Examining the race to the playoffs for the Oilers, and what they need to do to get there

Photo credit:© Terrence Lee-USA TODAY Sports
6 months ago
Following a disastrous month of October, which resulted in the firings of head coach Jay Woodcroft and assistant coach Dave Manson, the Edmonton Oilers are slowly, but surely climbing back up the standings.
In their first 12 games, the Oilers posted a horrendous record of 2-9-1, tied for the worst start in franchise history. They scored 31 goals, which equates to 2.6 goals per 60 minutes, ranking 28th in the league. On the other hand, they allowed 50 goals against, which equates to 4.1 goals against per 60, ranking 31st in the league. For reference, in 2022-23, Edmonton scored 3.9 goals per hour (1st) and allowed 3.09 goals against per hour (17th).
In their past 10 games, they’ve significantly improved to 7-3-0. The Oilers have scored 4.2 goals per hour (2nd) and allowed 2.86 goals against per hour (12th).
Connor McDavid is finally playing at his usual levels, which is a massive reason for Edmonton’s recent surge. In his first 14 games, McDavid had just 13 points, producing at a rate below point-per-game for the first time in his career since his rookie season. However, in his last six games, he has 16 points. It was evident that McDavid was not 100 percent healthy for most of the start of the season, and it seems that he is back to his usual dominant self. 
As of recent, the Oilers have also obtained much better goaltending from Stuart Skinner, and their transitional defence has seen a considerable improvement under newly hired Kris Knoblauch. There are some quite encouraging recent signs.
There is no doubt that Edmonton still has a ways to go to qualify for the playoffs. Overall, Edmonton still has a disappointing record of 9-12-1, ranking 27th in the NHL in points percentage (0.432). But, these last few games have undoubtedly been a significant step in the right direction. 
Here is a look at the current Western Conference standings, sorted by each team’s points percentage and their projected point pace over 82 games:
Dallas, Colorado, and Winnipeg rank top three in the Central Division, while Los Angeles, Vegas, and Vancouver rank in the top-three in the Pacific. 
Ranking first in the Western Conference in points percentage and third in the league overall, the Kings are having a fantastic season. Per Natural Stat Trick, they lead the league with an excellent 58 percent 5v5 expected goal differential, while also ranking first in the league in goals per hour (3.36) and receiving strong goaltending from Cam Talbot. Following their first Stanley Cup, Vegas is also enjoying a very strong start to the season, ranking first in the league in total points. 
Vancouver produced a record of 10-2-1 in their first thirteen games, but they had an incredibly unsustainable 1.09 PDO (the sum of shooting percentage and save percentage, and is used as a proxy for puck luck). Regression was inevitable, and it has gradually begun, as the Canucks are 6-6-0 in their last twelve games, ranking 22nd in the league in 5v5 goal differential. Of course, they have already accumulated a significant amount of points, so the Canucks still possess a strong chance of eventually qualifying for the playoffs, but regression should continue. The league-average PDO is 1.00, and the Canucks possess a PDO of 1.040, which would be the highest of all time; that simply is not going to sustain.
As for the wild card race, it is pretty safe to claim that San Jose and Chicago are not making the playoffs. Anaheim had a reasonably strong start to the season for their expectations but are 1-8-0 in their last nine games, and I would not expect them to eventually qualify either. 
From there, it is reasonable to say that St. Louis, Arizona, Nashville, Calgary, and Minnesota are all fringe teams; they are in the playoff race, but certainly aren’t locks to make it in. Currently, Arizona and St. Louis hold the two wild-card spots in the Western Conference. 
At the moment, the Oilers are on pace for 71 points. They are seven points behind Arizona, who currently holds the final WC spot, although Edmonton does have a game in hand.
So, for their remaining 60 games, what does Edmonton’s point percentage need to be for them to at least qualify for the playoffs?
First, let’s look at their points percentage from their prior four seasons in the Ken Holland era. If Edmonton played at a previous season’s points percentage pace for the next sixty games, how many points would they eventually accumulate?
If the Oilers continued to play at their current 0.432 PTS% pace for the remainder of the season, they would obviously miss the playoffs by a significant margin, finishing with roughly ~71 points.
