Well…here we go. It starts tomorrow. About 27 hours away as of posting this. To say this is a big season for this organization would be an understatement. And a lot of people want to write them off already. Despite the fact that in 2017 you had Tampa Bay, Winnipeg, and Colorado all have similar disappointing seasons as the Oilers just did, all three had quiet summers as the Oilers just did, then all three had incredible seasons in 2018. Washington subtracted last off-season. Subtracted, and won the Cup. Despite that, the media still believes that the more changes you make, the better you must be.
I feel good about this team entering the season. I like the changes to the coaching staff, this organization is just now starting to see their good drafting of late begin to pay off, and I simply believe that the three biggest reasons for last years disaster are frankly damn near locks to be righted. This roster is better than the one we saw 12 months ago…which was being picked to win the Cup by some. So can they make the playoffs? Yes, they should. I feel like they’ll finish either second or third in the division, barring health issues of course and there is no way to predict health. But expectations are now cooled, the ego’s have been humbled, and with that will definitely come better focus. But let’s look at the big question marks entering the season, and I put these in what I see as the order of importance for the clubs success this season.
This is the biggest key for me. And very few outside of Edmonton have given it the attention they should be for what happened with the Oilers last season. 31st on the PP, 25th on the PK (and pretty certain they were 31st at the trade deadline). No reason they can’t change that to 15th on the PP and 15th on the PK, and combined that should also have a big trickle down effect. A good PP is going to make teams hesitant to take penalties against you. When you’re 31st on the PP, who is scared to take a penalty? Add to that, a good PP will boost players confidence, it’ll take pressure off guys five on five, it has a bigger impact than we tend to give it credit for. Conversely, when you’re awful on the PK as they were for 80% of the season, they were clearly scared to play aggressive most nights which was when they played their best in 16-17. A good PK, or even trustworthy PK would help them get back to pushing teams around. This one looks like a lot more of a sure thing and to me should be one of the top units in the league. They were on the road, and they were post trade deadline. In March/April, the Oilers PK was 90.2%. Not on the road, no they were simply 90.2% on the PK for the last 19 games of the season. I have a very good feeling that this is turning around, and I can’t imagine that the PP can’t at least be a top 20 unit in the league and to me should be top 10. A lot of talk about their setup going into the season. I wonder why they don’t try using Draisaitl in the net front role, put Nuge in the bumper spot, and use Rattie on his off wing for the righty shot? You could then have a lot more movement, use McDavid and Nuge the same way the Caps use Backstrom and Kuznetsov. Just a thought, because Draisaitl has all the elements in his game to thrive in that spot in front. Size, toughness, hands, intelligence, to me he’s a perfect fit there. And you can always have him switch off and setup on the half wall as well, and then the fear becomes “where the fuck is Connor setting up?!” Finally, McDavid is going to shoot more on the PP. I think we all know that’s coming, and will open up A LOT more for them.
We all hate reading anything into pre-season hockey (if you don’t, you should because there are a billion variables). BUT, if one thing was a safer bet than anything else I’d say that Cam Talbot looking awesome while facing a lot of shots and facing high quality chances is a very good sign. I’ve brought this up before but will again. I have a theory that after 2017 he likely was both exhausted from the season and wanting to finally spent time with his twins who were born at the start of that season. He finally had time off to enjoy with his family. So he very likely didn’t put a lot of time in during that off-season, and who would blame him!? I’m not saying that was THE reason for his problems, but it would likely have had a trickle down effect for him as it often does in life. Wasn’t as ready entering the season, which hurt him mentally, and simply couldn’t ever get completely on track. I’m not overly worried. When I watch Talbot, I see a high end goaltender. The talent, the demeanor, I believe he is a legitimate number one guy who simply had a bad season. I don’t think he’s amazing, but I definitely believe he’s more like the guy we saw in 2017 than we saw in 2018. Obviously it looks bleak for what Mikko Koskinen can give them right now, but Talbot would obviously be helped even more if Koskinen can be trusted to play in 25-30 games. I wouldn’t write him off just yet either. I’m very vocal about my dislike of the job Peter Chiarelli has done, but his track record with goalies is pretty damn solid.
