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How the Oilers became the NHL’s biggest disappointment

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At the start of the 2017-18 season the Edmonton Oilers were one of the top Stanley Cup favorites.

They were one game away from reaching the Western Conference Finals and they have the reigning league MVP and scoring champion (and arguably the game’s best player). All of that seemed to indicate a team that was on the verge of taking another major step and breaking through as one of the league’s elite teams. Their preseason Stanley Cup odds from Bovada were second best in the league to only the back-to-back champion Pittsburgh Penguins. The bandwagon was filling up.

Here we are not just a quarter of the way through the season and there is no debating that the Oilers have not only failed to reach those sky-high expectations, they are clearly the league’s biggest disappointment.

Entering play on Wednesday — and following an 8-3 drubbing at the hands of the St. Louis Blues on Tuesday night — the Oilers have the third worst points percentage in the league, ahead of only the Arizona Coyotes and Buffalo Sabres. Their minus-19 goal differential is fourth-worst. They have managed to win just four games in regulation with only two of them coming over the past month.

So, how did they get here? Let us try to figure it out.

It starts with the people upstairs

Three years ago the Oilers were given a gift from the hockey draft gods when they won the lottery and the right to select Connor McDavid. It was the fourth time in six years they won the top pick and this time were able to pick a player that would quickly become the best offensive player in the league. Since McDavid entered the league he has more than lived up to the hype with a 1.18 points per game average that is tops among all players (minimum 100 games played) during that stretch.

As great as McDavid has been, he can not do it all on his own. This is not the NBA where one or two great players can carry a team deep into the playoffs (or even into the playoffs at all). There has to be a supporting cast around them, and the Oilers have quickly sabotaged their chances to do that through some brutal roster and asset management.

Let’s just examine some of the moves made by Peter Chiarelli since taking over as the Oilers’ general manager.

His first move was to trade two top-33 picks (No. 16 overall and No. 33 overall) to the New York Islanders for defenseman Griffin Reinhart. The Islanders used that pick to select Matthew Barzal, currently one of the top rookies in the NHL this season. Reinhart played 30 forgettable games with the Oilers before moving on to the expansion Vegas Golden Knights this season.

[On fire vs. fireable: Blues humiliate Oilers]

Then came the one-for-one trades: Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson, and then Jordan Eberle for Ryan Strome.

Both trades have played a significant role in reducing the team’s scoring depth.

Since being traded Hall’s 26 goals and 74 points would make him the third most productive player on the Oilers. His point total this season alone would make him the team’s second-leading scorer behind McDavid. Eberle’s 14 points would make him the team’s fourth-leading scorer.

The return for the Oilers has not come close to matching that production. Larsson is a solid, if unspectacular defenseman, while Strome’s offense has been non-existent. Even at his best Strome was never quite on par with what Eberle has shown to be capable of on a regular basis. Those trades have devastated the Oilers’ scoring depth and are now left with a team that is 27th in the league in goals scored and seems to be unable to generate any offense when McDavid is not on the ice.

In three years Chiarelli has traded two picks in the top-33 of a draft, a top-line forward and gave Kris Russell, a borderline second-to third-pairing defenseman to help improve the defense and the team is still desperate for defensive help.

That is a lot of bad roster management, and it is wasting what might be some of McDavid’s best years in the league.

Cam Talbot can’t get a break

Literally, he can not get a night off.

The Oilers’ goals against numbers improved dramatically a season ago and a lot of credit for that improvement was directed toward the additions of Larsson and Russel. The reality is that a lot of it had to do with Talbot helping to solidify the goaltending position.

His save percentage wasn’t anything spectacular and at .917 was fairly close to the league average. But Talbot played 72 games and if you can get average to slightly above league average goaltending for 72 games that is going to be a positive value to your team, especially with where the Oilers were coming from in recent seasons. His performance, combined with his durability to play that many games, probably shaved 15 goals off the Oilers’ goals against totals.

Talbot has not been as strong so far this season, and given that he has already played a league-high 19 games you have to wonder if maybe that workload is starting to catch up with him.

Since the start of the 2016-17 season Talbot has played in 93 regular season games. Only three other goalies have played in more than 80 and only one (Frederik Andersen, 85) has played in more than 83. He has faced 2,688 shots.

That does not include the 13 playoff games and 437 shots he faced in the playoffs. That is a ton of work for a goalie over a season-and-a-quarter.

The Oilers have no adequate backup that can give him any sort of a break.

