Oilers headed toward another collapse without major change

Adam Gretz

Take a quick glance at the NHL standings and it is easy to conclude that the Edmonton Oilers have put themselves in a pretty good position.

They are just two points out of first place in the Pacific Division, and after a disastrous meltdown in 2018-19 it would seem first-year coach Dave Tippett and new general manager Ken Holland have made some significant strides this year.  But the current standings are only a history of what has already happened. They tell us nothing about what will happen — or is likely to happen — in the future.

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When you dig a little deeper than just the win-loss record it becomes really hard to be optimistic about the direction this season could take. And before you argue that the record is all that matters and the team is playing better, keep in mind they are only one point better after 34 games than they were a year ago (40 points this year vs. 39 points a year ago).

All of the same flaws that have plagued the Oilers still exist today, and without some sort of a major change they could be headed toward the same fate as last year’s team.

It’s Still McDavid and Draisaitl or bust offensively

Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are two of the best offensive players in the league, and when they are on the ice together they are the best duo the league has seen in decades. But the second the Oilers take them off the ice the team’s lack of depth is exposed and they are unable to compete. It’s been a problem for two years and is somehow even worse this season.

Just consider…

  • When one of McDavid or Draisaitl is on the ice during 5-on-5 play the Oilers have a plus-5 goal differential. Not great, but at least on the positive side. At this time a year ago it was plus-11.

  • When both of them are on the ice their goal differential is a plus-6. At this time a year ago it was plus-10.

  • When neither is on the ice their goal differential is minus-17. At this time a year ago it was only minus-7.

  • When neither player is on the ice the Oilers are averaging just 1.46 goals per 60 minutes. That is a drop from the same point a year ago when they were averaging 1.65 goals. Last year’s number was awful. This year’s is worse.

They attempted to address the scoring depth issue by adding James Neal from Calgary. While he has been better than Milan Lucic offensively, he has cooled off considerably after a white-hot start that seemed to be the beginning of a bounce-back year.

He has just six goals in his past 26 games, while almost all of his production this year has been power play dependent (when he is with McDavid and/or Draisaitl). During 5-on-5 play his overall play has become a hot mess. Once you get beyond McDavid, Draisaitl, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins there is not another forward on the roster that is capable of driving a line on their own.

They still can not stop anybody

When it comes to goals against the Oilers have shown marginal improvement this season. Probably not enough to matter (still 18th in goals against per game), and it’s not the type of improvement they should be relying on to continue because it is entirely dependent on goaltending.

Almost all of that improvement is the result of Mikko Koskinen playing better than expected over the first month of the season in net and masking the team’s many defensive flaws.

When it comes to shot attempts against, scoring chances against, and their ability to control the puck the Oilers remain one of the league’s worst teams. They are still lacking impact players on the blue line, and if their goaltending is not flawless (and it often isn’t) they do not have much of a chance to win.

Mike Smith is in the middle of his second straight sub-par season, while Koskinen has already started to show some signs of regression over his past few starts. If the goaltending doesn’t hold up things could quickly derail.

It’s all starting to catch up them already

The lack of forward depth. The lack of a true No. 1 (or even No. 2) NHL defenseman. The mediocre goaltending.

All of it.

Since starting the season by winning seven of their first eight games, the Oilers have gone 11-11-4 in the 26 games that have followed, including a 2-5-1 mark in their most recent seven-game stretch. While they remain in second place in the Pacific, they are still only four points ahead of the first non-playoff team (a Vancouver team that has two games in hand). On top of that, their upcoming schedule doesn’t get any easier as the next seven games are against Toronto, Dallas, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Montreal, Vancouver, and Calgary. If they can not successfully navigate through that stretch it is going to leave them in a tough spot where they might be in danger of wasting another fast start to the season.

What that change might be is hard to determine. It’s still a matter of talent and not having enough of it. There is only so much a coach can do with no forward depth and no top defenders. And there is only so much a GM can do to make changes when there are so few assets to trade.

In the end, it all goes back to the mess the previous front office left behind and is a reminder as to how much work Ken Holland still has to do in fixing it.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

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