The Right Wingers
The other aspect which looked terrific in camp, but unlike with Talbot it can be a lot tougher to tell what we’re going to get from these guys. I THINK they all look great, but that confidence that all three appear to have would take no time at all to disappear. I’ll give you something, I won’t be shocked if Rattie ends up on another line. Not as a demotion, but rather he looks THAT good so far. He just looks like a guy who needed a legitimate chance in the league, had a team show some legitimate faith in him and now has the confidence that he can thrive…legitimately since I’m using that word so often. Yamamoto is going to be damn good. It’s as if people have forgot that. 12 months ago this fan base was giddy at what they had found, and by January they were resigned to him needing a year in Bakersfield. Hey, he still may. But he brings a ton of speed, he’s a spark plug, and he’s highly skilled. And then of course, you have maybe for me the biggest X factor on the team. Some would say that’s Talbot. Some would say it’s the special teams. For me, those are pretty certain to improve at LEAST some from last season. Puljujarvi though has a chance to improve A LOT. He’s coming. He is going to be a stud. But when will that happen, I don’t know. If it happens this season, I believe this team will become a contender, because you would then have an elite first line, with a dominant second line centre anchoring his line, and Puljujarvi and Strome would see soft minutes and I believe they’re games compliment each other very well. I truly believe that Puljujarvi is going to be an elite winger. I’ve said all along, you can see that his strength doesn’t match his size, which makes him as clumsy out there as everyone can see. We’re seeing it a lot less. Add to that, the language is coming. Probably not the deal the Edmonton media makes it out to be, but no doubt that having a good grasp on the language will help some. Chances are that we won’t see it all come together this season. Safer bet is 20 goals and 40-45 points if he is actually as good as he’s looked. That’s all he really needs to be. But if he takes that big step this season, that would be MASSIVE for this organization.
Oscar Klefbom’s health
He’s close to a number one guy when he’s right. I’d say he’s a low end number one or a high end number two guy, but a guy who can play in any situation. He’s healthy now. He wasn’t healthy last season as you all know. I understand that people would say to that “he’s often hurt”. Hey, fair enough. He didn’t get hurt until game five of the second round against the Ducks in 17. He didn’t sustain a second injury throughout last season. In 16, he broke his finger which is freak and easy to do, and he missed the last half of that season because of a staph infection. Remember when people used to question Taylor Hall’s health? I remember going through all his injuries and it becoming clear as day that he just had shit luck, he wasn’t injury prone. That’s how I’m feeling about Klefbom, it’s just been shit luck. You can win with this guy as your top D-man, and he’s due to start having some luck on the injury front.
This one is getting glossed over and really underrated. I trust that what we saw from Nurse is at the very least what we’re getting moving forward. And Nurse did his damage last season while facing the top opposition, so anchoring the second pair should be fine. And I still believe Nurse has a lot more to give, the kids ceiling is ridiculous. But it’s up to Benning to keep up and be a top four. It’s not an easy ask. Does he have the ability? I think so. I’d be lying if I said he for sure does though. Most D-men who have good rookie seasons like he had get people more excited than they should. Benning had four years of college as seasoning and then looked good as a bottom pairing guy. And he’s not a guy with big upside. But he can be a number four at some point, and this team REALLY needs him to be. Out of all the things I’ve listed thus far, this is the one I question the most, which is a good sign in my mind, but it’s still the second pair and top four D-men so it’s definitely concerning.