In 2022-23, Edmonton had a PTS% of 0.665. If Edmonton had a 0.665 PTS% for their final sixty games, they would finish with roughly ~99 points, which would mean they are nearly a lock for the playoffs in this conference.
If they played at a PTS% rate similar to their PTS% rate from 2020-21 or 2021-22, Edmonton would finish with roughly 95-96 points. If they played at their PTS% rate from 2019-20, they would finish with approximately 89 points.
What is the exact amount of points needed to qualify for the playoffs? It’s too difficult to tell at the moment. Most wild card teams have finished within the ~93-97 point range, although for the Western Conference, I would say the minimum amount needed is lower than the typical average.
It is worth mentioning the 2015-16 Minnesota Wild made the playoffs with 87 points. The 2018-19 Colorado Avalanche qualified with 90 points. St. Louis currently holds the second WC spot, and is on pace for 89 points. That said, Calgary finished with 93 points last season but failed to qualify for the playoffs, while Florida made it in with 92 points in the Eastern Conference, and eventually made it all the way to the Stanley Cup finals.
I believe 95 points is what Edmonton should aim for, at minimum. Again, the fringe teams in the Western Conference are not as strong, so 98-100+ points is likely not an absolute necessity to make it in. 
In order for the Oilers to hit 95 points, they need 76 points in 60 games. This means they will require a record of around ~ 6-3-1 for every 10 games, and an overall points percentage of 0.633; note that Edmonton has achieved a points percentage higher than 0.633 in each of the past three seasons.
Furthermore, keep in mind that Edmonton has historically played significantly better in the second half of the season. In the second half of each of their past four seasons, Edmonton’s points percentage has been 0.650, 0.678, 0.695, and 0.780 (!) respectively. Not to mention, per Dom Luszczyszyn and The Athletic, the Oilers have had the eight-toughest schedule in the league thus far, and have the fifth-easiest schedule for their remaining sixty games.
Of course, there is very little margin for error, as one more poor ten-game stretch could sink their hopes. But, with everything in mind, the playoffs are still very achievable for this team.
Edmonton finished second in the North Division in 2020-21 and second in the Pacific Division in 2021-22 and 2022-23. Can they still clinch a top-three spot in their division this season?
There is a quite strong possibility that LA and Vegas finish top two in the Pacific Division, and it will be tough for the Oilers to catch up. Edmonton does have two games in hand on Vegas but is 15 points behind. LA is 10 points ahead, and they have two games in hand on Edmonton. Certainly not impossible, but difficult.
Comparatively, the Oilers have a higher chance of finishing third overall, although that still remains difficult. While further regression is very likely to occur for Vancouver, they still possess a hefty 14-point lead, which is still significant even if you account for the fact that Edmonton has three games in hand. Historically, the third-place team in the Pacific has averaged around ~100 points; for Vancouver to reach that mark, they need 67 points in their final 57 games (0.588 PTS%). For Edmonton to reach that mark, they need 81 points in their final 60 games (0.675 PTS%). Although the Oilers have exceeded a 0.675 PTS% mark in the second half of each of the past three seasons, the path to 100 points is much easier for Vancouver at the moment.
Still, it is unwise to rule out the possibility that the Oilers eventually surpass the Canucks, as regression will continue to hit Vancouver, while Edmonton could still go on a long hot streak as they did in the second half of 2022-23.
A massive amount of Edmonton’s potential success moving forward could rely on how well they can address their current flaws. Even with Skinner playing well as of late, they still require a second goaltender, while they could also use a top-four RD upgrade on Cody Ceci, and perhaps another depth scoring winger. But, even considering this roster’s holes, making the playoffs remains a very realistic possibility.
Of course, the playoffs should not be the primary objective for this Oilers squad. The team headed into the season with Stanley Cup aspirations, and as we are currently in Year 9 of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, “cup or bust” should remain the goal. In order for that to occur, Ken Holland must be able to fix some of the holes he failed to previously address.
With 60 games left to go, I remain very confident that the Edmonton Oilers will eventually qualify for the 2024 playoffs. For this team, the major question will be what they can do once they get there.
Find me on Twitter (@NHL_Sid)

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