NBCSN’s coverage of the 2020-21 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Edmonton Oilers and Toronto Maple Leafs. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.
Think of the Penguins with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the Avalanche with Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg, or even going back to the old Bruins days with Phil Esposito and Bobby Orr. It is a rare thing to have that sort of foundation, and most teams do not tend to waste it if they can get it. You can never win it all just because of two players, but it is usually a good enough foundation to build something special.
It has not worked out that way for the Oilers, and just four games into the 2020-21 NHL season a lot of the same problems that have held them back during the McDavid-Draisaitl era are already starting to surface heading into Wednesday’s game against the Maple Leafs.
Start with the biggest problem, which is an inability to keep the puck out of their own net. This has been an issue in Edmonton for years, and has already resulted in them surrendering 15 goals in their first four games this season. And there is not really anyone aspect of the team that is responsible for it. It is a collective effort from everybody.
The goaltending has struggled, with Mikko Koskinen posting an .897 save percentage and veteran Mike Smith currently injured, giving them no reliable veteran backup. Even before Smith’s injury this duo was a question and the one area they seemed to just flat out neglect over the offseason. But for as questionable as that position is, the skaters in front of the goalies are not providing much resistance, either.
[Live Stream: Coverage starts at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN]
Not having Oscar Klefbom for the entire season is a massive blow to an already thin defense, and the early numbers are looking ugly.
Entering play on Wednesday the Oilers are one of the NHL’s worst defensive teams across the board statistically. It is obviously a small sample size, but nobody is giving up more shots, chances, and goals than this team.
During 5-on-5 play the Oilers are already giving up more than 65 total shot attempts per 60 minutes — by far the worst mark in the league — and more than 36 shots on goal (also the worst mark in the league). They are hemorrhaging shot attempts, shots on goal, and scoring chances against defensively, with no consistently reliable goalie to bail them out. The defense is undermanned and lacking a true No. 1 player, and the forwards are either not good enough or committed enough to make an impact defensively. Put all of those things together and you have the perfect recipe for a lot of goals against.
But that is not the only issue the Oilers have had to deal with.
It has also been a team that is completely dependent on the duo of McDavid and Draisaitl to carry all of the offense. If they do not score, nobody does. If they do not take over a game, the Oilers have no chance. The numbers do not lie in this regard.
Over the previous three seasons the Oilers have broken even (even if just barely) in terms of shot attempt differential when at least one of McDavid or Draisaitl is on the ice during 5-on-5 play. They also have a respectable plus-15 goal differential in those minutes. Not totally dominant, but at least staying on the positive end of the scoreboard. It is enough to compete.
[Related: Your 2020-21 NHL On NBC TV Schedule]
When neither is on the ice? The shot attempt share drops down to 46% while the goal differential goes to minus-66. When they have an MVP on the ice they look like a potential playoff team. Without either they look like an expansion team.
It has been the same story so far this season.
Entering Wednesday’s game the Oilers have a 54% shot attempt share and a 7-4 goal differential when one of their two MVP’s is on the ice during 5-on-5 play. When neither is on the ice the shot attempt share is only 33% while the team has been outscored 7-0 on the scoreboard.
When you expand it out to all situations, the Oilers have scored just a single goal in four games without McDavid or Draisaitl on the ice. That is simply not a sustainable way to win hockey games.
The Oilers spent their offseason making what looked to be some smart, cap-friendly contracts that could have improved their depth. Kyle Turris, Dominik Kahun, Tyson Barrie, Slater Koekkoek and hopefully a step forward from former No. 4 overall pick Jesse Puljujarvi. It is still early, and it is very possible that all of those moves could pan out. It just has not happened so far, and it has the Oilers with just one win in their first four games going into a big two-game set with a high powered Maple Leafs offense.