Even with their 4-2 loss to the Red Wings on Tuesday night the Oilers are still off to one of their best starts in years.
They are 9-2-0 as of Wednesday, have one of the NHL’s best records, and are probably exceeding whatever low expectations we have been conditioned to have for them at the start of every season.
The key to their early success is pretty much what you might expect.
Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are playing like the All-World MVPs, they are and embarrassing NHL defenses on a nightly basis. The power play is like a group of sharks smelling blood in the water and is nearly unstoppable. They are, to this point, getting strong goaltending with Mikko Koskinen off to a fantastic start with a .920 save percentage in his first eight appearances. All important developments, and all of them working together have them on top of the Pacific Division and Western Conference.
If you wanted, you could probably point to the offseason addition of Zach Hyman with seven goals in his first 11 games, or the arrival of Duncan Keith via trade with Chicago, as turning point moves for the Oilers.
You would probably be wrong if you did that, though, because so far this Oilers team is eerily similar to every recent Oilers teams that has fallen short in recent seasons and has all of the same underlying issues lurking below the surface of its great early record.
Those problems, of course, are a shaky defense and a dependence on McDavid and Draisaitl to carry literally all of the offense.
That recipe has not worked before. Why should we think it will work this season?
The McDavid-Draisaitl dependence
This really is the foundation of the Oilers team as constructed. When one of them is on the ice, the Oilers are fine. When both are on the ice, they are dominant. If neither is on the ice, they are one of the worst teams in the league.
Through 11 games the Oilers have played nearly 265 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey with neither McDavid or Draisaitl on the ice. In those minutes the Oilers have attempted just 47%t of the shot attempts and been outscored by a 14-8 margin.
Those seven goals for newcomer Hyman? Only two of them (one shorthanded, one even-strength) have come without one of Edmonton’s two-headed monster on the ice next to him.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is Edmonton’s other big core player and has an impressive 14 assists as of Wednesday. He has also scored zero goals, while the bulk of those helpers (nine of them) have come on the power play where he is usually playing alongside McDavid and Draisaitl.
The shot attempt and goal numbers on a team level are pretty much identical to the previous six seasons. We have been over this before in this space (mainly because it keeps happening and the team never changes), but the table below shows their shot attempt share, goal share, goals for per 60 minutes and goals against per 60 minutes with neither on the ice during 5-on-5 play. It remains not good (again, we only keep pointing this out because it never changes).
The goal share is as bad as it has ever been, and while they are scoring more goals without those two than they typically do, the goals against are alarmingly high, even by Oilers standards.
Overall 35 of the Oilers’ 48 goals this season have come with one of those two superstars on the ice. Since the start of the 2020-21 season alone the Oilers are being outscored by 66-37 (that is a minus-29 goal differential) when neither McDavid or Draisaitl is on the ice during 5-on-5 play. They control just 44% of the total shot attempts.
While there should be an expectation for a team to play worse without its top two players on the ice, the Oilers still take that to an extreme, and in a way that is unlike any serious Stanley Cup contender.
[Related: Oilers third in latest NHL Power Rankings]
Pick a contender. Any contender. Look at how they play without their top two players on the ice and compare it to Edmonton since the start of last season.
Carolina? Without Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov they are at 53.3% shot share and are outscoring teams by a 65-53 (plus-12) goals edge.
Tampa Bay? Without Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point they have a 51.8% shot share and are outscoring teams by a 75-68 (plus-7) margin (and keep in mind this is also mostly without Nikita Kucherov as well).
We could go on with this, contender by contender, and see the same trend playing out. Contenders have depth. A lot of it. The Oilers have still not been able to adequately find that.
The defensive play
It was just a couple of weeks ago that head coach Dave Tippett got really angry when asked about the number of shots his team gives up, clinging to the same thing we always hear coaches and teams say when they give up a lot of shots — they are not good shots, we are keeping things to the outside, we are fine with that, etc. etc. etc.
But this isn’t really that complicated. Good defensive teams do not give up a lot of shots. From high-danger areas, from low-danger areas, from any area. They keep the puck, they apply the pressure. And just to get a sense for the Oilers’ defensive struggles, they are allowing 2.69 goals per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play. That is 25th in the league. Near the bottom.
Their saving grace defensively has been the fact their penalty kill has been outstanding. And that is really what drives this Oilers team — two generational talents, and elite special teams. That is something. It can make you competitive. But it probably will not make you a Stanley Cup team or anything close to it. And that is the problem the Oilers have still been unable to solve around their two superstars.
Because for as good as the record looks right now, eventually that power play is going to level off a little. Even if it finishes the season at the 28 percent rate it has scored at the past two years (which is still an elite number, nearly unmatched in the salary cap era) there is still a regression to be had there. Eventually McDavid and Draisaitl are not going to team up for three goals every game.
That is when this team and how it is built will really be put to the test.
Do they finally have enough to pass that test? An early look below the surface of the record makes it seem questionable.