Oilers are playing a dangerous game by standing pat

Yahoo Sports
<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nhl/players/6743/" data-ylk="slk:Connor McDavid">Connor McDavid</a>’s <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nhl/teams/edm" data-ylk="slk:Edmonton Oilers">Edmonton Oilers</a> haven’t changed much since a disastrous 2017-18 season. (Jason Franson/CP)
Connor McDavid’s Edmonton Oilers haven’t changed much since a disastrous 2017-18 season. (Jason Franson/CP)

The Edmonton Oilers, fresh off crashing and burning in stunning fashion last season, didn’t do much this summer.

They added Tobias Rieder to shore up their wing depth which, to be fair, was an area that needed a hell of a lot of shoring up. They also went out and added import backup goaltender Mikko Koskinen, whose long and successful run in the KHL belies a rather unimpressive career in North America.

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And that was it. In a division that has plenty of elite talents already and also added Max Pacioretty and Erik Karlsson, the Oilers’ big pickup was a goalie who hasn’t played in this hemisphere since 2012, and a guy who had 25 points last season. Plus Kyle Brodziak for some reason.

Those were both pickups that help them, sure, but this team was 15 points out of a playoff spot last season — with three teams to leapfrog — and is already struggling to put together a blue line that more than passingly resembles NHL quality from spots Nos. 1-6; Andrej Sekera is out for a long, long time.

This is a team that could go deep down the middle between Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. That’s two potential No. 1 centers and a solid No. 2, which is the kind of thing most teams would envy.

But who are the best natural left and right wings on this team? Milan Lucic and Jesse Puljujarvi? The fact that Drake Caggiula is even in the “maybe” pile here is gut-churning. Which is why at least one of those good centers is seemingly always going to end up playing with McDavid out of the sheer need to include someone on his line who can put the puck in the net or on his tape with some amount of reliability. That, in turn, thins out that enviable center depth to the point that Brodziak has to be included in an NHL depth chart, which is suboptimal to say the least.

There was a story in the Edmonton media the other day about how the Oilers should be determined to avoid wasting another year of Connor McDavid’s prime, but there’s very little to provide confidence in this team’s actual chances to do so.

It’s been said before, but the difference between the Oilers’ 103-point season two seasons ago and the 78-point one last year really isn’t that big. Sounds like an absurd thing to say about a 25-point swing in the standings, but it’s absolutely true.

There was a decline in the efficacy of the power play (from a bit above average to well below it), yes. Though that was aided in no small part by the fact that the team was near-historically bad at drawing penalties. There was a drop in the team’s overall shooting percentage, driven by those problems on the power play, which you can describe as both a bit of a step back in quality of players being used on that advantage — i.e., no Jordan Eberle hurts — but also bad luck. There was also worse shooting luck at 5-on-5, which didn’t help.

These are things that, with the exception of Eberle’s return and maybe even the small number of penalties drawn, can work themselves out to a certain extent. Of course, to draw penalties you have to be fast or play fast and, when McDavid is off the ice, this is a pretty slow group.

But the team’s real problem, as far as anyone should be concerned, is that the goaltending got a lot worse. Cam Talbot went from a heroic .919 to a pitiable .908, theoretically from tragicomic overuse in the previous two seasons. From 2015-17, Talbot appeared in 142 of Edmonton’s 177 games. His previous NHL experience saw him play just 57 games over two previous seasons on Broadway.

Meanwhile, his backups saw their combined save percentage drop from .904 to .893. Also bad, hence the addition of Koskinen, who’s coming off a .937 behind the best team in the KHL last season.

Overall the Oilers got worse from 2016-17 to 2017-18, in terms of expected goals against, which is probably what happens when a good chunk of your season is played without two of your best defensemen. But the underlying numbers say they still should have slightly outscored their opponents in terms of the overall quality of shots they generated and everything like that, so maybe if you’re taking the long view of things, you say that you can’t expect a team with McDavid and Draisaitl to keep shooting at such a low success rate, on the power play or otherwise. That feels right to me, for sure.

But can you expect a 31-year-old goalie and a backup who hasn’t played on an NHL rink in five or six years to rebound as well? Even with a diminished workload last season, Talbot still played a lot (67 of 82) and even if Koskinen can buck the trend of KHL goalie imports being disappointing, is that going to make up the difference in goals against? Especially if we’re looking at another season with a blue line understaffed due to injury? That’s less certain to me.

They’ve also got a few guys on PTOs who could crack the lineup (Alex Chiasson, Jason Garrison, Scottie Upshall), but that says more about the lineup than those players.

So basically it seems to me like the Oilers were willing to chalk last year up to bad luck pretty much across the board. So what’s the hope? That aging curves don’t keep catching up with guys like Lucic, Talbot, and Kris Russell? That the combination of percentages normalizing and a new backup goalie can shore things up enough to give them the 15-17 points in the standings that’ll put them back on the playoff bubble?

If you’re really banking on all that so you don’t have to waste another year of a guy who could be one of the handful of best players ever by the time he retires, the plan seems a little too optimistic.

Of course, because of how poorly the Oilers have been managed for more than a decade at this point, they might not have had many other options than to stand pat. Which is, has been, and will continue to be the whole problem to begin with.

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Ryan Lambert is a Yahoo! Sports hockey columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.

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