Lucky or unlucky?

There does seem to be an element of some bad luck to the Oilers’ struggles this season. Their possession and shot attempt numbers are among the best in the league, and they do seem to be struggling with some poor percentages on the offensive end.

When it comes to the save percentage numbers and Talbot’s struggles it is worth wondering if that extensive workload over the past two seasons has started to wear him down.

It is also worth wondering if they had a lot of players play over their heads a season ago, specifically when it came to players like Patrick Maroon and Mark Letestu. That duo combined for 43 goals a season ago. They have combined for 8 so far this season. That puts them on pace for about 15 over 82 games. Combine that with the offense they are losing going from Eberle to Strome, as well as the absence of Hall and that is a big chunk of offense going away and helps explain how a team with Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkings all averaging close to a point-per-game is 26th in the league in goals scored.

You might be reading all of this and thinking to yourself, relax, Gretz, it’s only Thanksgiving. Still a lot of hockey left to be played. Sure, there is a lot of hockey remaining in the season. The problem for teams like the Oilers is NHL history tells us the standings do not tend to change much once the calendar rolls over to December. Currently the Oilers are already seven points out of a wild card spot in the Western Conference and eight points out of one of the three playoff spots in the Pacific Division.

Points are difficult to make up as the season goes on and teams that are already this far out do not tend to make them up.

Perhaps the Stanley Cup for this Oilers team was a little too premature, mainly because they have managed to squander any chance of building a competitive team around the best player in the world through some terrible roster management.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

New Oilers goalie Nilsson ready ‘to challenge for the No. 1 job’

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Back in July, Edmonton made an intriguing, under-the-radar move by acquiring the rights to KHL goalie Anders Nilsson.

The deal didn’t garner much attention, possibly because the Oilers had already made a bigger splash in goal — trading for ex-Rangers backup Cam Talbot at the draft — and, of course, they still had Ben Scrivens in the mix.

But the attention could soon be on Nilsson.

“My mindset is to challenge for the No. 1 job,” the Swedish stopper told the Edmonton Journal. “That’s why I signed the one-year contract and it’s up to me to perform.”

Nilsson, 25, is an interesting entity.

Picked 62nd overall by the Isles in 2009, he appeared in 23 games for New York over three seasons before signing with KHL team AK Bars Kazan last summer. A few months later, the Isles traded Nilsson’s rights — he was an RFA upon leaving for Russia — to Chicago, as part of the Nick Leddy deal.

In Russia, Nilsson boosted his stock by going 20-9-8 with a 1.71 GAA and .936 save percentage. He also played for Team Sweden at the 2015 Worlds, splitting time with Jhonas Enroth.

The 6-foot-5, 220-pounder signed with Edmonton almost immediately upon being acquired, seemingly determined to resurrect his NHL career. With the Oilers, he’s projected to battle Scrivens for the No. 2 gig behind Talbot — who, tentatively, is penciled in as the No. 1 — but if the last few years in Edmonton have shown anything, it’s that minutes in net are constantly up for grabs.

Rangers’ biggest question: Can Lundqvist avoid a decline?

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Every now and then, we need to remind ourselves that Henrik Lundqvist is, you know, human.

Sure, he looks ageless, and his stats always seem to shine (even amid an up-and-down 2014-15 season).The New York Rangers have gone as far as the stellar Swede could take them for about a decade now, so some probably think his greatness is as inevitable as death and taxes.

The truth is that he’s not infallible, and at 33, you have to wonder if a decline is coming.

Granted, people have been pondering a possible drop-off basically from the moment that he signed that massive seven-year, $59.5 million extension in 2013. Blogger-turned-Carolina-Hurricanes-employee Eric Tulsky provided a great breakdown back then, yet even he seemed to struggle in forecasting Lundqvist’s future.

Blueshirt Banter said it well while giving Lundqvist a B+ grade for last season:

Father Time is undefeated World Champion. But based upon the above, I think we all need to quit our belly-aching about the imminent demise, or decline of Henrik Lundqvist. He’s got some more elite years hiding in that glorious head of hair.

Goalies are a tough nut to crack as far as predictions are concerned, yet that’s what has made Lundqvist’s dominance so daunting: he seems like the one guy you can count on to be great (if not elite). Year in and year out, he gets it done.

The problem is that the Ranger still lean on him too much. With all of their spending and the 2015 Presidents’ Trophy win, it might seem like he’s asked to do less, yet Lundqvist and Cam Talbot camouflaged a defense that was shaky at times last season.

