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How 'for real' are the Edmonton Oilers?

Ryan Lambert
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When you’re only a month into the season, things change a lot, and fast.

It wasn’t so long ago that the Oilers’ start was a punchline. Literally every goal of their season was running through Connor McDavid exclusively, and it took until Game No. 5 before someone scored a goal at 5-on-5 without the best player alive getting in on the action.

But after their 0-2 start, the Oilers are 6-2-1, rapidly course-correcting and putting them on pace for over 100 points on the season. Tuesday’s loss tot he Wild was their first in regulation since Oct. 11. People were starting to talk very seriously about how good this team can be after kind of writing them off all summer and having a good laugh at the expense of everyone on the team who is not McDavid or one of his linemates.

Questions remain despite the Oilers’ October run. (Getty)
Questions remain despite the Oilers’ October run. (Getty)

But what was behind their 6-1-1 run before losing to the Wild? Wouldn’t you know it: A little bit of skill that’s to be expected with a talent like McDavid’s, and a lot of luck. Before last night’s game against a hot Minnesota team, the Oilers were a bit below water in terms of possession at 5-on-5 (48 percent or so, 23rd in the league) but are generating an outsized amount of shot quality (50.5 percent, 15th in the league). Those numbers tightened up a little in this run, but not by much.

Moreover, because McDavid does so much damage on the power play — running at 25 percent through 10 games — the team had an even better expected-goals percentage in all situations: 52.2 percent, good for 11th in the league.

Now, if you have an elite player like McDavid, who’s always going to outperform his on-ice xGF (because that stat is calculated with the league average and McDavid is significantly better than an average player) that leaves a lot of room for the Oilers to be bad when he’s off the ice, which they mostly are. It’s not gonna surprise anyone that the Oilers’ all-situations underlying numbers with and without McDavid make the Grand Canyon look like a crack in the sidewalk: plus-12.2 CF%, plus-12.8 SF%, plus-24.3 GF%(!!!!!), plus-15.3 xGF%.

All of McDavid’s underlyings are at least 55 percent (and his xGF% is north of 60), and all of Edmonton’s without him on the ice range from about 38-45 percent, which is really horrible. The goals number is the 38 percent one, by the way, and so obviously that number is on the rise from where it was in the first few games of the season (see also: zero point zero), but it was only about 38 percent last year, too, so the extent to which it will continue improving is questionable at best.

And to that end, yeah, the Oilers are 6-2-1 in their last nine games, which is great even if we’re all acknowledging that they aren’t likely to hit or even approach 100 points this year. Always good to bank points, right? But how they’re doing it isn’t encouraging. A one-goal win against the Rangers, consecutive OT wins against Boston and Winnipeg, a 3-0 loss to Nashville, an OT loss to Pittsburgh, a 4-1 win against Washington, a 5-3 win against Nashville (again) with an empty netter, and an OT win against Chicago.

That’s a lot of Ws against a lot of mostly good teams, but it’s also a lot of one-goal Ws, and as we know the ability to consistently win one-goal games against teams that are much better on paper is something that pretty much doesn’t exist over the course of a full season.

Worth noting here, too, that as I said in the power feelings, Cam Talbot has been great after two putrid starts to begin the year. If he can be something like an average goalie for the rest of the year (something that’s probably in his wheelhouse), instead of the .908 he was last season, this team can probably keep winning at a clip that puts them adjacent to, if not in, the playoff picture.

But they’ll still need someone other than McDavid to carry the water offensively; he either scored or assisted on the Oilers’ first nine goals of the season. And while the other guys are starting to contribute quite a bit more since the third period of Game No. 4 (that is, they’re no longer shooting 0 percent collectively), McDavid has been on the ice for 10 of their 21 goals, and eight of the 20 against.

Which, if you crunch the numbers, means they’re minus-one as a team with McDavid off the ice, and including the team’s only empty netter of the year. That’s with Talbot going .918 over the 6-1-1 streak, though he did’t play in the win over Nashville.

So to the question in the headline, “How for real are the Oilers?” It seems to me that despite the improved perceptions in the past couple weeks, this is still a bad club with the best player alive, and it’s only getting as far as McDavid and Talbot take it.

Which any dummy could have told you before the season started. Point is, nothing has changed and nothing is likely to change over the full 82. “As far as McDavid and Talbot take it” probably doesn’t include the playoffs because this team is probably going to play at like an 85-point pace the rest of the way.

But unless you live in Edmonton, you probably could’ve guessed that coming in.

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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