There was a collective freakout yesterday as most of the Edmonton sports world came to grips with something – the Oilers are bad. Last night’s 8-3 destruction at the hands of the St. Louis Blues didn’t just feel like a one-off; it felt like the Oilers have nearly regressed back to the Eakins/MacTavish era. What makes it more painful (and mind-boggling to outsiders) is this team is relatively unchanged from last year, and unlike previous Oilers incarnations, expectations were sky high for 2017-’18. Playoffs were more or less assumed, and a real Stanley Cup run didn’t just seem plausible, it seemed… likely?
There’s another notable change this season. The Oilers problems used to be easy to diagnose, and obvious to everyone outside Oilers management. This year? Not so much. It probably comes from a number of factors, all hitting at once.
Expectations were wrong.
The Oilers were historically awful for a decade, only for the 2016-’17 version to make a 33 point jump and come within a few suspicious officiating decisions from a Conference Final. Fans – myself included – thought this was the new world order. But perhaps we should have asked if a 33 point jump was reasonable, and if last year was incremental progress disguised as an incredible season in a sparkling new arena.
Oilers fans optimistically compared them to the Pittsburgh Penguins (for obvious reasons), but maybe the better comparison are the recent Dallas Stars. Consider Dallas from 2009-2017:
2009-2015: One playoff appearance in six years, mid 80s to low 90s in points every season.
2015-16: 109 points, lost Game 7 in Round 2.
2016-17: 79 points, back to reality.
Goaltending masks many faults. Not this year. And there’s no cover.
Cam Talbot has played at an all-star level since he joined the Oilers, which was both a pleasant surprise and a change of pace considering the Oilers recent forays into goaltending (Editor Note: Due to travel and other sporting interests, I missed a fair bit of the Oilers early season, so I’m basing a lot of my opinions on the past few weeks). He’s had a rough start, not dissimilar to some of the other goaltending starts the Oilers have witnessed in the past decade. While Talbot is not solely to blame, we’ve witnessed enough awful seasons to know that a bad start in net can derail a season for an entire team. The Oilers by most accounts played pretty well out of the gate and were unlucky – and now they’re playing poorly and getting rightfully pounded. Maybe a shaky start in net undermined their confidence.
Failing to find a competent backup goaltender is rarely a killer, but it is when your starter desperately needs a break. Laurent Brossoit is awful, and that isn’t news.
Last year everything went perfect. Replication isn’t easy.
The Oilers biggest injury last season was Tyler Pitlick. Their top 10 players all played 79+ games. After years of devastating injuries, the Hockey Gods gave the Oilers an improbably healthy team that masked some of their noted depth issues.
Where did those depth problems come from, anyway?
Inability to draft means there is little to no depth.
Now that Edmonton is devoting $20+ million to two players, the draft will be essential to keep the team competitive. They haven’t had the same high-profile busts as years past, but the franchise still hasn’t been able to hit or develop a player outside the first round in recent times. Since picking Jeff Petry in the second round in 2006, here are the *BEST* Oilers picks outside the first round:
- Ryley Nash (342 GP, 0 with the Oilers).
- Anton Lander (215 dreadful games with the Oilers).
- Brandon Davidson (113 GP, no longer an Oiler).
- Martin Marincin (175 forgettable games unless you are in the analytical community).
- Tobias Rieder (257 games played, none with the Oilers).
- Anton Slepyshev (62 games played, verdict still out).
Lower round picks don’t have high success rates, but for the Oilers to get virtually nothing outside the first round is a disaster, and it has to change if they hope to have any long-term success. High second round picks who fail to make any contribution in the league (David Musil, Mitch Moroz) contribute to their current troubles.
I love Connor, and feel extremely uncomfortable writing anything remotely negative about him. But there are a few undeniable truths this year:
- Opponents have not “figured him out,” but they have devised a plan to deal with him. That should have been expected, and maybe Jaromir Jagr is to blame when he said McDavid could score 100 goals in a season.
- He’s pushing a bit, and has made a few mistakes he didn’t make last year.
It was ridiculous for a 20 year old to put up 100 points, and it’s ridiculous for us to expect him to exponentially improve every season.
It’s not over yet.
Most of us have seen the statistics about teams outside the playoffs at American Thanksgiving – it paints a bleak picture for Edmonton, currently eight points out. I don’t think they’re done for, but they definitely cannot let the gap grow any further, and realistically need to string together a few winning streaks in the next month. Can they?