If you don't follow the NHL that closely you can understand what the last several years have been like for the Edmonton Oilers by just thinking of them as the Philadelphia 76ers on ice. They haven't openly tanked like Philly has, but they have added an embarrassment of high draft picks and have struggled to see that good fortune turn into wins. This seems finally, though, to be the year that they shed the Philly stench and start to slowly climb into respectability.
They are in a playoff position right now, and it isn't tough to imagine that they could stay there. It hasn't been a perfect year for the team - they lack consistency so far - but they are definitely dramatically improved and are trending aggressively in the right direction. Here are six factors to consider as bettors when determining how the rest of the season is likely to go:
Connor McDavid: McDavid came into the season facing an almost impossible amount of hype. When he was healthy in his rookie year he was very good, and people expected a big step forward. If anything, he has been better than people could have expected. As I write he has a six-point lead in the points race in the league. His 34 points in 25 games projects to 112 on the season - a big total for this modern NHL. He has more multi-point games (10) than pointless ones (7). He's just a freak. What's most impressive, too, is how selfless he is. A lot of guys with the offensive talent close to what he has spend their time looking for their opportunities. McDavid is just as happy creating as scoring, and with his speed and vision he can create at will. He leads the league with 20 assists and will very likely lead the league in that category for years to come. There are a whole lot of very special offensive players in the league right now, but not since another guy who wore two nines on his back played in Edmonton have I seen a guy who looks so impossibly dangerous every time he is one the ice and who strikes such fear in his opponents. You can't look away when he is on the ice, and he makes this a very different and much better team in his presence. They had previously struggled with a lot of very good layers in the fold. They will never struggle like that again as long as McDavid is healthy.
Jesse Puljujarvi: You have to feel bad for Puljujarvi, the fourth overall pick in this year's draft. His numbers aren't horrible for a rookie - he has seven points in 20 games despite playing fairly limited and protected minutes. It's not great, but it is a foundation to build on, and the Finnish winger has tremendous talent to develop. The problem, though, is that he will always be compared to two guys who were picked ahead of him - top pick Auston Matthews and fellow Finn Patrik Laine. That comparison isn't flattering for Puljujarvi right now. Matthews had four goals in his debut, has 18 points, and is already the best player on the Maple Leafs. Laine has been even better for Winnipeg - his 15 goals trail only Sidney Crosby. Puljujarvi has a lot of work to do to try to catch up to those two.
The other offense: There is no shortage of offensive talent on the Oilers. They have drafted very high for lots of years, so they are loaded. Only some guys are carrying their weight so far, though. Leon Draisaitl and Jordan Eberle are doing what is needed, and so is free agent addition Milan Lucic. The issue for the team, though, is that some of the other guys aren't playing to or near their potential. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has just 10 points. Benoit Pouliot has a pathetic four points. So basically the offensive production comes from Eberle, McDavid, and the guys who play with McDavid. A lack of offensive depth is a real concern here.
Defense: The last few years the defense in Edmonton has been a real problem. They were quite aggressive in seeking improvements in the offseason. The results so far? Reasonably positive. Last year they allowed 2.95 points per game, which was fourth worst in the league. That rough number was a marked improvement from the year before when they allowed a league-worst 3.37. This year their 2.58 goals against per game is right in the middle of the league pack. It's far from perfect but a big improvement - and one of the bigger reasons for the team's improvement this year.
Schedule: The team has had a slightly unbalanced schedule , with 14 of their 25 games having been played on the road. They have done their job well there with an 8-4-2 record. The odd thing, though, is that at home in their brand new building and in front of their traditionally rabid fans they have a limped to a 5-6 record. That disparity in records makes no sense for several reasons - not the least of which being that at home they get the last change so they can decide who McDavid gets to play against. Last year they had seven more wins at home than on the road, so it's not like this is the norm, either. The good news, then, is that they should improve at home as the season progresses. The problem, though, is that they are unlikely to be able to win at the same rate on the road as things progress. Hopefully for them it all winds up being a net gain. Things are so tight in the West right now that they don't have much of a margin for error - they are just one point behind San Jose for the division lead yet just three points away from being out of a playoff spot entirely.
Betting performance: The team has performed reasonably well on the moneyline, delivering the eighth-best profit in the league to date. The road performance obviously helps that - and the home struggles really hurt. The total hasn't been particularly helpful, enough - they have gone "under" the total 13 times and over 11.
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Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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