Ethan Bear/Evan Bouchard
One of them stepping up would be massive. I’m not sure Bear has the wheels to ever be more than a bottom pairing guy. He has everything going for him with the exception of that. Real high IQ and is an exceptional puck mover. But he got walked quite a few times last season. I definitely believe he’ll learn from that and figure how to take better angles on guys, but more than anything as everyone knows, he needs to add an extra gear to be a top four defenceman moving forward. As for Bouchard, I would cringe at putting him in a top four role as a rookie, at any point. I have no problem at all with him playing the entire season as a number six though. He’s got the IQ and maturity he needs to play as a 19 year old (in 17 days that is). As a number four, that’s terrifying, and it wouldn’t shock me if they did it should injury problems occur. But as a number six, that really doesn’t worry me. You could maybe even sneak in some extra minutes for him maybe with a guy like Nurse when 97’s line is on the ice, which would be against the top opposition, but we all know how that line dominates possession. But I feel good as either of these two in the number six spot and we’ll see after nine games who wins it, though my money is on Bouchard as Bear going down would give them an extra option when injuries occur. If Bouchard goes down, he’s gone. Whoever wins it needs to start playing on the top unit PP instead of Klefbom in my opinion. I know that’s potentially a big ask of a 19 year old kid, but he has all the tools to do it. You’re not asking him to QB it, just be on it.
An underrated element to this team. It is SO damn easy to underrate what Larsson does because of how they acquired him. But he’s a top pairing guy. I know he has zero flash in his game, but he is a composed guy, physical, terrific positionally, and his passing is overlooked as the guy can move it pretty well. We all know now what was going on last year and impacted his game as it would with pretty much anyone. Hopefully he is moving forward and in a much better place mentally this season.
He’s the lowest on the list because I believe if you simply look at the roster, they can get away with him meeting what most now expect from him. They definitely need more than what they got from him in the second half, but that was just a case of the guy being defeated mentally in my opinion. Lucic is one of the most grossly overpaid players in the league, but I highly doubt he’s as useless as he was in the second half. 35-40 points, 17-20 goals, that’s really all I ask! Just do THAT. And maybe I’m completely nuts here, and obviously you don’t want to pay a guy SIX FUCKING MILLION for this, but I’d prefer he be put in the best situation to thrive. So why not put him on the fourth line and let him dominate? I’m loud about wanting McDavid, Draisaitl and eventually Puljujarvi on their own lines to really tilt the ice, so why not have a fourth line that can do that too? And I believe Lucic is talented enough to do that getting fourth line minutes. Maybe I’m nuts, that’s fine, but they’re stuck with that contract so why not forget about getting what you paid for and maxing out what you can get from the guy?
Am I dreaming on any of that? I really didn’t come into this trying to talk myself in or out of anything, just giving my opinion on what can be expected. Health is health, we can’t predict it. But assuming they have a healthy season, those things look pretty good and I don’t feel like I’m being unrealistic about any of it, but maybe I am? You be the judge.
So with all that being sorted, let’s look at what we know. There are some things we know for sure, and some things that we should know that don’t get talked about.
The top line
It’s easy to say McDavid by himself, but this top line looked AMAZING to end last season. Nuge and McDavid to me look better than Draisaitl and McDavid did because McDavid will shoot it when playing with Nuge. And Draisaitl can carry his line better than Nuge can, so it works incredibly well. And as we saw first hand in 2017, and saw with teams like Colorado and Boston last season, you can ride a first line pretty far. Another add here is that people underrate that Draisaitl didn’t ever work that well on the top line last season. 97 and 29 just never gelled the same as they did in 2017. Had 93 gone to 97’s wing in late October, the whole season may have gone much differently.
He’s one of the best number two centres in the league. He spent half of last season away from McDavid and his production wasn’t much different. He also only had 15 of his 70 points on the PP. And yet most said it was a bad season. Ok…so what’s a good season look like?
Brodziak isn’t a burner, but he’s a better skater than Letestu was at this point. Rieder is a terrific skater and is replacing Maroon who I love, but is slower. Not too slow, but slower. Yamamoto is a burner. Puljujarvi is a better skater as he continually gains strength. Rattie isn’t an elite skater but good and very quick. And then you insert one of Bear or Bouchard, not that they’ll play a lot, but both guys are the best puck movers the Oilers have and didn’t have either for most of last season. What would make them a real fast team would be a good puck mover on the second pair, maybe a righty who can also skate great, has two years left on his deal at a little under five mil per….but even without “that guy”, this is a much faster team.
