Are The Edmonton Oilers Finally For Real?
By: Matt Giusti
This coming spring, it will be 11 years since the Edmonton Oilers fell in 7 games to the Carolina Hurricanes in the 2006 Stanley Cup finals. The cornerstone players of that particular team were guys like Chris Pronger, Ales Hemsky, Shawn Horcoff and Ryan Smyth. Since that 2006 finals, the Oilers have had some mediocre years and seasons where they were the laughingstock of the National Hockey League. The Oilers have also gone through 7 head coaching changes during that time frame and have selected #1 in the NHL Draft four times since then during those terrible seasons, including the selection of what seems to be the savior of the Edmonton Oilers franchise, Connor McDavid in 2015.
Which now brings us to the present time, and after suffering through a plethora of embarrassing seasons, the Edmonton Oilers are tied for 1st place in the Pacific Division with the San Jose Sharks at 64 points and a 28-15-8 record. The Oilers this year are a completely different team from the previous season and the numbers definitely show it. The 2015-16 Oilers ranked 25th in the NHL in goals per game (2.43) and finished 27th in goals against (2.95). Heading into this season, I knew the goals would eventually come, Connor McDavid was a year older and the talent of guys like Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle were just waiting to breakout. Outside of Nugent-Hopkins, the Oilers have gotten great production out of the other three. But my biggest concern was how the Oilers were going to address the backend in the offseason, which has been flat out bad for the past 4 plus years.
The Oilers started by trading former 2010 #1 overall pick Taylor Hall to the New Jersey Devils for the former 2011 #4 overall pick in defenseman Adam Larsson. This move was not widely accepted among many Oilers fans, as Hall was the face of the Oil for a number of years until McDavid came onto the scene. Not to mention that the numbers that Larsson put up in New Jersey did not jump out at you. The 24-year old Larsson is a stay home defensemen and is also a right handed shot, which the Oilers were in dire need of. Heading into play tonight against the Minnesota Wild, Larsson has been exactly as advertised. In 50 games played so far this season, Larsson has 2 goals, 10 assists and is playing to a plus 11 rating and has been as steady as you can get in his own zone. The next move made was the signing of 29-year old Kris Russell, who is known for being a good puck carrying defensemen who makes a great first pass. Adding these two defensemen to a unit that already featured Andrej Sekera, Darnell Nurse and Oscar Klefbom, the Oilers defense looked and has been much improved, as they rank 11th in the NHL in goals against giving up 2.59 goals per game, compared to their 27th ranking the year before.
Like I mentioned above, with all the talent the Oilers had on offense, it really was just matter of time before they would put it all together. Last year the Oilers went out and acquired big winger Patrick Maroon from the Anaheim Ducks, in exchange for a 2016 4th round pick and prospect Martin Gernat. That trade has paid major dividends for the Oil, as Maroon has already smashed his career high in goals, besting his previous mark of 12 goals with 18 tallies so far this year, playing the majority of his minutes with McDavid. During free agency this past offseason, the Oilers added more size when they out and signed Milan Lucic to a 7-year $42 million contract. The move made sense on many levels for the Oilers. Other teams had been taking runs at McDavid and Lucic as been known as being a great protector of his teammates when needed. The bonus is that Lucic was a big body to put in front of the net in power play situations and has scored 20 or more goals four times in his career. And while Lucic has struggled at times this year, if the Oilers do indeed make the playoffs, he will be a valuable asset to have.
The Oilers have made a huge leap in where they rank in goals per game compared to the year before. Edmonton currently ranks 8th in the NHL in goals per game, averaging 2.88. The obvious reasons being that Connor McDavid is currently leading the league in points scored, with 59 in 51 games. But the real breakout player so far this year has to be former #3 overall pick in 2014 Leon Draisaitl. The 21-year old German has made the switch to play the wing alongside McDavid and the results speak for themselves. Draisaitl is going to shatter last years point total of 51 in 72 games, as he enters the post All-Star break with 19 goals and 27 assists in the first 51 games this year. If he can keep up this production to along with McDavid and Maroon, this could be one of the most feared lines come playoff time. And they could be an even more dangerous unit if they could get more consistency out of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and the aforementioned Lucic. The one thing the Oilers don’t have to worry about is their depth scoring, as guys like Mark Letestu, Zack Kassian and Drake Caggiula have proven so far that they can be depended on for secondary scoring for the Oil.
The last piece to the puzzle is of course the goaltending situation and starter Cam Talbot has been as steady as it gets so far this year. The 29-year old has started 45 games so far this season and has a record of 26-12-7, to go with a 2.33 GAA and .922 SV%. Can some of this be attributed to an improved blueline? There is no question about it, but Talbot has been there to make the big save when Oilers have needed it. The Oilers will have lean on Talbot a lot down the stretch as their backup goaltending is mediocre at best with 23-year Laurent Brossoit handling those duties.
Now with all that being said, the question at hand is ” Are the Edmonton Oilers finally for real?”. Well they are certainly miles ahead of their expectations for this year and are right in the thick of the race for the Pacific Division title. While I don’t think the Oilers are a serious Stanley Cup contender just yet, they are certainly a playoff team in my opinion and will give whoever they play in the playoffs serious fits. They have veterans on this team that have been on playoff runs before and that will certainly go a long way down the stretch for this team. They also have arguably the best player in the NHL in Connor McDavid, who does not play like a 20-year old and can takeover a game by himself. The two things I worry about are experience and if Cam Talbot can keep up his great play. Regardless of what the rest of the season holds, Oiler fans can finally be happy that there is not only progress with their hockey team, but they will once again be a serious Stanley Cup contender sooner rather than later.