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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    Nathan MacKinnon sidelined about a month with upper-body injury

    Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports
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    DENVER — The injury-riddled Colorado Avalanche will be without leading scorer Nathan MacKinnon for about a month after he suffered an upper-body injury in a loss to Philadelphia.

    The team announced the news on social media.

    MacKinnon has eight goals and 26 assists for a team-best 34 points this season for the defending Stanley Cup champions. He joins a long list of banged-up players, including Valeri Nichushkin, Evan Rodrigues, Bowen Byram, Kurtis MacDermid, Josh Manson, Darren Helm and captain Gabriel Landeskog. Forward Artturi Lehkonen also missed the game in Philadelphia.

    The 27-year-old MacKinnon signed an eight-year extension in August. He was coming off a postseason in which he tied for the league lead with 13 goals, helping the Avalanche raise their third Stanley Cup in franchise history.

    Former Bruins coach Cassidy wins; Boston’s home streak ends

    Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
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    BOSTON — The Vegas Golden Knights made former Boston coach Bruce Cassidy’s return a success on Reilly Smith‘s score in the fifth round of the shootout, beating the Bruins 4-3 to end their NHL-record for home victories to open a season at 14 games.

    The 57-year-old Cassidy was fired by Boston following 5 1/2 seasons in June after the Bruins were eliminated by Carolina in the opening round of the playoffs.

    Eight days after he was let go, he was hired by Vegas.

    In a matchup of two of the league’s top three teams, Western conference-leading Vegas opened a 3-0 lead early in the second period on two goals by Paul Cotter and the other by Jonathan Marchessault before the Bruins started their comeback when Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak scored just over six minutes apart late in the period.

    They tied it on Taylor Hall‘s power-play goal 3:08 into the third when he spun in front and slipped a shot from the slot past goalie Logan Thompson.

    Smith had the only score in the shootout, slipping a forehand shot past goalie Jeremy Swayman.

    Cassidy took over as Boston’s interim coach on Feb. 7, 2016, before getting the head job that April. His teams made the playoffs all six seasons, including a trip to the 2019 Stanley Cup Final when they lost the seventh game at home against St. Louis.

    Cassidy knows what it sounds like in TD Garden with The Standells’ song “Dirty Water” blaring after Bruins’ wins.

    “Now that you brought it up, I’m used to hearing “Dirty Water” at the end of the game,” he said, smiling. “I’m glad I didn’t hear it tonight. The streak is irrelevant to me. It’s nice to come in and play well.”

    Boston lost for just the second time in 12 games.

    “This locker room sticks together, and we knew we were going to do something special tonight,” Swayman said. “It (stinks) losing, but we’re going to make sure we fix the problems.”

    The Bruins’ home-opening streak broke the record of 11 that was set by the 1963-64 Chicago Blackhawks and equaled by the Florida Panthers last season.

    Before the shootout, Thompson made 40 saves. Boston’s backup Swayman had 21.

    “This city meant a lot to him, and he was fired up ready to go,” Thompson said of Cassidy. “We went out there and tried to get him two points tonight.”

    Cotter collected William Karlsson‘s pass inside the left circle and unloaded a wrister under the crossbar 1:36 into the game.

    Marchessault stole Pastrnak’s attempted clearing pass, broke in alone and tucked in his own rebound to make it 2-0.

    Cotter’s second came 51 seconds into the second period when he slipped a wrister past Swayman’s glove.

    “We couldn’t get it done early, before the shootout. We had chances,” Pastrnak said. “It’s a tough one to swallow.”

    Vegas star forward Jack Eichel missed the game with a lower-body injury.

    TRIBUTE

    The Bruins played a video montage of Cassidy on the Jumbotron late in the opening period that ended with a picture of him and said: “Welcome back, Bruce.”

    The crowd gave him a nice ovation and he waved thanking them.

    “It’s a really nice gesture by the Bruins’ organization,” he said. “I appreciate it. I said all along that I have a tremendous amount of respect for them. I’m thankful they did it.”

    FOR THE RECORD

    Cassidy finished tied for third on the Bruins’ coaching list with Hall of Famer Milt Schmidt (1955-66) at 245 victories, behind Claude Julien’s (2008-17) 419 and Art Ross (1925-45) with 387.

    EXTRA SPECIAL TEAMS

    The Bruins entered the game ranked second in the league both with their power play (29.6%) and penalty killing (84.1%).

    UP NEXT

    Golden Knights: Host the New York Rangers.

    Bruins: At the Colorado Avalanche.

