Breaking down Oilers’ losing streak, playoff chances

Breaking down Oilers' losing streak, playoff chances
Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images

By winning nine of their first 10 games, the Edmonton Oilers began this season impossibly hot. Facing the Maple Leafs amid a five-game losing streak, the Oilers are swinging to the other, ice-cold extreme.

Where does that leave the Oilers overall? Let’s examine Edmonton’s losing streak, a bumpy road ahead, and examine the general structure of the Oilers.

In doing so, Oilers fans may feel better about this losing streak. Maybe not so much about this team’s larger playoff chances, though.

Too hot to start, Oilers now too cold during losing streak

Heading into Tuesday’s Toronto test, Edmonton is 16-10-0. If there’s a key added bit of anxiety from the Oilers’ losing streak, it’s that all five defeats happened in regulation.

As often is the case, the truth of the Oilers likely lies between two recent extremes.

When Sportsnet’s Mark Spector looked at scoring struggles during this losing streak, the Oilers generally said all the right things.

“It’s a hard league to score in,” Draisaitl said, via Spector. “I said that I’m not going to score 82 goals. And I’m not going to score 50 in 50, probably, either. These slumps happen. They happen to me every year; they happen to every player, every year. It was going to happen at one point. I would love to snap out of it, sooner than later.”

Generally speaking, Draisaitl is correct. The bounces should even out. But do the Oilers make enough of their own luck, overall, to truly compete at the highest level?

Can an even-at-even-strength, special on special teams setup work?

Not that long ago, people were wondering if McDavid was on the verge of demanding a trade. Lately, the Oilers found a way to go from vaguely pathetic to competitive, if uneven. Two main developments powered that growth:

  • Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl found even higher gears. Crucially, there are times when they’ve been able to thrive apart, too.
  • Edmonton’s power play went from mediocre to nuclear.

Recently, Evolving Hockey began sharing team RAPM charts. Those pictures can save a few thousand words.

Consider the not-good-at-much Oilers from 2018-19.

Breaking down Oilers' losing streak, playoff chances
via Evolving Hockey

Since then, the Oilers have taken steps back and forward at even-strength — ultimately mainly staying in place at 5-on-5. Their power play keeps reaching new heights, though.

Breaking down Oilers' losing streak, playoff chances RAPM team
via Evolving Hockey

Of course, the dream would be to get better at even-strength, while remaining potent on the power play.

Looking at their roster, though, is that actually realistic? For all that’s changed, the Oilers ultimately still rely on Draisaitl and McDavid, then hope for the best.

[Which teams have been the best, worst at supporting stars like Draisaitl and McDavid?]

Sure, Dave Tippett could consider tweaks. Maybe give underrated, redemptive forward Jesse Puljujarvi more ice time. During what’s already a breakthrough season, could Evan Bouchard handle even more than his 21:41 TOI per game?

Perhaps you could make baby steps here and there. Ultimately, the Oilers just need more. They need better defensemen, some forward help, and still only inspire so much confidence in net.

Yet, with a tight salary cap situation, there’s only so much Ken Holland can even pull off during the 2022 NHL Trade Deadline.

(That said, if a great deal emerges, this might be a time to go for it. Even if it means bribing someone to take on Zack Kassian‘s contract.)

How will Oilers’ playoff hopes look after upcoming road trip?

You can’t blame the Oilers’ losing streak on scheduling alone. After all, they’re four games (all regulation losses) into a six-game homestand.

What remains is a stretch where three of their next four games take place at home. Beyond ending this losing streak, it’s essential that the Oilers regain confidence. That’s because they end 2021 and begin 2022 with what looks like a bruising eight-game road trip.

 Wed, Dec. 22   @ Los Angeles
 Thu, Dec. 23   @ San Jose
 Mon, Dec. 27   @ Calgary
 Wed, Dec. 29   @ St. Louis
 Fri, Dec. 31   @ New Jersey
 Fri, Jan. 1   @ Islanders
 Sun, Jan. 3   @ Rangers
 Tue, Jan. 5   @ Toronto

Really, the key might be for the Oilers to manage potentially extreme swings in mood and perception.

If they can navigate that eight-game road trip, a similar stretch of home games awaits (seven of eight at home from Jan. 8 – Jan. 22).

[PHT’s Power Rankings]

In suffering this home-heavy losing streak, the Oilers inspire a fascinating range of playoff projections. The Atheltic’s Dom Luszczyszyn’s model gives the Oilers about an 80-percent chance to make the playoffs (sub required). Most models indicate that it isn’t time to panic.

Nonetheless, it’s a touch-and-go situation. Money Puck, for instance, puts the Oilers’ playoff odds at a mere 34.8-percent.

Almost every year, a team makes a deep playoff push after being far from guaranteed to even make the postseason cut. It’s not outrageous to picture the Oilers pulling that off. Maybe it’s by managing a draw at even-strength, and lapping up power plays — limited or not. A goalie could get hot. Perhaps the Oilers might improve at 5-on-5.

No, this losing streak shouldn’t destroy all remaining confidence in the Oilers. Instead, it’s a reminder that this team still struggles to surround Draisaitl and McDavid with enough support.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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