logo

The Oilers have ample time to rebound, but unless something changes, they don’t look like Cup contenders

alt
Photo credit:© Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
NHL_Sid
6 months ago
What a disastrous start it’s been for the Edmonton Oilers.
With a brutal 3-0 loss to the Rangers on Thursday night, Edmonton falls to a record of 1-5-1, 31st in the NHL. They’re only ahead of a winless San Jose Sharks team.
While it seems easy to imagine the sky is falling, as they possess a seemingly endless list of concerns, I believe the team is significantly better than their record suggests. That said, even when the roster is at the top of their games, is it good enough for them to achieve playoff success?
Here’s an overview of Edmonton’s current situation. 
*All microstats via our tracking project, all other stats via Natural Stat Trick unless mentioned otherwise

What’s gone wrong for the Oilers?

In a nutshell, pretty much everything.
The goaltending has been the recipient of heavy criticism. Stuart Skinner is at a 0.846 save percentage, and Jack Campbell is at 0.878. No team will be victorious with those numbers, and there’s a valid argument that a bonafide starting goaltender is Edmonton’s great need.
Many have used public high-danger chance data to suggest that goaltending has single-handedly cost them. Per Natural Stat Trick’s data, Edmonton has been the ninth-best team in the league at preventing high-danger scoring chances at 5v5, but they have the most high-danger goals against per 60 by a considerable margin. NST has Campbell and Skinner’s combined HD save percentage at a brutal 65.1 percent. However, I believe Edmonton’s defence has been much worse than NST indicates.
Public models, such as NST and MoneyPuck, rely on the NHL’s official RTSS data, which only provides shot location data for each shot. Public scoring chance/xG models are nearly entirely dependent on this shot location data, while they’re missing crucial information, most notably pre-shot movement data. With publicly available data, we have no idea if a pass preceded a shot or not, if the shot came off the rush, etc.
The discrepancy between public/private models was on display against the Rangers on Thursday night. Per NST, the Oilers defence allowed 2.8 expected goals. According to Stephen Valiquette and CSA Hockey, a private stats company that does incorporate more detailed information such as pre-shot movement, they had the Oilers at an ugly 4.6 expected goals against. Edmonton’s defence allowed high-danger royal-road passes all night long.
So while goaltending has been a huge issue, Edmonton’s defensive play has been worse than what public scoring chance models may suggest. As I wrote in an article on Monday, they’re allowing way too many five-alarm chances in transition, and a significant portion of their chances allowed are preceded by dangerous passes. A lot of careless individual mistakes are being made on goals against.
With a combination of abysmal goaltending and poor defending, the Oilers have allowed 4.25 goals against per hour, 30th in the league. 
However, they also rank 25th in the league in 5v5 goals per hour. They’re struggling to keep pucks out of their net, and they can’t finish their chances at 5v5 either. The decline of Evander Kane, and a disappointing start to Connor Brown’s tenure with Edmonton are big factors. In general, half their forward group has yet to record a single point, and without McDavid, Draisaitl, and RNH on the ice, the Oilers have yet to score a single goal, while they’ve allowed five against.
Jay Woodcroft also deserves criticism here. The team’s NZ structure has been awful to begin the year, and Woodcroft has made various bizarre decisions, such as deploying Mattias Janmark as the team’s top right-wing. At the same time, younger players like Dylan Holloway and Philip Broberg hardly obtain any opportunity.
It feels that everything that could’ve gone wrong for this team, has gone wrong. It’s been nothing short of an absolute nightmare so far, in a season heralded by many as “cup or bust” heading into training camp.