    Penguins plot a way forward as Letang recovers from stroke

    kris letang
    Kyle Ross/USA TODAY Sports
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    PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang returned to the ice on Thursday, just three days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

    The “twirl” the longtime Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman took at the club’s practice facility was approved by team doctors, a spin designed to help Letang’s mental health and nothing else. While the 35-year-old remains upbeat, it remains far too early to put a timeline on when his familiar No. 58 will return to the lineup.

    Though Pittsburgh general manager Ron Hextall indicated this stroke isn’t as severe as the one Letang endured in 2014 – when a hole in the wall of his heart led to a stroke that forced him to miss two months – the six-time All-Star is continuing to undergo tests.

    There are no plans for Letang to participate in any sort of hockey-specific drills anytime soon, with coach Mike Sullivan stressing the club will “err on the side of caution” when it comes to whatever rehab Letang might need.

    While Letang – one of the most well-conditioned players in the NHL – essentially went through the motions by himself, his teammates were 30 minutes south at PPG Paints Arena getting ready for a visit from Vegas and trying to plot a way forward without one of the franchise cornerstones, at least in the short term.

    Letang made it a point to help break the news to the rest of the Penguins following a 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina on Tuesday. Pittsburgh scratched Letang from the lineup with an unspecified illness and he spent a portion of the game watching from the press box next to Hextall.

    Afterward, Letang informed a somber locker room about his condition, a revelation that came as a shock even as he did his best to reassure those around him that he was and is OK.

    “It’s very serious health stuff,” defenseman Chad Ruhwedel said. “You hear about strokes and it’s never really good so we’re just glad to see he’s doing well and everything is good with him.”

    Sullivan understands it would be practically impossible for any of the other defensemen on the roster to replicate what Letang brings to the ice, so he’s not going to ask any one player to try. There are few players at the position in the NHL who have Letang’s mix of speed, skill and almost bottomless energy.

    The highest-scoring defenseman in franchise history is averaging a team-best 23:54 of ice time and has long been a fixture on the power play and in just about every crucial late-game situation.

    “I just think Tanger is not an easy guy to replace,” Sullivan said. “I don’t think from a tactical standpoint things change drastically. It’s just personnel based. But as you know, personnel can mean a lot in those types of situations.”

    It’s more than that, however. This isn’t a routine injury. There’s an emotional component and an unknown element to Letang’s status even as the Penguins insist they don’t believe his condition is career-threatening.

    “This is a whole different circumstance than an ankle injury or a shoulder injury,” Sullivan said. “This is a very different circumstance.”

    Letang’s on-ice presence is just one aspect of his importance to a team that has never missed the playoffs since he made his debut in 2007. He’s become a mentor to younger teammates like 23-year-old defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph, who like Letang is French-Canadian and who, like Letang, plays with a graceful fluidity.

    Joseph, who declined to get into specifics about Letang’s message to the team on Tuesday night, believes the best thing the Penguins can do during Letang’s absence is attack the game with the same passion he’s shown for 17 seasons and counting.

    “The way he plays for the team every single night and the way he puts his heart and soul into the game on the ice, it’s the least we can do is have our thoughts of him whenever we get on the ice,” Joseph said.

    Sullivan shuffled the lineup on Tuesday, elevating veteran Jeff Petry and Brian Dumoulin to the top defensive pair. Petry possesses a skillset that’s not too far removed from Letang’s, but it’s also his first year in Pittsburgh. Asking him to provide the leadership that’s innate to Letang is unfair. It’s one of the reasons Sullivan is insistent that it will take a group effort to fill in for a singular presence.

    “We have some diversity on our blue line right now,” Sullivan said. “We feel like we have guys capable of stepping in and getting the job done for us and we’re going to try and do that.”

    LA Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers

    Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
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    LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers, a surprising move for a player once considered the successor in net to two-time Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Quick.

    Petersen, 28, went on waivers the day after allowing four goals on 16 shots in relief of Quick during a 9-8 overtime loss to the Seattle Kraken. Quick was pulled after giving up five goals on 14 shots.

    Only one NHL goalie has a save percentage lower than Petersen’s .868 this season, Elvis Merzlikins of the Columbus Blue Jackets with .864. Petersen is 5-3-2 in 10 games with a 3.75 goals-against average in his third full season with the Kings and fifth overall.

    L.A. signed Petersen to a three-year, $15 million contract in September 2021, and he figured to take the starting job from Quick, who turns 37 in January and is set to be a free agent after the season. Petersen has two years left on that deal after this one at an annual salary cap hit of $5 million.