With Talbot gone and Antti Raanta in his place, it’s possible that the Rangers are that much more reliant on Lundqvist. What happens if he suffers another slow start and/or injuries? What happens if his reflexes begin to dull?

Much like the question of decline, the hypothetical scenario of Lundqvist falling off is probably familiar to Rangers fans (who are seasoned at learning that the answer has always been “Nope, he’s still great”).

What happens if the answer is “yes” in 2015-16?

It’s New York Rangers Day at PHT

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Throughout the month of August, PHT will be dedicating a day to all 30 NHL clubs. Today’s team? The New York Rangers.

The New York Rangers earned their third Presidents’ Trophy in franchise history with a 53-22-7 record last season.

New York then eliminated the Pittsburgh Penguins in five games of the first round and edged the Washington Capitals in seven games in the conference semifinals. However, Tampa Bay cut New York’s bid for a second straight Stanley Cup Final appearance short defeating the Rangers in seven games in the Eastern Conference Final.

Rick Nash led the way offensively for the Rangers scoring a career-high 42 goals and 69 points in 79 games. Center Derick Brassard also had a career year notching a personal best for goals (19) and points (60).

In what was his final NHL season, Martin St. Louis reached the 20-goal plateau for the 10th time in his career. The 40-year-old announced his retirement in July.

In goal, Henrik Lundqvist went 30-13-3 while posting a 2.25 G.A.A. and a .922 save percentage in 46 appearances. Despite missing 25 games due to a vascular injury, the 33-year-old finished fifth in Vezina Trophy voting.

Cam Talbot took over in Lundqvist’s absence. The 28-year-old finished the season with a 21-9-4 record to go along with a 2.21 G.A.A. and a .926 save percentage.

Off-season recap

It was a busy off-season for the Rangers.

After 15 years as the general manager of the Rangers, Glen Sather stepped down in July and handed the duties to Jeff Gorton.

On the ice, the Rangers dealt Talbot to the Edmonton Oilers and filled his spot with Antti Raanta.

New York also acquired Emerson Etem from the Ducks for Carl Hagelin on the second day of the NHL Draft.

Earlier this month the Rangers added depth at center inking free agent Jarret Stoll to a one-year deal.

The Rangers also took care of their own.

Restricted free agents J.T. Miller and Jesper Fast got new deals and Derek Stepan avoided arbitration signing a new six-year $39 million contract.

James Sheppard, who scored two goals and registered nine penalty minutes in 14 games after being acquired from the San Jose Sharks, remains unsigned.

Several Rangers are still recovering from injuries suffered last season.

Brassard had wrist surgery in late June and was expected to require four-to-six weeks of recovery time. Captain Ryan McDonagh, who led all Rangers’ blue liners with 33 points in 71 games last season, is still recovering from a broken foot suffered in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Final.

Mats Zuccarello has been cleared to resume skating and have contact after taking a shot to the head from McDonagh in Game 5 of the Rangers’ first round series against the Penguins.

Mackenzie Skapski is still recovering from off-season hip surgery.

Oilers’ Hall sure seems refreshed by McDavid’s arrival

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Each summer, there are certain stories that just seem to sprout up.

Players who should probably have NHL contracts must consider tryouts instead. Player X thinks his injury rehab is going just swell. A veteran might be in the best shape of his life.

Oh yeah: Taylor Hall hopes the Edmonton Oilers will be more like [insert actual playoff team from the previous year].

Before entering last season, he was hoping they’d be more like the New York Rangers and/or Montreal Canadiens. The latest model may raise a few eyebrows for those deep into the Battle of Alberta: the 23-year-old hopes that the Oilers can ape the 2014-15 Calgary Flames, as TSN’s Mark Masters reports.

“You see how teams like Calgary last year surprise people,” Hall said. “There’s always teams that surprise and we want to be one of those teams.”

Some might sound the broken record on Hall, but perhaps he should get a pardon because this really has been an exciting off-season for Edmonton, a franchise that might finally be “getting it.”

Hall took to the ice for the first time with Connor McDavid on Monday, and Hall said that “I feel like it’s almost my first year again.”

The Oilers also added a respected defenseman in Andrej Sekera, intriguing goalie Cam Talbot and an enviably bright coach in Todd McLellan.

Of course, it’s still important to remember just how optimistic the winger was a year ago, and how familiar the disappointing results felt in 2014-15.

Will he get burned again next season or is there truly light at the end of the tunnel?