NHL Expert Handicapping: Edmonton Oilers Struggles
How bad are things for the Edmonton Oilers? Well, they came into the season as the second-favorite to win the Stanley Cup behind only Pittsburgh, yet through 20 games they have just 16 points. How bad is that? In the last 11 years there have been 36 teams that have had 16 or fewer points after 20 games. Only one of those teams went on to make the playoffs. This team would have to win seven games in a row just to get to a 90-point pace for the season - and 90 points is very likely not enough to make the postseason. The team with the highest-paid and arguably most-talented player on the planet is a total and utter mess. I'll admit I take great pleasure in all of this. I was born, raised and live in Calgary, which is about 150 miles south of Edmonton. They are the Ohio State to our Michigan. The Auburn to our Alabama. I just freaking hate Edmonton. I was taught early that Edmontonians were lacking mentally and socially, and the older I have gotten the more certain of that I have become. Their loss is my joy. But why is it happening, and what can we expect going forward? Here are four factors to consider when pondering those questions:
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Guys not named McDavid: Connor McDavid is a truly, profoundly great player. He has reportedly been dealing with some illness and hasn't necessarily been at his best, but he's the least of the worries of the team. The issue so far has been trying to find a combination to play with him. Leon Draisaitl is the second very-highly-paid forward on the team, and ideally they would be on different lines. The team just can't do that, though. They play together more often than not because the team just can't produce offensively if they don't. They have tried numerous players to round out the line, though, and haven't found something that works. Rookie Kailer Yamamoto looked solid at times early on, but the team sent him back to junior hockey for the rest of the season for more conditioning - a somewhat questionable decision. Patrick Maroon is most frequently there lately, but he's just been lousy - he's been on the ice for more regular-strength goals allowed than scored, which isn't what you are looking for on a top line. The coaching staff has split up McDavid and Draisaitl lately, but it has yet to produce solid offense on two lines. Until this team can find a way to make their top two lines work, and to get full value from having a transcendent star like McDavid on board, their struggles will continue. Right now it's a bit like if you had Tom Brady running your offense but you only signed receivers with one arm.
Value for money: McDavid is worth any amount of money he wants. Draisaitl justifies his massive contract, too. Beyond that, though, guys just aren't delivering. Milan Lucic isn't the dynamic force he was signed to be offensively. Kris Russell was signed for big money this offseason to be a top four defender, and he is playing like a seventh or eighth defenseman - though no one in Calgary is shocked by that because we had him and were far from sad to see him go. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins' production is somewhat underwhelming for the $6 million he makes, but I don't blame him and he has actually been a relatively bright light. Ryan Strome was acquired in trade for Jordan Eberle largely because he was cheaper, but even at the discount he isn't paying off. You can't spend money that isn't offering a return if you want to be a playoff contender, and the Oilers are spending it in bulk.
The Back end: Youngster Darnell Nurse has been really good, and Adam Larsson - the other side of one of the worst trades in recent history when the team shipped Taylor Hall to New Jersey - started well and is still solid despite leveling off. Behind them, though, the defense has been a disaster. Oscar Klefbom is supposed to be a top pairing guy, but his play doesn't warrant top four minutes on most teams. Kris Russell is still Kris Russell - and that's not a compliment. And Matt Benning may very well be the worst defenseman playing regular minutes in the NHL - and I'm not kidding about that. The team has really struggled to find combinations that are palatable - though playing Nurse and Larsson together is best, it leaves a black hole behind them. Cam Talbot, who was outstanding in the net last year, has been atrocious this season. Some of that is due to the defensive woes, and some of those woes are caused by him. There is no easy answer back here.
Impatience: Oilers fans are crazy. On a level I respect it - they are one of those fan bases who obsessively love their team. But they also don't have enough going on in their lives to approach things with any perspective. They have struggled for so long that they thought that last year with their new arena and shiny was the beginning of a new run like they had with Gretzky. With these struggles they want to fire the coach and GM and trade everyone not named McDavid. In short, they are losing their minds. While changes are obviously needed, the team has spent far too long doing crazy things out of panic. The more they can accept that this year is probably lost, the more rational the changes can be, and the more likely that they can make the tweaks that will get them back on track next year. The Pacific Division isn't as strong right now as it has been, so with some changes and tweaks they can soon be the force that they imagine themselves being. Or at least they could if they weren't burdened with being from Edmonton.
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Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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