We’re a quarter through the NHL season, and the Oilers sit first place in their division. Is it the worst division in the NHL? Sure, but who cares?
I’ve waited to write about the Oilers because there have been false dawns before, and the Oilers electric start to the season was largely due to a favourable schedule and some splendid play by Cam Talbot (also, Connor McDavid, but we’ll get to him later). They came back down to earth after a difficult road trip, and have settled into the team I believe they will remain barring major injury – on the playoff bubble, and possibly good enough to capitalize on the simultaneous collapse of many of their division foes.
How did this happen?
It wasn’t rocket science, or even a surprise.
The Oilers had the most obvious problems in the league: no defencemen capable of handling top-end minutes and a precipitous drop off if/when they suffered an injury or two. Add in a disturbing lack of physicality up front and a lack of elite (or at some points even NHL-level) centermen, and you’ve summarized the Oilers troubles in one wordy paragraph.
Adam Larsson has been as good, or maybe better, than advertised. The price was much discussed, but he is capable of playing top-level minutes with Oscar Klefbom and is the Oilers best defenceman. When you consider his contract and his role with this team, Peter Chiarelli`s decision to trade for him is understandable.
Kris Russell was much maligned by those who only look at advanced metrics, but he, too, is the type of player the Oilers need. He’s a legitimate defender capable of playing in your second pairing. Andrej Sekera-Kris Russell feels like a pairing the Oilers would have shoehorned into their 1-2 a few years ago, with predictable and dire results. Now that they’re playing where they belong in the lineup, things look fine.
And in turn…
The Oilers have been able to survive a few defensive injuries, and play young guys like Darnell Nurse and Matt Benning further down the lineup.
Connor Makes Everything Better
I’ve made my feelings on Connor McDavid clear in the past, but it’s worth mentioning he has stepped his game up further this year, and without him the Oilers will come crashing down in spectacular fashion. When you remove McDavid, no Oiler forward is on pace for 60 points, and big money players like Ryan Nugent Hopkins and Milan Lucic are barely on pace for 40 points. While there have been a few surprise contributors like Patrick Maroon and especially Tyler Pitlick (credit to the Oilers for sticking with him while he had typical Oilers second round bust vibe), the Oilers’ secondary scoring has been sorely lacking, especially considering that McDavid gifts them opportunities every second shift.
Consequences and Meritocracy
The past decade has been one of the darkest runs any NHL franchise has ever gone through, and while you can’t blame that on coaching, it surely hasn’t helped much. The Oilers obsession with pushing their favourites (from Sam Gagner to Marty Reasoner) was maddening and confusing. I’ve enjoyed watching contributing players (Pitlick and Maroon) receive a larger role, while Benoit Pouliot has been scratched two games in a row for a slew of idiotic penalties and lazy play.
That’s Not To Say There Aren’t A Few Problems.
Despite having a fair bit of high end talent, the Oilers powerplay appears to be disjointed and sorely needs a shot from the point. Cam Talbot has been excellent and stolen a few games for them (just like we always asked of our goaltenders!), and I don’t see why he won’t be able to maintain a similar level.
To me, the biggest concern is McDavid. Smart, defensive-minded teams will continue to focus in on him, taking away his space and using borderline tactics to keep him at bay (at the risk of sounding like a homer, there could be a lot more obstruction called against McDavid). Of the games I’ve seen this month, Los Angeles and Toronto laid out a clear game plan for reducing his impact. Any great player will find a way through tactics, but the Oilers will need their secondary stars to step up on days he can’t quite get it going. We’ll see if they can.