Examining the path forward for the Oilers, and where they can go from here

Photo credit:© Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports
7 months ago
It is safe to say the Edmonton Oilers have hit rock bottom.
Twelve games into a season heralded by many as “Cup or bust,” Edmonton is tied for dead last in the NHL, and second last in points percentage. They’re coming off a 3-2 loss to the San Jose Sharks, the worst team in the league in points percentage.
Edmonton’s roster always had a couple of flaws, and I pointed them out in the off-season. Following their second-round exit, I stated that the team could still use a winger or two with genuine finishing talent, their RD depth is quite subpar, and their goaltending tandem was perhaps the greatest question mark heading into 2023-24. 
However, I did not expect them to be in this current situation. Even Edmonton’s harshest critics didn’t predict them to be this bad. 
On every level, the 2023-24 season has been an absolute nightmare for the Oilers. They rank dead last in the league in save percentage, waived their $5M goaltender in just the second year of his five-year deal, one of the worst teams in the NHL at defending the rush, and their once-dominant offence ranks 28th in the league. To top it all off, Connor McDavid seems injured; if he does not record a point against Seattle tonight, he will fall to below a point-per-game pace for the first time in his career since a stretch of games during his rookie season in 2015-16.
This is a team that ranked second in the NHL since Jay Woodcroft’s arrival, and only lost to the eventual cup champions two seasons in a row in the playoffs. What happened? Where do the Oilers go from here?
Here are a couple of my thoughts regarding the path forward for the Edmonton Oilers.

On the bright side, the playoffs are still achievable

Yes, the situation looks quite bleak. We’re at the point where some fans have suggested trading Leon Draisaitl. However, I believe you cannot totally write this season off.
The Oilers have five points in 12 games, equating to an abysmal 0.208 points percentage. If they want to claw back to .500 by the midway mark of the season, they need 36 points in their next 29 games. It’s not easy, but certainly not impossible either. 
It’s worth noting that the Oilers have been significantly better in the second half of the past four seasons. 
In 2019-20, Edmonton had a 0.650 points percentage with a 17-8-5 record after their first 41 GP, despite multiple injuries, which included six games without McDavid. In a shortened 56 GP 2020-21 season, Edmonton had an 18-8-2 record, equating to a 0.679 points percentage. In the second half of 2021-22, Edmonton had a 27-11-3 record, equating to a points percentage of 0.695. Finally, in the second half of 2022-23, the Oilers had a 29-6-6 record in their final 41 GP, which equates to a fantastic 0.780 points percentage.
The minimum number of points to make the playoffs is around ~95. For Edmonton to hit the 95-point mark, they need a minimum points percentage of 0.643 from this point on until the end of the season. 
Their points percentage has been higher than 0.643 in the second half of each of the past four seasons, and their overall points percentage was 0.665 last season. 
The Oilers had a 0.683 points percentage under Jay Woodcroft before this season. If they maintained that rate for the rest of the year, they would finish at roughly ~100-101 points, which means they likely finish top-three in the division. 
Consequently, while it may seem like it, the season is not over for the Oilers. Eighty-five percent of the season remains.

