With the Edmonton Oilers playing their 25th game in 2013, they have just passed the half way mark of the year and a good time to look at how the first half of the season went for the young Oiler squad.
The best way to describe the first half would be inconsistent, which may be an understatement. The team is sitting in a disappointing 13th place in the Western Conference at the moment with 23 points.
Case in point, they have just come off an impressive 6-5 win over the NHL’s best team in the Chicago Blackhawks, however they were shut out in their previous two games to Detroit and Nashville, outscored by a combined 9-0.
They have yet to be able to maintain any momentum from the good games they do have and have not capitalized on those opportunities when they are there for the taking.
In a year where Oiler management has vowed to be a playoff contender, things haven’t exactly gone to plan. The good thing is that the Oilers are only 5 points out of a playoff spot with half a season to go. The bad news is that they have six teams to jump over and there are only 23 games left to do it.
Here are a few of the highs and lows from the first 25 games.
Justin Schultz. With sky high expectations, and more than a few people hoping for his failure, Schultz has come in and been the Oilers best defenseman since day one. He started out by ripping up the AHL with 48 points in 34 games and then went to work in the NHL. He leads the team in ice time and the defence in scoring and has run the Oilers power play with the poise of a veteran.
Sam Gagner. The Oilers leader in goals and points at the break, he has been their most dangerous forward on most nights. He has gone from under constant scrutiny to being a central focus on the offence. He has also played in all situations for the Oilers, being used on the PK as well as the PP this season.
Special Teams. The Oilers may be near the bottom of the standings, but their special teams aren’t. They are in the top ten in both power play and penalty killing efficiency. The power play was good last year, but adding Justin Schultz and Nail Yakupov has made it even more deadly. Even without production from last year’s PP points leader Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, it’s been good, with the possibility of being even better in the second half.
The penalty killing has been the area of big improvement. Much of that has been better goaltending and more focus from some of the PK forwards. Players like Lennart Petrell and Eric Belanger have been excellent in that area.
Production from the big three. The top line for most of the year in Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins hasn’t produced as expected. Hall may be the exception as he’s averaging a point a game, but he still has just 5 goals in 22 games. Eberle is well below the pace he set last year, and Nugent-Hopkins has only one goal in 24 games. It’s not that they are playing poorly, they have certainly created plenty of chances and all three are seeing increased ice time from last season, but the puck just hasn’t been going in. Unfortunately whether they’re playing well or not, the numbers just haven’t reflected it this year.
5 on 5 play. Partially due to the issue noted above, the Oilers have had major struggles producing at even strength. At the moment they are the lowest scoring team in the league 5 on 5 with just 30 goals in 25 games at even strength. Somewhat concerning, considering the amount of talent they have on the roster.
IN THE SECOND HALF
Going forward if the Oilers want to make a push for a playoff spot, they need to first develop a more consistent approach. All too often this season they will have a strong game and then follow it up with two poor efforts. A large part of that is mental and the Oilers will need to have more focus in that area and not let opportunities slip away as they have earlier in the year. Getting veteran players like captain Shawn Horcoff back from injury could add some needed experience to the lineup.
They will need Hall, Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins to produce at the level expected of them. All three took big strides forward last season, but have yet to take another this year. They will have to lead the offence and not simply be a part of it in the second half.
Goaltending will also be a factor. It has certainly not been the reason for poor play in the first half and it will need to stay that way. Devan Dubnyk has been good carrying the bulk of the work. Some nights he has been spectacular, some he hasn’t been so good, but he has been generally steady on the season.
The surprise has been 40 year old Nikolai Khabibulin who is working his way back from injury, who has been excellent in his limited opportunities. Both goalies will need to at least maintain their play if not improve upon it for the Oilers in the second half.
If the Oilers want to avoid a fourth straight lottery pick in 2013, they will need to put some consistent runs of games together and also get some luck along the way.
They certainly have the talent to make that happen, and as for luck, it has a way of finding those who put the work in.