After surprising the NHL and making it to the second round of the 2017 playoffs, the Oilers entered the 2018 season with high expectations. Considered Stanley Cup contenders, Oilers fans were understandably bitter and confused when they failed to even make it to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Finishing 23rd in the league was a far cry from contending for the Stanley Cup as many were speculating.
Aside from generational talent Connor McDavid, who was sensational all year, much of the team fell flat right out of the gate. Secondary scoring was virtually nonexistent beyond their top three centers, while their power-play was a league worst. Add in a 25th ranked penalty kill and an inconsistent blue line, and the sum is a 25-point decline in the standings.
Many were calling for the firing of head coach Todd McLellan, who’s coaching staff just couldn’t seem to figure out their special team woes despite having two of the best centers in the game. Others looked higher to GM Peter Chiarelli who’s mismanagement is well documented.
While attempting to shore up the back end, Chiarelli acquired Griffin Reinhart for the #16 (Mathew Barzal) and the #33 pick. A year later when it became apparent that the trade was a bust, he moved future Hart trophy winner, Taylor Hall, for rugged, stay at home defenseman Adam Larsson. Taylor Hall’s replacement? Underachieving power forward, Milan Lucic, who cashed in on a 6 year deal. It’s a trio of moves that Oilers fans can rightly question.
Despite McDavid’s success last season there were still fans clamouring for an upgrade on his wing. On many occasions the only scoring threat was when centers Draisaitl and McDavid were be paired together. Lucic and Patrick Maroon’s poor play last season resulted in neither one being a viable option and a revolving door of wingers that only stopped after centerman Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was given a shot. This lead some Oiler fans to wonder if they would pursue Mike Hoffman or Jeff Skinner, both of whom were on the block going into the summer. That never materialized, and both players ended up elsewhere.
Unfortunately the Oilers scoring problems run far deeper than just their top line. After their top 3 goal scorers, who combined for 90 goals, their next 3 highest scorers only had a total of 40. For perspective, Tampa Bay, Winnipeg and Pittsburgh, all had between 63-69 goals after their top 3 scorers.
Their back end had even less luck putting the puck in the net. Klefbom’s 12 goal (38 point) season 2 years ago lead many to think that they had finally found their power-play quarterback in house. Last season he only had 5 goals with their leader only having 6. It became apparent their search would continue, with Erik Karlsson firm outside their price range. Despite rumblings that they could target Justin Faulk of Carolina or possibly Buffalo’s Rasmus Ristolainen, nothing came to fruition.
It’s mid-September and it appears Peter Chiarelli’s to do list has been completely checked off.
The lack of any significant change has left many fans and pundits alike puzzled, many of whom wonder how the Oilers are expected to improve on last seasons totals with what is seemingly very little change. The ultimate question then becomes clear:
Chiarelli and his staff appear to be betting on internal improvement and talent development, and that less is more.
Could he be right?
Consistency is key for Chiarelli’s Oilers
Let’s start with the front office, where critics of Peter Chiarelli are quick to point out his history of trades and signings throughout his tenure as proof of his incompetence while failing to give him credit where it’s due. Kassian, Maroon, and Talbot were all acquired for very modest returns. Drafting during his reign has also improved vastly, loading up on quality talent such as Jesse Puljujarvi, Tyler Benson, Kailer Yamamoto and Evan Bouchard, many of which appear close to NHL action. Giving Chiarelli one more year to bring his long term vision to fruition may bear more fruit than people expect; but if they miss the playoffs again this year, heads will roll.
The changes behind the bench did not go as far as some may have hoped, but in my opinion it’s the right call. The club has had seven different coaches over the last decade, which is too many. The coaching carousel forces players to learn new coaching styles, systems and plays, some players having more difficulty adjusting than others; consistency being imperative with a young team. This summer the Oilers chose to keep their bench boss while replacing all McLellan’s assistant coaches. A fresh set of eyes from former Flames head coach Glen Gulutzan and Ducks assistant Trent Yawney should give them the necessary change to improve while maintaining the consistency needed for success this season.
The allure of a big trade involving draft picks and a sexy player returning had many fans throwing tempered expectations out the window at a time when they arguably needed it most.
With McDavid and Draisaitl locked into long term, expensive contracts, the Oilers are tight up against the cap with a number of undesirable commitments. They’ll need to improve from within, maximizing on entry level deals. This appeared to be the plan last season, as they did very little during the offseason other than a salary dump, sending Jordan Eberle to the Islanders for 24 year old, Ryan Strome. One more year of experience for the fifth youngest team in the NHL will do wonders while up and coming prospects Yamamoto, Benson and Bouchard push for roster spots soon enough – possibly this year.
The argument that the Oilers need to go out and find McDavid a true high-skilled winger? Let’s be honest, it ended last year when Nugent-Hopkins joined him for the final 20 games to help propel McDavid to his second Art Ross. Another popular notion was that the Oilers needed to trade struggling Milan Lucic. Moving that contract would have been near impossible to do and most likely would have required packaging him with an asset or taking on a bad contract in return. This seems to be counterproductive, especially when looking at Lucic’s numbers closely. Given his abnormally low shooting percentage last year (6.8%), the numbers point to him rebounding in some capacity. Trading him with his value this low would only exasperate their weakness on the wings.
The Oilers’ back end has the potential and pieces in place for success this season. Coming out of the draft with blue chip prospect Evan Bouchard will transform their blueline and power-play for at least the length of McDavid and Draisaitl’s current contracts. If Bouchard doesn’t make the team out of camp it’s not the end of the world, he’ll be joining the team soon enough. They’ll start the season with a healthy Klefbom, though Sekera’s torn achilles puts a damper on their plans. The bright side is that Darnell Nurse should continue to build off of his impressive 2017 campaign where he recorded career highs in goals (6) and points (26), while any version of Klefbom other than last year would poise the Oil for improvement..
After years of ever changing coaching systems, consistency is key. Hopefully their new assistants can bring in new ideas and help turn around their special teams nightmare. Youngsters Puljujarvi and Yamamoto are primed to take on larger offensive roles with the team, Lucic will rebound with a goals total closer to 20 and Nugent-Hopkins is playing on McDavid’s flank, giving the Oilers a dangerous one-two punch with Draisaitl on his own line. Starting the season with a relatively healthy blueline will allow the Oilers to start on the right foot and having power-play specialist Evan Bouchard potentially stepping in this year could be an added bonus.
With the decade of darkness behind them, where coaches changed annually and short sighted trades were forced to no avail, maybe, just maybe, it’s time to stop trying to do too much and time to let patience, consistency, and growth pave the way to success.