However, their current issues are pretty significant and concerning

Oct 19, 2023; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Edmonton Oilers center Leon Draisaitl (29) skates back to the bench as Philadelphia Flyers right wing Cam Atkinson (89) celebrates his goal with during the second period at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports
While the playoffs remain achievable, Edmonton’s issues must be addressed for that to be realistic. Unfortunately, their list of concerns this year seems endless.
Goaltending is an evident one. The Oilers possess the worst save percentage in the league, with both their goaltenders combining for a horrendous 0.861 save percentage; no team will have a great record in this league with that level of net-minding.
Even prior to the San Jose game, thanks to a sneak peek of SportLogIQ’s data from Jason Gregor, Stuart Skinner had already allowed nearly nine more goals than expected. Considering that four of his losses have been decided by just a single goal, his performance has evidently hurt the team’s record. A big save could go a long way.
Jack Campbell’s struggles have continued this season to the point where the Oilers have waived him. In his first game with Bakersfield in the AHL, he still allowed four goals on 20 shots. His contract is likely close to unmovable at this point.
Of course, Edmonton’s defensive play cannot be ignored.
Per CSA Hockey, Edmonton’s in-zone defence has ranked well, so their new box+1 defensive-zone structure has not killed the team. However, they’ve been one of the NHL’s worst teams at defending the rush and neutral zone; combine their in-zone and rush defence, and their overall defence is still near the bottom of the league. In total, they’ve been out-scored at a horrific ratio of 5 to 20 off the rush at 5v5.
But the issues don’t just end at their GA rates. Last year, the Oilers scored 3.97 goals per hour, and allowed 3.07 goals against per hour. In 2023-24 thus far, they’re at 2.57 GF/60, and a 4.17 GA/60. That’s an increase of 1.1 goals against per 60, which is quite concerning, but a decrease of 1.4 goals for per hour; put differently, their offence has somehow managed to see a greater decline than their defence has. Half their forward group has yet to record a single 5v5 point through 12 games. 
In fairness, part of all of this is simply poor luck, as the Oilers have a PDO of 0.944. PDO is the sum of shooting and save percentage, and is often used as a proxy for puck luck, and it’s. Typically, an average team will have a 1.00 PDO, and no team has ever had a PDO below 0.965 in a single season; even as flawed as the Oilers are, they’re not bad enough to have a PDO of 0.944 sustain. To some extent, regression is inevitable.
Furthermore, a lot of Edmonton’s struggles can be attributed to injuries. McDavid, Ekholm, and McLeod have all sustained injuries of some sort, and may still be playing through them / recovering from them. McDavid, in particular, has declined the most, as his transitional metrics have regressed, and he’s shooting far less than he usually does. When a team’s best player, best defenceman, and third-line center are all far from the top of their games, it will undoubtedly hurt the team.
However, while it’s reasonable to expect that they wouldn’t have the best start after several key injuries, it’s also fair to say that they shouldn’t be tied for dead last in the league.
Additionally, with this goaltending tandem, Edmonton’s save percentage is never going to be high, and this team has a lack of natural finishers at 5v5. Their PDO will regress positively, but unless they make roster changes, it may never fully reach 1.00.
Now, I’ve been critical of Jay Woodcroft for reasons I believe are quite fair. His line-matching and deployment arguably cost them the series against Vegas in the 2023 playoffs, and I’ve had many doubts regarding his overall deployment this season as well. The team’s NZ structure is quite appalling at the moment, and Woodcroft plays a role there.
But, the fact that this roster has been hampered by PDO and injuries is not his fault. As for their roster issues, a new coach will not fix Edmonton’s goaltending. A new coach will not change the fact that they’re paying $9.25M to Darnell Nurse, who ranks seventh-last among all defenders (minimum 200 TOI) in 5v5 goals against per hour. A new coach will not change Edmonton’s subpar RD depth of Bouchard, Ceci, and Desharnais. A new coach will not change the fact that there is a lack of natural 5v5 scorers on the roster.
The fact is, Ken Holland deserves the most blame here. Regardless of the fact that Chiarelli left a mess, he was hired on a team with McDavid and Draisaitl in their primes, making well below market value. He had $26M in cap space in 2021. And yet, the team does not even possess a single win in the conference finals to show for it. Not a single one of Holland’s draft picks has made an NHL impact in five years.
The team needed a starting goaltender, a top-four defenceman, and scoring depth when he initially arrived, and those are the exact same needs as this current Oilers team. Simply put, I don’t think Holland deserves the opportunity to fire two coaches.

So, where do the Oilers go from here?

Due to McDavid’s injury, alongside their unsustainably low PDO, the Oilers are likely much better than their record suggests, and there will be some eventual upward regression. If McDavid is 100% healthy, despite all their other flaws, I still believe the Oilers can go on a season-ending heater, as they’ve done in the past, and make the playoffs in a weak Pacific Division.
But, that doesn’t mean they can sit around and do nothing. A 2-9-1 start is simply unacceptable.
Firstly, I’d strongly consider resting McDavid. He seems far from 100%, and the Oilers have close to no chance of making it into the playoffs if McDavid is not healthy. At this point, he was likely rushed back, and I think it may be best to rest him for a couple of games. The Oilers likely have a better chance of making it into the playoffs if they rest McDavid for a few games, even if they lose most of those games, as opposed to playing with an injured McDavid for the rest of the season.
As for the rest of their struggling forwards at 5v5, perhaps the Oilers may simply need to wait for some regression. Half their forwards will not stay at a 0 percent 5v5 on-ice SH% for the rest of the season. Giving Holloway an extended look in the top-six, and Lavoie a chance in the top-nine wouldn’t hurt either, as internal growth from younger players may be their best solution to their scoring woes at this point.
In regards to their goaltending, Calvin Pickard is not the solution. He has played just 12 NHL games in the past five years, with a 0.859 save percentage, and has allowed 15 goals more than expected.
The best solution to their defensive and goaltending woes is likely to upgrade via trade at this point. They need an adequate RD partner for Nurse, someone who is reliable at defending the rush and has the ability to make a breakout pass.
Even more importantly, they need a proper starting goaltender, but unfortunately, the goalie market is not too appealing. Some of their options include the likes or Binnington and Allen, but they may not move the needle enough. The best goalie potentially available is Juuse Saros, but his asking price is likely sky-high.
In regards to organizational changes, I don’t know if firing Woodcroft is the solution. Perhaps a coaching change can give the team a spark, and they very often do, but I don’t think he is the major culprit for Edmonton’s struggles. 
Will a GM change make an immediate impact on this season? It’s unlikely, but roster issues have had a greater effect on their record than coaching decisions. In terms of who deserves blame, Holland is much more at fault here than Woodcroft. 
If the team does decide to let go of Woodcroft, who would finish his tenure with the highest points percentage of all time among Oilers coaches, Ken Holland should also be on his way out.
Find me on Twitter (@NHL_Sid)

Check out these posts...