Now that we are closing in on the halfway point of the 2020-21 NHL season and are starting to get a sense for what each team is capable of, we are going to take a closer look each week at some teams right on the edge between Stanley Cup contender and Stanley Cup pretender.
We start today with the Oilers, who are currently one of the hottest teams in the NHL. After their 3-0 win over Vancouver on Thursday, they are on a five-game winning streak, have won 11 of their past 13 games, and have rapidly gained ground on the Maple Leafs for the top spot in the North Division.
So with that said, is it time to believe in this team?
The situation favors them this season
And by situation, I mean the schedule and season format.
The temporary realignment of the divisions and divisional playoffs has put them with a group of teams that isn’t exactly a who’s who of Stanley Cup contenders. It is starting to look as if they might the second best team in the division after Toronto, while two of the three best players in the division play on their team. That is a big advantage.
Winning in the playoffs is not just about having the best team on paper, or even the best team during the season. There are so many other variables that go into it. Playing your best at the right time, being healthy, luck, and also getting the right matchups along the way. Being lucky enough to avoid a certain opponent. Getting a team that you match up well with. As long as Edmonton can stay in one of the top-three spots and avoid a first-round matchup with the one team that might be better than them (Toronto), it would be reasonable to consider them a favorite in any possible first-round matchup.
When you have two players as good and dominant as Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are, there is always the chance they can put the team on their back and carry them through a series or two. The way they have played this season, it is certainly possible.
The same concerns still exist
The biggest problem the Oilers have had in the McDavid-Draisaitl era is the fact the team as a whole has not been able to defend or get consistent goaltending, and that the offense revolves almost entirely around the two superstars. As they go, the team goes. Stop them, stop the Oilers.
If you wanted to look for some red flags right now in the middle of this recent surge, there they are.
Mike Smith is 6-0 since returning to the lineup with a .938 save percentage and two shutouts. That level of goaltending makes it a lot easier to win and mask other flaws. What happens to the Oilers when his numbers inevitably regress back closer to what they were over the previous two seasons?
Given the number of shots they allow, it may not be good. Like most of the teams in the North the Oilers are hemorrhaging shots and goals against this season and have been one of the worst 5-on-5 shot suppression teams in the league. They lack a true No. 1 defenseman and just flat out don’t defend well. They are going to have to drag teams into a track meet and outscore them. As long as McDavid and Draisaitl play the way they have been, they have a chance to do that.
But not even the league’s elite hit slumps and go cold for stretches, and they can’t play all 60 minutes. When neither McDavid or Draisaitl is on the ice for the Oilers this season they do not only get dramatically worse, they become one of the worst teams in the league.
With neither player on the ice at 5-on-5 this season the Oilers attempt just 42.1% of the shot attempts. They get outscored 22-13 (only 37.1% of the goals) and have an expected goals mark of just 40.1%.
In a lot of areas, that is actually worse than they have been in recent seasons.
A year ago their numbers were 47.2 (shot attempt share), 37.6 (goals for percentage), and 47.6 (expected goals percentage).
Two years ago they were 47.5 (shot attempt share), 41.2 (goals for percentage), and 47.7 (expected goals percentage).
Not good. Top-heavy teams do not tend to go far in the playoffs, and they do not tend to win championships.
Contender or pretender?
They are definitely a contender within the context of their own division. But at this point they still seem like they fall in the pretender category when it comes to the league as a whole.
For as exciting as they can be, for as dominant as McDavid and Draisaitl are, and for as favorable as the division is in their favor there are just still too many warning signs here that keep me from fully buying in as a potential championship contender.
It is entirely possible that they could win a round, and maybe even two in the playoffs. That would not shock me and it should not shock you. And if you make it to the final four you probably have to be considered a “contender” on some level because of how close you are and how random a seven-game playoff series can be. Weird, unexpected things happen in small sample sizes.
But they are feasting on favorable matchups. Would you put them on the same level as a Tampa Bay, or Vegas, or Colorado, or St. Louis, or Boston, or Carolina, or even a healthy Dallas team? Would they be winning as frequently right now with regular games against those teams during the regular season in their normal division? It is hard to envision it given the makeup of the roster.
For now, the Oilers are exciting. They play in a division against teams that favor them. That is going to give them a chance to maybe reach level they have not really been at in nearly two decades. But they still have some major flaws that need corrected.