Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Edmonton Oilers.
36-40-6, 78 pts. (6th in Pacific Division, 12th in Western Conference)
No team had quite the optimistic forecast for this past season quite like the Edmonton Oilers did.
And no team failed quite as hard as the Oilers did as they shouldered those lofty expectations.
Coming off a season where they took the Anaheim Ducks to seven games in the second round on the back of stellar playing from Connor McDavid and Cam Talbot, nearly everyone figured the Oilers had finally rid themselves of the disappointment that had plagued them for years.
McJesus had led the Edmontonians out of the darkness and into the promised land.
By Christmas this past year, however, things got turned around. The question went from how far they would go in the playoffs to if they’d make the playoffs at all. Much sooner than anyone predicted, the answer came as an emphatic ‘no.’
The team with arguably the best player on earth watched their miserable season come to a merciful end long before the final date on the regular-season calendar.
The Oilers came into the season perhaps the league’s most promising hockey club and left it as its most disappointing.
And it was all made worse for fans in the upper half of Alberta as they watched Taylor Hall guide his New Jersey Devils to said promise land while picking up the Hart Trophy along the way.
One slap in the face after another.
A new year means a new beginning for the Oilers, although the additions of Tobias Rieder and Kyle Brodziak probably aren’t going to inspire notions of the team improving over the offseason.
Darnell Nurse still remains and a restricted free agent, with reports suggesting he isn’t looking to sign long-term right now given how tight the Oilers are to the salary cap. Nurse took a nice step in the right direction this year on the backend, setting new career highs in goals, assists and, of course, points, as he bounced back from an injury-plagued 2016-17 season.
Statistically speaking, McDavid had a wonderful year, posting his best season as a pro after eclipsing the 40-goal mark for the first time and putting up a league-leading 108 points despite the team around him.
What McDavid needs most are consistent linemates.
McDavid’s linemates last year ranged from rookies learning the ropes (Kailer Yamamoto and Ty Rattie) to centremen-turned-wingers (Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins) to whatever warm bodies Edmonton had lying around. No combination seemed to last more than a month. Nothing clicked.
Find McDavid some solid linemates, and you’ll likely have three players who become the league’s most potent trio on the scoresheet.
The Oilers will usher in the new season with a lineup that won’t look much different, so that won’t be an easy fix.
They will still have an underperforming Milan Lucic (despite general manager Peter Chiarelli’s attempts to trade the overpaid power forward). They still have the same defense that contributed to allowing the fifth most goals against last year. And they still have the same offense, that without McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, would have a missing ad on the side of a milk carton.
McDavid is going to have to work with what he has. The Oilers don’t have the cap room to change that, it appears. Talbot is going to need a better showing than his .908 last season, his worst on record in terms of save percentage, and a season that saw his goals saved above average (GSAA) go from 23.59 to -1.37.
The good news is that a swath of Edmonton’s youngsters took a step forward last season. Jesse Puljujarvi (Edmonton’s third overall pick in 2016), Ty Rattie and Jujhar Khaira all progressed, as did the aforementioned Nurse, and Andrej Sekera will be fully healthy to start the season on the blue line.
The hope is that the kids will play bigger roles this year, and they just might.
• Kailer Yamamoto, RW, 19, Spokane Chiefs (WHL) – 2017 first-round pick
Yamamoto could get a full-time gig with the Oilers this season and maybe he’s the guy that can gel with McDavid. Yamamoto put up another solid year in the Western Hockey League with 64 points in 40 games, a year shortened after playing nine games with the Oilers to start the season and his time with Team USA at the World Junior Hockey Championships, where he earned a bronze medal. Yamamoto is quick, likes to dish the puck and can also find the back of the net. One of McDavid or Draisaitl is going to inherit him.
• Evan Bouchard, D, 18, London Knights (OHL) – 2018 first-round pick
A smooth-skating defenseman that can play all three phases of the game, rush the puck and score? This sounds exactly like what the Oilers blue line could use, and that’s what they got when they drafted Bouchard out of the Ontario Hockey League this past June. Bouchard had 25 goals and 87 points in 67 games with the Knights last season and had five more points in four playoff games. There are rumblings that he might not be automatic to return to junior, but there’s also an argument to be made not to rush the kid to the Show.
• Ethan Bear, D, 21, Bakersfield Condors (AHL) – 2015 fifth-round pick
Bear played in 37 games in his first pro season in the American Hockey League. One part of that was due to injury, a concussion that hampered him and the Condors, who missed him in his absence. Bear put up six goals and 18 points last season as the Condor’s top defenseman and saw a lot of time on the blue line on the power play. The second part is that he got an 18-game stint with the Oilers at the end of the season and showed his worth with one goal and four points during that span. His prowess on the power play was also tapped into by the Oilers, who had him playing 1:50 per game with the man-advantage.