Slumping Oilers can’t find answers to the same old questions

Slumping Oilers can't find answers to the same old questions
Jared Silber/NHLI via Getty Images

Don’t blame Connor McDavid for not definitively knowing if Saturday’s Oilers collapse against the Senators was the worst loss of his regular season career.

Much like picking the most exciting McDavid goal, choosing the worst Oilers loss is daunting because of the staggeringly large selection. It would be like leafing through every book at The Library of Congress.

With the Oilers on a six-game losing streak (and a 2-10-2 slump), McDavid, Zack Kassian, and others appeared at a loss for answers.

Yet, when you note quotes from McDavid and Kassian (via The Athletic’s Daniel Nugent-Bowman), it’s striking how well they can apply to the Oilers’ eternal struggles, rather than these recent ones.

“We’ve talked about it over and over and over again in that room and obviously we haven’t found an answer yet,” McDavid said.

“We’re sitting here talking about the same (expletive) we were talking about before the break,” Kassian said.

Over the years, some details change. Broadly speaking, the Oilers have failed even more to support Connor McDavid (and Leon Draisaitl) during other seasons. But in the grand scheme of things, the Oilers still can’t answer the same plaguing questions.

Extreme highs and lows this season

If you seek a cautionary tale about how a hot start can mislead people about an NHL team, you could do worse than the 2021-22 Edmonton Oilers. (The Maple Leafs going from hot to cold in “The Corsi Hockey League” may be the best, though.)

During their 16-5-0 start (and especially at 9-1-0), the Oilers were simply playing over their heads.

  • Sure, Draisaitl, McDavid, and others form a deadly Oilers power play, but a 35.9% success rate was unsustainable. (Since the full season lockout, no one’s reached 30% for a full season.)
  • A proficient penalty kill probably ranked as a bigger red flag. Their 87.7% success rate (tied for third-best at that time), would easily beat Edmonton’s best PK percentage since 2005-06 (84.7%).
  • PDO is an imperfect measure, but still shorthand for a team riding luck. The Oilers’ 1.033 PDO (save percentage + shooting percentage) topped all teams at even strength.
  • More simply, they were outscoring opponents (80 goals for, 61 against) despite giving up almost two more shots on goal than they created each game.

[Check out where the Oilers stand in PHT’s Power Rankings]

Now, the pendulum is swinging a bit wildly out of Edmonton’s favor.

You know how people sometimes say “the truth is in between the two extremes?” That rings somewhat true of these troubled Oilers.

Entering Sunday, Money Puck gave the Oilers a 58.9% chance to make the playoffs, while other projections hover between a coin flip or slightly less.

So far, they are a mediocre even-strength team with a dynamite power play and a vulnerable penalty kill. They’ve scored 115 goals and allowed 117.

Can Tippett, Holland get McDavid, Draisaitl enough help to redeem Oilers?

In the scheme of this season, the Oilers maybe aren’t as bad as things sometimes seem.

However, that’s mainly a reaction to feelings of panic. The bottom line is that the Oilers still haven’t found answers to essential questions revolving around supporting Draisaitl and McDavid.

[A look at how the NHL’s best and worst teams support their stars]

Not every move has been a forehead-slapping groaner. While the term of Zach Hyman‘s contract radiates with risk, he’s at least a nice player, one who could either supplement Draisaitl/McDavid on a line, or perhaps provide greater depth.

Yet, when it comes to building a supporting cast, the bad outweighs the good. Unfortunately, Ken Holland’s recent track record speaks to serious lapses in identifying value in supporting cast pieces. This thread tells much of that story:

It’s possible Dave Tippett compounds some of those issues. At least, if it’s true that (like plenty of coaches) Tippett might fixate on mistakes younger players make, even as veterans suffer many of the same issues.

Consider this multi-season even strength RAPM comparison (via Evolving Hockey) between Ethan Bear (traded to Carolina) and Tyson Barrie:

Slumping Oilers can't find answers to the same old questions Evolving Hockey
via Evolving Hockey

On paper, Ethan Bear is exactly the type of player the Oilers need, considering their salary cap challenges. He’s young (24), currently cheap ($2M), and could remain that way for a while. Barrie, meanwhile, is 30, and carries a fairly expensive contract ($4.5M) that runs through 2023-24.

Making the occasional bad bet is one thing, especially with defensemen (who are generally tougher to gauge and forecast than forwards).

But it feels like the Oilers make these mistakes often enough that the errors eat away at their cap space and flexibility. As those mistakes pile up, you get less leeway to, say, invest in goaltending with a better chance to succeed than the Mike Smith + Mikko Koskinen duo.

(Injury excuses only go so far with Mike Smith, a 39-year-old goalie who dealt with issues in the past.)

Seemingly, the Oilers’ aims to improve their depth are undermined by a deadly combination: 1) a GM who’s struggled to gauge value and 2) a coach who might sour on the sort of younger, cheaper players you need when two players eat up $21M in cap space.

Few obvious solutions

In reading this post, maybe you disagree with causes, but can you argue with the symptoms? Again, year after year, the Oilers fail to find answers around Draisaitl and McDavid.

This past week, Ken Holland mostly shot down the idea of the Oilers making bigger changes, such as firing Dave Tippett.

To some extent, those comments feel out of touch. Unfortunately, there’s a darker way to view them. Maybe Holland simply believes he’s out of ideas — and running out of get out of jail free cards.

This team remains loaded with long-term contracts, and Darnell Nurse‘s cap hit balloons to $9.25M next season.

So, most of Holland and the Oilers’ options boil down to quick fixes.

  • Firing Dave Tippett. Maybe a new coach can breathe some life into this stodgy team, but how much can a Claude Julien (or, gulp, Mike Babcock) fix?
  • Hope for the best with a goalie like Marc-Andre FleuryIt’s unclear how much a goalie would cost at or around the 2022 NHL Trade Deadline. We haven’t seen noteworthy goalies move that often in-season lately. But what if the Blackhawks were willing to take, say, a second-rounder instead of the first-rounder Holland wants to keep?
  • Some other rentals. That’s a topic for another post, down the line.

If I were running the Oilers, I’d consider both a coaching change and a desperate swipe at goaltending. Of course, that would be after I wiped away the tears, and muffled a few expletives at the mountain of mistakes left behind by Holland and Peter Chiarelli.

What do you think the Oilers need to do to turn things around. (Note: you may be judged if your answer is “Change Connor McDavid.”)

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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