Another day, another game against the Canucks. Edmonton and Vancouver will wrap up their four-game series tonight on Hockey Night in Canada.

1. In Thursday’s Game Notes, I went into some depth about the standings and the few things we could see happen the rest of the way. Nothing has really changed in the past 48 hours, so I’ll just give a quick recap of it. The Maple Leafs are going to win the division unless they lose the rest of their games and the Oilers win the rest of their games. Edmonton has second place and home-ice advantage in the first round locked up unless they lose out and Winnipeg wins out. The only race left in the Canadian Division is between Montreal and Winnipeg for third and fourth. The Jets have 59 points and four games left while Montreal has 57 points and three games left. The Oilers play Montreal twice next week and can bury them in fourth and pretty much guarantee that Winnipeg would be their first-round match-up. I think that would be ideal given they’ve owned the Jets all year.

Rather than writing the exact same post again, I’m going to dive into a topic I’ve been thinking about quite a bit lately. How does this year’s Oilers team stack up with others from the past?

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2. The Oilers have a 32-18-2 record this season, good for 66 points in 52 games. Over an 82-game season, that would put them on pace to finish with 104 points. That would be the franchise’s best non-80s season in its history, narrowly edging out the 2016-17 team that posted 103 points. Is this team better than the 16-17 team? Are they the best Oilers team since the 80s?

3. It’s a bit difficult to compare teams today to teams from the past purely off of points percentage because of how points in the standings have changed over time. The implementation of the Bettman loser point and getting rid of ties has somewhat skewed the way that points are awarded. Back when ties were a thing, there were significantly fewer three-point games, so the average team in the post-lockout era is generally going to have a higher points percentage than the average team from the pre-lockout era did.

That being said, there’s a pretty significant margin between the 2020-21 Oilers and any of the teams from the pre-lockout era, so I’m comfortable using points percentage in this case. Also, this year’s Oilers haven’t benefitted from the loser point at all as they’re tied for the league lead in regulation wins with 30.

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I would say the best three Oilers teams since the 80s are the 2005-06 Stanley Cup Final run team, the 2016-17 team, and the current team.

4. So, how do today’s Oilers stack up against the 16-17 Oilers? As I said above, this year’s Oilers are just slightly better than the 2016-17 team in terms of points percentage and would be on pace to edge them out over an 82-game season by one point. The other key difference here, of course, is that this year’s Oilers are playing in a unique division in which they see the same six opponents over and over again.

We’ll obviously never know how the 2020-21 would fare in a normal season, but the best thing we can do is look back at the 2019-20 group, which was relatively similar to the team playing now. Last year’s Oilers went 37-25-9 over 71 games before the season got shut down due to COVID. That had them on pace for 96 points. With the additions of Jesse Puljujarvi and Tyson Barrie, it’s safe to say this year’s Oilers are better than last, so we can assume something superior to a .585 points percentage with a normal calendar of opponents. Can we assume they would maintain their .635 points percentage over 82 games against the entire league? It’s hard to say.

5. Let’s eyeball the two teams and try to determine which is better.

The current Oilers have older, more mature, and better versions of Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and Darnell Nurse. That’s an obvious advantage for this year’s team. Nobody on the 2016-17 team was as good as those three are now. I think the 2016-17 team has the edge in terms of forward depth. Pat Maroon, Jordan Eberle, and Milan Lucic each eclipsed the 20-goal plateau while Mark Letestu and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins weren’t far behind. Only two non-MVP Oilers forwards, Puljujarvi and Nugent-Hopkins, are on pace for a 20-goal-over-82-games output this year.

The blueline is a tough one to compare. This year’s team lacks Oscar Klefbom and Andrej Sekera but compensates with Darnell Nurse having a Norris-calibre season and Tyson Barrie operating at a near point-per-game level. Adam Larsson is back to his 2016-17 self this year and the addition of Dmitry Kulikov gives this year’s group a very strong shutdown pair. A young Ethan Bear and Caleb Jones are fairly similar to the young Nurse and Matt Benning from five years ago.

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How about goaltending? Cam Talbot was a rock in 2016-17, putting up a .919 save percentage over a whopping 73 games. Mike Smith, of course, has been amazing this year, though it’s difficult to say if he could play this well over a full 82-game season. I would take Mikko Koskinen over Jonas Gustavsson, but I would probably say Laurent Brossoit is the best backup option of the three.

