Are the Oilers Ready for the Playoffs?

The Edmonton Oilers playoff positioning, which was once securely second place in the Pacific Division, has slipped every so slightly. Thanks to a couple of disappointing losses, and surging teams around them, the Oilers are now in the first wild card position. Because of all the jockeying on any given night, the Oilers could easily be back in the top-three, but it’s going to take a little more consistency in their game.

The importance of experience is always up for debate, but will the Oilers’ lack thereof be a detriment heading into the postseason?

An Ugly Effort

(Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports)

It’s just one game, but the Oilers’ performance on Hometown Hockey against the Montreal Canadiens was one to forget. They took a slim 1-0 lead into the third period, but watched it slip away in a matter of two minutes. To put it gently, the team didn’t show up for that contest, which was a disappointment considering their effort against the Pittsburgh Penguins just a couple of nights earlier.

There were really no excuses. It wasn’t a back-to-back, they didn’t travel, and they were healthy. Cam Talbot’s heroic performance kept them in the game for a long time, but they didn’t deserve to be. There was no energy, no push-back and no emotion. They lost puck battles all night long, and essentially sat back trying to protect a one-goal lead. Hardly the formula for success.

The easy thing to do is panic, because visions of the Oilers collapsing and missing the playoffs are dancing in people’s heads. But the only team on the outside that is realistically in contention for a playoff spot are the Los Angeles Kings. They have 72 points and a game in hand on Edmonton but would have to leap-frog the St. Louis Blues (75 points) first.

Following the game, coach Todd McLellan gave the Canadiens credit for playing a tight game, and said that “the effort and the desire was there” from his team. Interesting for the coach to back that outing and not throw his guys under the bus.

For the Oilers to be successful, they have to duplicate the effort they had against the Penguins. They have to push the pace and overwhelm their opponent. But do they have what it takes to turn in that sort of game every night?

Lacking in Experience

Darnell Nurse, Matthew Benning
Photo: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

The Oilers are often labelled a “young” team, but the truth is they have a lot of guys on the roster who have been in the league for a while. What they don’t have is a ton of postseason experience. They don’t yet understand how to take their game to that next level when the defence gets tighter, and there isn’t always a tomorrow.

The majority of their core (Connor McDavid, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle, Oscar Klefbom, Darnell Nurse, Leon Draisaitl, Matt Benning, and Drake Caggiula) have zero playoff games between them. Cam Talbot’s teams have been to the playoffs but he’s only appeared in two postseason games, and started neither. That said, the postseason experience the team does have is a little top-heavy.

Milan Lucic (101 games)

Benoit Pouliot (54 games)

David Desharnais (38 games)

Kris Russell (36 games)

Patrick Maroon (29 games)

Mark Letestu (17 games)

Eric Gryba (10 games)

Zack Kassian (8 games)

Andrej Sekera (8 games)

Adam Larsson (5 games)

The Oilers also have a coach with a great deal of playoff experience, and a Stanley Cup ring as an assistant. He’ll have to be a steadying force for this group whose main leadership core is green. The fact that the team has slipped a little as the season comes to close does raise some concerns about their ability to handle the pressure. Over the last 10 games, the Oilers are 4-5-1 and have lost three straight.

Connor McDavid (97) and Antoine Roussel (21) (Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports)

Play the Right Way

The Oilers weren’t rewarded for their effort against the Penguins, and likely got what they deserved against the Canadiens. But the goal for the Oilers is to commit to playing the game the right way, being responsible, and playing to their strengths. They got some bad bounces, and rotten puck luck, and that’s going to happen to every team. The key is how they respond.

On some nights, the Oilers look like sure-fire playoff contenders. But on other nights, they look void of confidence. At this point, getting into the postseason is the most important thing. Match-ups and opponents are secondary. The Oilers are gaining some much-needed experience during this run. They’re finding out in a hurry that you can’t let your foot off the gas at any point.

The Oilers are going to need all hands on deck for this stretch drive. Nobody knows what will happen once the playoffs start. It’s moot at this point. Get in, worry about the rest later. We’ll find out in the next few weeks if the Oilers are truly ready to be a playoff team. We already know that the fans certainly are.