Changes Needed In Edmonton
It may seem hyperbolic to write off a team this early in an NHL season, especially when that team was expected to challenge for the Stanley cup prior to opening night. Unfortunately for the Oilers, there seems to be no quick turnaround on the horizon. They have no star prospects primed to emerge from the minors, no cap space to facilitate a meaningful trade, and no key players on injured reserve promising to make an impact upon a healthy return. Thursday night in San Jose, they iced a healthy lineup coming off 2 days rest against a Sharks team on pace to be one of the worst in NHL history. The result was Edmonton’s 4th consecutive regulation loss, dragging their record down to 2-9-1 and tying their rebuilding opponent (who isn’t actually trying to win games this season) at the bottom of the league standings. This is who they are, and it’s incredibly ugly.
The Oilers have been a flawed team for more than a decade, always lacking in the departments of scoring depth, defensive play, and goaltending. Since winning the draft lottery in 2015, they’ve been able to outscore these deficiencies thanks to the elite talent of Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and a rotating cast of top 6 scorers along with a historically great power play.
This season, not only have the defense and goaltending floundered below their usual levels of incompetence, the offensive flash that allowed them to win games (or at least lose in entertaining fashion) is nowhere to be found. Through 12 games, they’re tied for 29th among NHL teams in scoring (2.58 goals per game) and their power play has fallen to 10th in the NHL (23.26%) after leading the league with a record setting 32.36% last season. They’re creating plenty of high-danger chances (117, 2nd in the league) but they’re failing to capitalize on them, only finishing them off at a 6.4% rate (27th in the league). Under normal circumstances, I would say this team is primed to bounce back based on the fact that their finishing talent is too good to keep wasting these chances, but their body language on the ice and the way they’re trying to force plays that have no chance of working indicates a severe lack of confidence, which is much harder to break out of than a simple scoring slump.
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At the center of Edmonton’s nightmare season has been Connor McDavid’s inability to live up to the lofty standards he set in previous years. He’s been the greatest offensive threat in the world for a while now, and he obliterated the rest of the league last season with 64 goals, 89 assists, and 153 points. This year has been a different story, as he’s only got 2-8-10 through 10 games of action. The fact that we’re even talking about a point-per-game player underperforming is a testament to how great McDavid has been, and how much the Oilers depend on him to carry them through each season.
One possible explanation for McDavid’s drop in production is a nagging injury. He missed 2 games in October with an upper body injury (both losses for Edmonton) and made his return in the Heritage Classic, a highly anticipated outdoor event against the rival Calgary Flames. McDavid registered an assist in that 5-3 victory, but has been held off the scoresheet in the following 4 games (all regulation losses). He hasn’t been the explosive threat off the rush we’re used to seeing, regularly dishing the puck to a teammate rather than flying across the opposing blue line, and taking low percentage shots from high in the zone rather than using his speed and deceptive stickwork to embarrass defenders on his way to the doorstep.
As McDavid (and the Oilers as a whole) continue these uncharacteristic offensive struggles, the theory that the team rushed him back from injury for a high-profile matchup against a divisional rival continues to gain traction. If this is the case, there’s an incredibly difficult decision to be made: risk further injury to your MVP as you desperately try to climb back up the standings, or take him out of the lineup (which we know he won’t be happy about) and hope he can return before you’ve run out of time to get back into the race? Connor McDavid at 75% health is still better than most players in the league, but for the Oilers to break out of this slump they’re going to need him at 150%, and he’s not going to get there if he is indeed playing through injury.
The Oilers Can’t Keep Pucks Out Of Their Net
Even if the Edmonton offense was clicking at their usual level, it would be absolutely impossible to overcome the dumpster fire that engulfs their own end of the ice on a nightly basis. They’re getting torched for 4.17 goals against per game, trailing only San Jose’s hilarious 4.43 for the highest average in the league. It’s impossible to deny the fact that goaltending has been an issue, with starter Jack Campbell posting a pitiful .873 save percentage before the team sent him down to the AHL to work on his game earlier this week. So far, that has not gone as planned as Vancouver’s AHL affiliate, Abbotsford, pumped 4 goals past him in his first minor league outing. Based on the highlights below, it’s safe to say Campbell is sick of seeing teams from the Canucks organization after being decimated by them at two professional levels.
As bad as Campbell has been, Stuart Skinner has been even worse. After stepping in as the starter during Campbell’s struggles last year (this is becoming a theme) and effectively saving the Oilers’ season with a .913 save percentage and 2.75 GAA, he’s seen those numbers plummet to .854 and 3.87 through 8 appearances this year. These guys absolutely need to be better, but the fact that they’re both looking so terrible tells us there are bigger issues outside the goal crease.
The biggest issue with the Oilers is the catastrophic defensive breakdowns we’ve seen on a nightly basis. They aren’t giving up the highest volume of chances in the league (that honor belongs to San Jose once again) but the types of chances they allow are almost guaranteed to go in no matter how good your goaltender is. The Oilers will be organized and set up in the neutral zone, with everyone in an advantageous position to defend a rush, and the opposition just casually slices through them as if they were going up against my beer league team. Take Thomas Hertl’s goal from Thursday night for example: The Oilers are all in position through the neutral zone, the Sharks begin the rush, encounter no meaningful resistance until after they’ve crossed the Edmonton Blue line, and at that point every Oiler is puck watching. Nobody picks up Hertl as he stampedes into the zone on the weak side, and though he gets a fortunate bounce off the initial shot, he is able to freely deposit it into the yawning net because both Kulak and Desharnais drift to the strong side of the ice, vacating the net-front, and Evander Kane is more than a step behind Hertl as he scrambles to make up for the gap in coverage.
Will Jay Woodcroft Be Fired As Head Coach?
The most common reaction when a team underperforms this badly is to fire the coach, and while Woodcroft has failed to get the most out of this team early on, I’m not convinced that will fix Edmonton’s issues. Woodcroft tried to fix the defensive deficiencies of last season by instituting a new zone defense similar to the system Vegas ran on their way to the Stanley Cup last season. The problem with this is the difference in personnel between these two teams. Vegas boasts one of the biggest, most experienced blue lines in the league, and many of them have played this type of system to varying degrees of success for years with different teams before arriving in Vegas. The Oilers’ D corps, on the other hand, is smaller, faster, and less experienced, and most of them have spent their entire career playing variations of man defense and focusing more on attacking and rushing the puck up ice than holding the fort in their own zone.
I can’t fault Woodcroft for trying something new to address the defensive issues, and I actually have to give him credit for sticking with it for a month to give his players a realistic chance to figure it out. Unfortunately, any margin for error that may have existed has now evaporated, and if he doesn’t recognize the need to return to a system these guys are comfortable with, he is probably not going to keep his job much longer.
Even if Woodcroft gets the ax, I don’t expect this team to catch fire. That’s because the real root of the issue is GM Ken Holland’s failure to build a quality roster around his superstars. He’s had a few nice signings (Zach Hyman being the most notable) but his failures have put this team in salary cap hell without anything to show for it. Darnell Nurse is a mediocre defenseman making $9.25 million until 2030. Jack Campbell just started his second of 5 seasons making $5 million and he’s now getting lit up in the minors. Cody Ceci, Brett Kulak, and Warren Foegele all make between $2 and $4 million and are not offering production anywhere close to that level. This team has multiple roster needs and no cap space to address them. They’re completely handcuffed, and that’s on Ken Holland. If anyone needs to burn for this, it’s him.
This is an article written by Aaron Kinney
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