Finally, one last thing to consider is coaching. One of the best things about the current Oilers outside of their big guns is Dave Tippett, who does an excellent job at utilizing forwards in depth roles and getting the best out of his blueline. While the 2016-17 Oilers had more depth producers, this year’s team operates with a different philosophy, as the strategy of the bottom-six is essentially don’t get scored on and let McDavid and Draisaitl deal with scoring for us. 

6. It’s a really tight comparison but I would lean to this year’s team. McDavid and Draisaitl being as good as they are compensates for the 2016-17 team having more high-quality depth scoring options, this year’s blueline is deeper than the one from five years ago, the goaltending isn’t all that different, and Tippett does better work with his roster than Todd McLellan did.

Give Pistol Pete some credit, he put together quite a good team for that one-year run, though a good chunk of it was due to his inheretance. He did a lot wrong and ultimately gutted the Oilers long-term but the 16-17 team was good enough to win a Stanley Cup in my mind. The Anaheim series is still haunting. I think Edmonton would have beat Nashville who was without Ryan Johansen due to injury. I don’t think they would have beat the Penguins, though.

7. What about the 05-06 team? I won’t go into quite as much depth on this one because that season’s team can really be broken into two. There was the team that started the year and underachieved wildly and then there was the team that Kevin Lowe put together for the stretch drive with a set of incredible trades.

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If the 2005-06 Oilers had Dwayne Roloson, Jaroslav Spacek, and Sergei Samsonov for the entire 82-game season, they would have been much, much better than their 41-28-13 record indicated. That Oilers team allowed the fewest shots against in the league that season but couldn’t get a save, as their goalies combined to post a putrid .884 save percentage. With any kind of goaltending over the course of the full year the 2005-06 team finishes in the top half of the Western Conference playoff picture. The Oilers were eight points back of the Northwest Division-winning Flames that year. There’s no doubt in my mind having Roloson instead of Ty Conklin, Jussi Markkanen, and Mike Morrison results in five more wins between October and February.

It’s a sort of similar conversation comparing this year’s Oilers to the one from 15 years ago as it was comparing them to 2016-17. The 05-06 team featured very, very good depth up front, something that this year’s team doesn’t have. Ryan Smyth and Ales Hemsky obviously aren’t anywhere near McDavid and Draisaitl, but the 05-06 team had a lot of guys who could put the puck in the net and play well in their own zone.

As much as I like this year’s blueline and as great as Nurse has been, nobody comes near what Chris Pronger was in 2005-06, as he was nearly unbeatable for 28 minutes a night. The goaltending is sort of similar once Roloson arrives. You have the cagey veteran who gets hot, as Smith and Rolson are parallels, and the unpredictable Finn behind him with Markkanen and Koskinen. Craig MacTavish was similar to Tippett in getting a lot out of his roster and executing a good defensive game.

8. In sum, these three teams are all very different which makes it difficult to determine which is the best. The 16-17 team had a strong, deep roster with star power and a goalie that was good all season. The 05-06 team had arguably the best defenceman in the league, a lunchpail group of forwards that could score, but underachieved because of terrible goaltending. The post-deadline version of the 05-06 Oilers, in my mind, was one of the better teams in the league and their run to the Final was a lot less of a Cindarella push than the narrative suggests. The 2020-21 team is well-coached with two Hart Trophy winners, a very solid blueline, and a 39-year-old goalie who found the fountain of youth.

Let us know in the comments which team you believe is best and why. It’s a fun conversation to have.

9. Finally, let’s talk about Connor McDavid, the key catalyst to why we’re even having this conversation. McDavid’s season has been completely insane. He’s four points shy of 100 with four games to go. In 2016-17, he reached 100 points on the team’s 82nd and final game of the season, which, ironically was also against the Canucks. He could reach 100 points in his 53rd game of the season tonight. There are no words for how insane that is.

10. McDavid’s 1.846 points-per-game this year ranks as the 35th best season of all time. The only time since the turn of the millennium that anyone has been close to this production was in 2000-01 when Mario Lemieux put up 1.767 points per game, 76 points in 43 games. Next on the list, you’ll find Sidney Crosby’s 2010-11 season, which featured 66 points in 41 games, good for a 1.610 point per game pace. That ranks 90th all time. Nikita Kucherov’s Hart Trophy 2018-19 season ranks 115th. Joe Thornton’s Hart Trophy performance right after the lockout ranks 122nd. Nobody in this era comes close to what McDavid has done this year.

I’m excited to see what he does in the playoffs.