Cooper Marody, looks good. Tyler Benson, I’m really high on him. Caleb Jones, he’d be ready to at least come up to play some games if need be. William Lagesson will be capable if called up. And if Ethan Bear goes down as I suspect he will, he’s the first call-up. It’s not a lot obviously but it’s four more kids than they had to use than this time last year (I know technically Jones and Bear, but they weren’t ready). Last year there was Puljujarvi, and nothing else. Next year at this time you can add Maksimov, Safin and McLeod to that (Samorukov too, but he’ll need a lot of time like Jones). The system is getting a lot better, and nobody looks at that, but if injuries hit you need to have guys who can step in. It’s still not good in Bakersfield, but it’s better.
If any other team had three seasons like the Oilers last three, they’d get the benefit of the doubt from everyone. 16, they had HORRIBLE injuries. I really believe they would have been a playoff team had simply McDavid and Klefbom not gone down. 18 was anything that could go wrong, did go wrong. I really believe the Flames have more question marks than the Oilers do, but because the Flames never had the horrific years the Oilers did, and because they’ve been LESS of a disappointment in two of the last three seasons than the Oilers, they get the benefit of the doubt. I don’t care though when it comes to the Oilers, it honestly helps. It bothers me the Flames get so overrated because it’s members of the media being horrific at their jobs, but I really don’t care how they view the Oilers. I feel good about them. I’d feel MUCH better about them if they were taking a serious run at acquiring Justin Faulk, but without I still strongly believe a bounce back is coming.
Let me end this on a downer theory though. The theory being that Connor McDavid isn’t happy, and in turn the rest of the hockey world is pretty pissed off at the Oilers organization. That clip in the GQ interview about how brutal it was with the fans last season, I have to think that he was given the chance to retract that and he didn’t. It pisses me off because I know things such as guys chirping him and his family outside Joey’s South Common (that’s where it looked like it was to me anyway), those guys aren’t Oilers fans. Just because you live in Edmonton doesn’t mean you’re an Oilers fan. I have a lot of friends who when they were 17-25 years old would have done the exact same thing. The guys who did it were just dip shits who thought they were being funny and would get a reaction on social media by recording it. You don’t need to be a hockey fan to know who Connor McDavid is, especially in Edmonton. Anyway, that’s how it gets painted in the media, people close to him might be letting him think things like that are because it’s Edmonton and those are Oilers fans piling on him. That incident aside though, if he is pissed and unhappy and, I wouldn’t be surprised, nor am would I blame anyone other than OEG management. I have repeatedly touched on the national media love the Flames get yet again, and while this hasn’t played into that opinion, I do feel like there is at least a bit of disdain for the Oilers organization from them as well. How could any of us blame them if that’s the case either? This was their concern when the Oilers won McDavid. What has happened since? They’ve maybe been run worse than they were which is saying something, and they completely pissed away McDavid’s ELC. I know what I just said about 16 being injuries and last season being everything going wrong, but if they make good decisions in the front office leading up to what happened last season such as not pissing away Hall or pissing away the 16th pick/Barzal, that season doesn’t happen. I know none of this is news to any Oilers fan reading this. So am I getting at? I worry that the Oilers could be on thin ice with McDavid. I know he is literally just now starting his eight year deal, but the organization will have the entire league breathing down their necks if this is the case. I think THAT is why they’re not only getting a bit underrated entering this season, but nobody really saying anything positive. People have just had ENOUGH of the shit show. Everyone loves watching Connor McDavid and wants to see him succeed. Meanwhile you have an organization controlling that potential success who are incompetent and have a severe lack of self awareness. Nothing new, I know. And I believe this will be a playoff team. Further to that, this team can challenge for a division title if they not only get things like special teams and Talbot back on track, but a Puljujarvi takes that big step and/or Nurse takes yet another step in his development. But when you suck, things seldom bounce your way (look at my life). To say it is a concern entering this season, is a massive understatement. So I do worry that the ramifications of this season might be a lot more severe than searching for a new GM.
Follow me on Twitter @TJ_Soups