With all of that in mind, the season is far from over

While the sky seems to be falling for a lot of people, it also cannot be ignored that it’s only been seven games thus far. Ninety-one percent of the season remains.
PDO is a stat combining shooting percentage and save percentage and is often used as a proxy for puck luck. Typically, a team with average luck would have a PDO of about 1.00. When it comes to the Oilers, they rank third last in the league with a PDO of 0.946.
Since 2007, no team has ever had a PDO below 0.965 in a full season.
Yes, Edmonton has goaltending issues, and their wingers struggle to finish their 5v5 chances, so their SV% and SH% will never rank high. Most teams will have a PDO close to 1.00, but certain teams will consistently have marginally higher or lower PDOs than other teams depending on personnel and style of play; for instance, Vegas is a team that consistently prioritizes quality over quantity, and they possess numerous strong finishers, alongside very reliable goaltending. Thus, expect a team like the Golden Knights to consistently post a higher PDO than expected.
That said, nearly an identical Oilers roster managed to finish with a 1.006 PDO last season. It’s difficult to believe a very similar group of players magically learned a style of play that would result in a team with McDavid and Draisaitl having the lowest PDO of all time.
Skinner and Campbell may be one of the league’s weaker tandems, but even their harshest critics would likely agree they’re not combining for a 0.886 5v5 save percentage over an entire 82-game season. For reference, a mere five teams since 2007 have a total 5v5 save percentage lower than 0.900 in a single season, and none of them were below 0.893. 
And while they need better natural finishers, let’s face it: a team with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl will not finish behind the 2023 Anaheim Ducks and Arizona Coyotes in shooting percentage.
I genuinely believe regression is inevitable for Edmonton. Eventually, I’m confident they will rebound from this, and they have plenty of time to do so. The Oilers are flawed, but as much as we all love to panic, this roster isn’t truly a lottery team.
It’s worth mentioning that Edmonton has been a “second-half” team for each of their past four years; from 19-20 through 22-23, in the second half of each season, their points percentage has been 0.650, 0.678, 0.695, and 0.780 respectively. It’s also not shocking that the Oilers haven’t immediately adjusted to and perfected their new defensive zone system.
Furthermore, while roster construction and coaching have been issues, a big reason for Edmonton’s struggles has simply resulted from players underperforming, with injuries presumingly playing a role.
Typically, Edmonton’s best rush defenders are Bouchard, Kulak, and Ekholm, but all three have struggled, which is a big factor in their awful transitional play. While Bouchard’s in-zone defence has been an issue throughout his NHL career thus far, he was Edmonton’s best entry defender last year; however, he has a dreadful 3 percent denial rate this season (he was at 15 percent last season, 22 percent in the playoffs), while his in-zone defending seems to have gotten worse. Kulak sustained an injury in pre-season, and his play thus far reflects this; no Oilers defender has allowed more zone entries leading to chances than Kulak, while he also has the worst DZ retrieval success rate. Ekholm hasn’t been bad in my eyes, but he certainly isn’t the dominant two-way force he was last season.
A major factor in the decline of Edmonton’s bottom six is Ryan McLeod’s poor play to begin the year, as he has yet to record a single point. McLeod is usually one of the team’s premier transition forwards. Still, he’s averaging fewer zone entries and exits than Derek Ryan and Mattias Janmark, while he’s also made more defensive-zone turnovers than any other player. McLeod missed all of the pre-season due to injury, making it reasonable to assume he may not be 100%.
And, of course, it goes without saying that McDavid’s injury has hurt the team in the past two games, and even before his injury, McDavid was not at the top of his game at 5v5.
Based on their prior samples of play, I’d expect Bouchard to improve (he was already much better against the Rangers), and I’d expect McDavid to eventually play at his usual level, once he gets going. As they’ve suffered from injuries at the beginning of the year, Ekholm, McLeod, and Kulak should all also improve as the season progresses, which can hopefully take some load off Darnell Nurse. 
If the team remains healthy, I firmly believe they can make the playoffs, and bounce back. I just don’t see a healthy Oilers squad entirely missing the playoffs in an incredibly weak Pacific Division. 

But is simply making it into the playoffs enough?

I cannot stress this enough, but we are in year nine of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. The fact that we’re even discussing the possibility of making the playoffs is a massive disappointment to me.
Regardless of team success, McDavid will go down as one of the most talented NHL players to ever play, while Draisaitl is also a fantastic superstar in his own right. Any organization with competent management that has at least one of those players at around market value could build a perennial Cup contender, but the Oilers have had both of them for below market value for seven years, alongside another first-overall pick in Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Forget winning a cup; they don’t even possess a single win in the conference finals to show for it 
At this stage, the expectations should be more than just simply squeaking into the playoffs. These next two years will be the ideal cup window, including this one. It’s by far their best time to win. 
Draisaitl and Bouchard require contracts in two years, while McDavid’s deal expires in three years. The cap will increase, but so will their potential contract asks.
Nurse, RNH, Hyman, Kane, Ekholm, and Campbell will be in their early-to-mid 30s in two years, and are likely to begin declining (which is worse when you consider that Kane has already started a major decline, and Campbell was never good for Edmonton to begin with). The worst part is that they combine for $36M in cap space, and all of them but Ekholm have trade protection of some sort. Not to mention, Edmonton has a barren prospect pool, and it’s unlikely they’ll have several young impact players on ELCs to make up for their aging players.
Like it or not, it could be nearly impossible for the Oilers roster to be significantly better than it is now in 2-to-3 years.
The Oilers can rebound, but there’s no denying they have multiple holes. Even when the team bounces back, they could use a right-shot scoring winger, a top-four RD, and potentially a goaltender if neither Skinner nor Campbell can perform at the level of an adequate starter. Right now, it’s hard to imagine they could compete in a playoff series against a team of Vegas or Colorado’s calibre.
What’s unfortunate is that it’s difficult to improve the roster with the cap situation Ken Holland has placed them in. They don’t even have enough cap space to run with more than 18 skaters if one of their players has a non-LTIR injury, and with Janmark on the roster, they won’t accrue as much cap space at the deadline.
While the Oilers roster is much better than what their record suggests, the reality is that they currently do not look like a bonafide Stanley Cup contender. Whether it’s by internal growth, trades, improved coaching, or hopefully, all of them, that must change, as the clock is ticking for the McDavid and Draisaitl era in Edmonton.
Find me on Twitter (@NHL_Sid)

Check out these posts...