With the start of the season just around the riverbend, PITB is previewing the Canucks’ Pacific Division opponents. These previews tend to be a little bit painful, as the rest of the Pacific Division appears to be a fair bit better than the Canucks.
Next up in the Pacific Division Preview of Pain is a team that seems to function as a cautionary tale to the Canucks. The Edmonton Oilers tanked for many seasons, sometimes unintentionally, and collected many talented players with their high draft picks. And yet, because of an inability to build around those talented players, they have never been able to cross the boundary line from bad to good.
After losing in the Stanley Cup Final in 2006, the Oilers have missed the playoffs in 11 of 12 seasons. Last season, even with Connor McDavid winning the Art Ross Trophy with 108 points, the Oilers still managed to miss the playoffs by 17 points.
How bad will they be this year? Can they turn around their fortunes? Can the Oilers somehow miss the playoffs with the Art Ross winner in their lineup twice in two years? And how do the Canucks stack up against them?
OFFENCE The Oilers have enviable depth down the middle with Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Ryan Strome, and the newly-signed Kyle Brodziak. Their biggest problem at forward is on the wings.
They addressed that last season by moving Nugent-Hopkins to left wing with McDavid, because they, for some reason, didn’t have a true first-line left winger. Their only other proven top-six winger is Milan Lucic, but he is, as the kids say, old and busted. He finished with just 10 goals and 34 points despite playing most of the year with McDavid.
On right wing, the Oilers have plenty of potential, but no certainty. Ty Rattie lit up the preseason alongside McDavid, Jesse Puljujarvi seems ready to prove himself worthy of the fourth overall pick in 2016, and Kailer Yamamoto is small, but incredibly skilled. If two of those three click in the top six this season, the Oilers’ offence will be difficult to contain.
Compared to the Canucks, the Oilers have McDavid. So, uh...yeah.
DEFENCE The wings are an issue for the Oilers, but defence is an even bigger concern. It’s the reason why they paid such a premium to acquire Adam Larsson, though it’s odd that they traded from a position of weakness on the wing to do so.
Theoretically, Larsson, Oscar Klefbom, Darnell Nurse, and Andrej Sekera is a decent top-four. Not fantastic, by any means, but acceptable. In practice, however, the Oilers were leakier than a screen door on a submarine. According to Natural Stat Trick, http://www.naturalstattrick.com/ the Oilers gave up the third-most scoring chances at 5-on-5 in the NHL last season.
It doesn’t help that Sekera is out long-term, and that the Oilers’ defensive depth consists of Kris Russell and Matt Benning. 10th-overall pick Evan Bouchard might make the team out of necessity, as could 21-year-old Ethan Bear.
The Canucks aren’t much better on defence, however. They actually allowed the fourth-most scoring chances, just four fewer than the Oilers. Aside from the two rookies that might make the lineup, the Oilers didn’t make any changes on the blue line, but neither did the Canucks.
GOALTENDING Cam Talbot had an off season for the Oilers, finishing with a .908 save percentage after an excellent .919 the season before. Part of that can be chalked up to the defence in front of him, who, as mentioned above, gave up a ton of scoring chances.
The Oilers will need Talbot to get back closer to his .918 career save percentage in order to have a shot at the playoffs. Either that, or 30-year-old Mikko Koskinen, who has been dominating the KHL for the past five seasons, could step in. Last time he was in North America in his early twenties, he wasn’t particularly good, but goaltender development can be tricky.
Talbot’s track record is good enough that you can overlook one bad season, but he’s also 31. Though some goaltenders play very well in their thirties, on average, goaltender performance falls off after 30. It’s something to keep an eye on.
Compare to the tandem of Jacob Markstrom and Anders Nilsson, the Oilers have an edge, but it’s slight enough that I’m giving the advantage to neither team for now.
SPECIAL TEAMS The Oilers have McDavid, Draisaitl, Nugent-Hopkins, Lucic, and Klefbom. Theoretically, they should have a great power play. Instead, last season they had the worst power play in the league.
The Oilers converted on just 14.8% of their power play opportunities, which doesn’t seem possible. McDavid had just 20 power play points, which means he led the league in scoring while finishing 66th in power play scoring.
The team’s power play struggles alone might let Bouchard make the team as an 18-year-old rookie. The team lacks a power play quarterback and Bouchard’s puck distribution could help.
It’s hard to imagine a McDavid-led power play being that bad two seasons in a row, but they also have to contend with one of the worst penalty kills in the league from last season. They were 25th in the NHL in penalty killing percentage. The addition of free agents Tobias Rieder and Kyle Brodziak might help.
The Oilers also fired the assistant coaches in charge of special teams. They hired Trent Yawney to coach defence and the penalty kill, and Glen Gulutzan and Manny Viveiros to handle the power play. Viveiros has a reputation for innovation on the power play in the WHL, so it will be interesting to see how that works out in the NHL.
OVERALL Most lottery winners end up broke in just a few years. Without a proper structure in place to manage their winnings, the money disappears faster than you could possibly imagine.
The Oilers have won the lottery four times, picking first overall four of the last nine years. On top of that, they’ve picked in the top 10 in nine of the last ten drafts. But without a proper structure to support those high-end picks, the Oilers have gone broke.
Two of those first overall picks are no longer with the team. They have no depth on defence. They somehow have no surefire top-six wingers to play with their generational first-line centre and elite second-line centre. They’re a disaster.
They’re still better than the Canucks.