The NHL season’s barely begun, yet the Edmonton Oilers find themselves in uncharted territory in recent franchise history, leading the league with 10 points.
Since losing to the Carolina Hurricanes in the 2005-06 Stanley Cup Final, the Oilers failed to qualify for the playoffs for 10 straight seasons — an incredible downturn considering the franchise’s once greatness. Their failure was special, as renewed optimism provided fans in Edmonton with a false sense of hope, which quickly dissipated following losing season after losing season, resulting in multiple lottery finishes.
Edmonton’s fate changed ahead of the 2015-16 season, when, once again, the club drafted first overall. This time, the Oilers hit the jackpot of all jackpots, landing the best prospect in decades, Connor McDavid. For many, McDavid represented a new chapter of rising above constant mediocrity. Unfortunately, the Oilers bad luck continued, as McDavid missed nearly half of last year with an injury, turning the season into another miss.
In 2016-17, optimism is back and for good reason. Through six games, Edmonton is 5-1. It’s a small, somewhat misleading sample size, but there are reasons to believe the Oilers record is an indication the club is finally ready to take the next step towards winning.
The Oilers strong start has been propelled by McDavid’s incredible production. Back and healthy, the 19-year-old has already established himself as the league’s best player. Through six games, he’s scored four times and added five assists for nine points. McDavid is nowhere close to his peak and he’s doing stuff like this on a regular basis. It’s hard to be awful with McDavid’s talent leading the charge.
Outside of McDavid, Edmonton’s strong start has been boosted by supplemental scoring. The Oilers are tied for first in the league with 23 goals, as seven different players have scored at least twice for the club. The only forwards with a goal are Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Anton Lander. The Oilers have been aided with a sixth-best 10.29 even strength shooting percentage, but even with an expected dip, Edmonton’s offensive depth has been impressive.
Defensively, Edmonton still isn’t where they’d like to be. Andrej Sekera and Kris Russell lead in time-on-ice in all situations, which is sub-optimal. The duo have been heavily out-possessed, both ranking among the team worse in Corsi For percentage (shot attempts) in the mid 40’s. Behind them, the group is OK, but not great. Adam Larsson and Oscar Klefbom have formed a solid, defensive zone start heavy shutdown pair. Meanwhile, the jury is still out on Darnell Nurse’s effectiveness defensively, but at the very least, he’s a solid offensive option on the third pair. Edmonton is still giving up too many shots at even strength – the club’s 30.8/60 tops last season’s mark – which slightly hinders their chance at improving.
Goaltender Cam Talbot will need to provide at least middle of the pack goaltending for Edmonton to shed past mediocrity and become a playoff team. So far, he’s done just that. The 29-year-old’s .920 even strength save percentage ranks in the middle of starting goaltenders. It’s a small but encouraging sample size. Talbot will never be among the league’s best netminders, but if he can maintain his solid numbers, the Oilers are in good hands.
— Edmonton Oilers (@EdmontonOilers) October 23, 2016
Edmonton has the necessary depth and star power to become more than the NHL’s laughing stock. But, admittedly, a lot needs to go right for them to rise to the top of the standings in the long term. McDavid needs to remain healthy for the Oilers to go anywhere this season. He should be good for 100 points if he doesn’t go down, an insane marker for a player in their sophomore season. Equally as important, Edmonton’s defense needs to provide stability. It can be somewhat mediocre, but the group can’t continue to be a tire fire holding the team back.
Again, a lot needs to go right for the Oilers to go from zero to successful NHL franchise. For the first time in what feels like forever, it seems perfectly feasible that can happen and Edmonton can become a good team once again.