I live less than 200 miles from the home arena of the Edmonton Oilers but just two or three miles from the home of the Calgary Flames. Have for most of my life. As you can imagine, then, I have grown up hating everything about the Oilers - and the city of Edmonton, for that matter. Their Cup victories were torture, the day my Flames first beat them in the playoffs in 1986 is still one of my all-time best, I can tell you exactly where I was when I heard Gretzky had been traded, and the last decade-plus of total incompetence has been spectacular.
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Now, though, things are sadly different. They have one of the best players on the planet, and on his back they have climbed into respectability - somewhere they look like they can stay for a long while. Ugh. So, how good is this team? Can they be trusted by bettors? And what does the short-term future hold for them? Here are seven factors to consider when pondering those questions:
Saint McDavid: Connor McDavid may not be the best player in the league right now, but it's not far off for the second-year star. He came into the league under the weight of impossible hype, and he has exceeded it so far. He currently has a two-point lead on Sidney Crosby - the best there is for my money right now - in the points standings. It's not quite as impressive as it sounds, though - McDavid has 68 points in 61 games, while Crosby has 66 in just 53. This is going to be the longest season he has ever seen, but he's not slowing down - he has points in 14 of his last 18 and has 22 points over that stretch. He has been just spectacular and is by far the biggest reason that this team is where it is right now. If he keeps going then the team will, too. That's a lot of pressure, but he's really shown no sign that that matters to him.
And the rest: McDavid can't be expected to do it all himself. Other guys are carrying the load as well. Leon Draisaitl is having a great year, and guys like Jordan Eberle, Milan Lucic and Patrick Maroon are within the realm of being acceptable. There are still, however, several guys who aren't doing enough, which has been an issue with this team for a decade. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is a first overall pick, and he's far too talented to have 12 goals and 30 points in 61 games. Benoit Pouliot is hurt now, but he was not nearly doing enough before then. In a year of profound rookie performance, Jesse Puljujarvi hasn't been nearly good enough. It's far from a disaster - their 176 goals are best in the division and fourth best in the conference - but you can't help but feel like there is room for this team to be much better offensively.
Defense: For years now the Edmonton defense has been an embarrassment. A major issue. Now? It's… fine. Cam Talbot is too often asked to do too much in net, but he manages that just fine. They still lack the dynamic, stellar leader on D that top teams have, but they have certainly improved from last year, and teams have definitely headed into the playoffs with worse defensive units than this one. Plus/minus is a very flawed stat, but it's a good sign that five of their six defensive regulars are pluses, and the worst number is -3. That's a stunning improvement from last year.
Coaching: Todd McLellan has major limitations as a coach. His San Jose teams could consistently be relied upon for one thing - underperforming badly in the playoffs when games really matter. He's not unique in that, though, and during the regular season those same San Jose teams were consistently excellent. We can deal with his playoff issues later. For now, though, after this team needs to worry about is making the postseason at all after more than a decade of falling short. For that, McLellan is the right man and is doing a mostly fine job. At the very least you have to give him credit in part for the massive improvement between this year and his first year last season - this year they have never not felt like a playoff team, while that certainly wasn't true last year.
The playoff race: It's setting up to be a heck of a battle in the West. Edmonton has an eight-point lead over Calgary for the last wild-card spot, and all the tiebreakers, so it is very likely that Edmonton will keep one of the coveted top three spots in the division. The next challenge, then, is to finish top two so that they can host their first-round playoff series - at least. They currently sit tied with the Ducks with 74 points, and San Jose is three points better. They have a game in hand on the Ducks, but the Sharks have a game in hand on them. They play just eight road games in their remaining 21, but two of those eight are in Anaheim and San Jose. They also play both teams at home. Fourteen of the 21 games are against current playoff teams, so the road isn't as easy as it could be.
Experience: The glaring issue on this team, of course, is a lack of experience with what they are going through now. Anyone who has grown up in the organization has never played a meaningful game past October. There just isn't that much battle-tested experience. Pouliot made deep runs with the Canadiens and Rangers. Lucic won a Stanley Cup with Boston. Matt Hendricks, Kris Russell and Patrick Maroon have played a decent number of playoff games but haven't won anything. And that's close to it. Teams that do damage in the playoffs typically have learned from experience what it takes to succeed. That's a short-term problem for this team.
Betting performance: For a team that has improved as much year-to-year as this one has, they are a surprisingly lousy bet - they are essentially a break-even team on the moneyline. Obviously, then, given the McDavid hype, this improvement was fully expected by bettors. There is a good way to make money betting on them, tough - they have gone "under" the total 34 times and "over" just 23. On the road that gap widens - under 18 times and over nine. That's definitely something to keep an eye on with so many home games remaining.
Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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