7-2-1. Who would have expected the Edmonton Oilers (yes, those Oilers) to jump out of the gate that hot. Sure, they had a weak schedule to start the season and there was a potential boost from a new coach, but they were still winning games. Now, as the schedule begins to toughen and the season sets in, will the team be able to keep it up?
Optimism is running high as Oilers fans begin to remember what having confidence in a team feels like and to actually enjoy watching their team play for once. The on-ice performance would suggest that the team may be turning a corner this season. Annual issues such as goaltending (particularly early in games) and special teams are significantly better than they have been the past few seasons. For once, the team has had a stretch where they aren’t giving up goals on the first shot and in the first couple minutes of every other game. And, the special teams that impressively sucked and were a huge liability to the team’s overall performance are almost polar opposites compared to previous years (notably the penalty kill, which has spent the last two seasons in the mid-70% range and has jumped up to nearly 90% so far this season.
The one major issue that has not turned around quite yet, and where the underlying analysis of the team begins, is with the lack of depth on the roster. It’s going to take time for prospects to develop and work their way up through the system, but team success can only fall on McDavid and Draisaitl for so long. As soon as the two of them cool off from their blistering start, get injured or worn out, or start facing adapted defense from the opponents to shut them down, the Oilers, at the present moment, have minimal threats to make up for the loss in production from their two best players.
Through nine games, the Oilers have seven goals from players not named McDavid, Draisaitl, Kassian (who is regularly playing on the top line) and James Neal. As soon as Neal slows down (which is inevitable given his absurdly high shooting percentage and the streaky nature of scoring forwards), they are back down to most of their offense coming from Connor or Leon (or both). Over the course of a full season, the double shifting and 23-24 minutes per game will wear them both down. Other teams will find ways to load up their physicality and defensive strategies on stopping those two (which is often a futile effort, but can still prevent some goals). And what we’re left with is a frustrated team that can get very little offense going.
Next, we have to consider that all of the team’s first five games/wins were come-from-behind victories, indicating they were rarely in control of the game and were often falling behind. I do think it is impressive to see this team embrace a never say die attitude and kudos to them for being able to fight back in a lot of games, however. On the other hand, it is easy to attribute the early success to luck or favourable outcomes, similar to Buffalo’s ten-game winning streak in 2018-19 where they were never really dominating games but managed to win a whole bunch in a row regardless.
Looking at shot totals, the Oilers are dead last in shots for per game at 26.9, trailing the Stars by a full shot. Until the last two games in which the Oilers have been shutout twice, they were one of the top scoring teams in the league. Luckily for them, their shooting percentage is not unsustainably high. Though, we may be seeing the beginning of an offensive regression as other teams begin to learn how to shut down the Oilers’ top offensive players this season.
This is another spot where the bottom two forward lines need to find a way to generate more offense. Both shots and eventually goals. Most of the depth offensive players are hovering around one shot per game and have zero goals. This needs to change. Watching those lines (notably Khaira and his linemates that game) on the ice when they get into the offensive zone shows a significant amount of perimeter possession with difficulty getting the puck into the middle of the ice and into scoring areas. The coaching staff is going to have to work with these players to find ways to drive the net and push the play into scoring areas. We can already tell they are strong on the puck with how they can control play with short passes along the boards. It’ll hopefully be a skillset that can be transferable.
The team has also benefited from strong goaltending this season. Two issues that can arise from this are the goalies falling back down to norm and the amount of shots given up per game compared to shots for per game. Mikko Koskinen is enjoying a .935 SV% through his first four games (boosted by a 49 save performance versus the Flyers), which is significantly higher than any numbers he has put up in his career. Once he falls back to his norm or an NHL average, the team will be giving up more goals per game. Mike Smith is also putting up numbers on the high end for his career norm (.925 SV%, 2.15 GAA) through his six starts. Maybe he is going to have a career-best season, but the Oilers cannot bank on that. With a team that does not project to generate enough offense to begin with, if/when the goalies come off their hot starts, Edmonton will be in for a major challenge.
With the discussion of shots for and against throughout the article, I’d be negligent by not mentioning the team’s advanced stats at 5-on-5 play so far. Currently (through 10 games), the Oilers sit 26th with a 47.1% Corsi for Percentage (-40). This is further indicative of the lack of control the team has in games and the potential unsustainability of the team’s play early on this season. This one number is not able to tell the full story, of course. And it is reasonable to expect the team winning lots of games to have a lower, if not below 50%, Corsi because the opponent will be pushing to win (more possession and more shots). But combining it with other stats and observations, including the lack of shots for, certain players with high shooting percentages, and goalies with significantly higher than career average statlines, I find it to be symptomatic of the flaws in the Oilers’ play that I’ve discussed in this article.
The team’s advanced stats also show their expected goals for/against are approximately equal, but they are near the bottom of the league in Scoring Chances for Percentage, at 45.3% (they give up more scoring chances than they have). That the team is still winning games, to me, is happening because of strong goaltending and the team’s early season success on special teams (which is not reflected in these advanced stats).
I sound like I am being quite hard on a team that is generally playing well, and I am. But, as an Oilers fan, I’m kind of used to these types of streaks never holding up long-term. And as fun as it has been watching the team staying in games, competing, and winning, the tendencies that have hurt them in years past are still prevalent in the team’s early results.