It’s prediction time, and the thing most fans want to know is whether or not the 2017-18 season was an aberration and if the Edmonton Oilers can get back to the playoffs in 2018-19. For that to happen, a few things need to go their way. The Oilers’ roster constructed by general manager Peter Chiarelli is faith-driven. What that means is that the expectation is on a lot of Oilers to have bounce-back or breakout years.
Last season, bets were placed on the likes of Milan Lucic, Jesse Puljujarvi, Drake Caggiula and Anton Slepyshev being more assertive players. If they took forward strides and gave Edmonton some balanced scoring, the Oilers were sure to make a deep run at the Stanley Cup, right? Wrong. The results didn’t reflect the hope and faith that was put into them at the beginning of the year, and the team ultimately missed the playoffs by 17 points. Yikes!
Because of their cap situation, Chiarelli’s hands were tied this summer meaning no big free agent signing was going to bail them out. Instead, they were quite making a few depth acquisitions in Tobias Rieder, Kyle Brodziak, and Kevin Gravel. So once again, Chiarelli and the Oilers managerial staff are doubling down on what they have internally to get back into the playoffs. Will they be rewarded for their faith or is this the definition of insanity?
For this club to make the playoffs in 2018-19, a few things need to happen, obviously. Here are five predictions that could land the Oilers back in the playoffs next April.
Milan Lucic Will Have a Bounceback Season
If you were to predict that Lucic would’ve scored just one goal in the final 46 games of the 2017-18 season, most folks would’ve laughed you out of the building. But that’s exactly what happened, and Lucic ended the year with just 10 goals and 34 points in 82 games. His 0.41 points per game were the lowest in his career dating back to an injury-plagued 2009-10 season (0.40) in which he played just 50 games.
Related: Oilers Aren’t Trading Milan Lucic
With a $6-million price tag and him entering year three of seven of his $42-million deal, the Oilers can ill-afford for Lucic to flounder again. There were rumors he was being shopped this summer, but there’s a 99.9-percent chance that he is still an Oiler on opening night. Chiarelli has a had a lot of faith in Lucic, and the two have a relationship that goes back 12 years to the 2006 NHL Draft. Is Lucic fully into his decline or will he regain some of the confidence he lost in the second half of the year and reward Chiarelli’s faith with a 20-goal season? Bet on the latter.
Tobias Rieder Will Start Season With Leon Draisaitl
The minute the Oilers signed Tobias Rieder, most prognosticators penciled him to flank Leon Draisaitl on Edmonton’s second line. The connection was easy to make for some. Rieder, 25, spent time with Draisaitl at the World Cup and World Championships in recent years. Both are German-born players, and nationality aside, they did have a touch of chemistry in these small sample sizes. Rieder is also an adept penalty killer, but his role in Edmonton is yet to be determined.
The right side depth is a giant question mark and Rieder’s abilities to play both wings make him somewhat versatile. Then again, the fact he’s never scored more than 16 goals or 37 points during his 312-game NHL career is concerning if head coach Todd McLellan plans to weld him amongst his top-six. Expect Rieder to start the year with Draisaitl, but also for the natural evolution of the season to provide another player with a chance to stick as the No. 2 right wing next to Draisaitl.
If the goal is to task Rieder with some minutes on the power play and penalty kill, it might be too much to ask for him to play such a prominent role during 5-on-5 play. As the season wears on, it’s much more likely that Rieder slides into a third-line role while still eating those special teams minutes. Can we reasonably expect Rieder to score 15 goals and register 35 points or more in 2018-19? It’s possible.
Jesse Puljujarvi Has a Breakout Year
So if Rieder is going to eventually slide into a third-line role on either the left or right side—let’s say it’s the right—who takes his spot? How about the guy that’s drawn some ire from folks for his “slow development”? The fourth overall pick from the 2016 NHL Draft, Puljujarvi enters his third season in the NHL. While Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine have been thrust into superstardom, Pierre-Luc Dubois and Puljujarvi are still trying to find their legs.
The 21-year-old is entering a contract year, and what better way to set up for a payday than to have your breakout year in the final year of your entry-level contract (ELC)? Puljujarvi put up just 12 goals and 20 points in 65 games last year. If he were to get consistent top-six minutes, along with first-unit power-play time, could McLellan finally unlock Puljuajrvi’s full potential?
If Edmonton is going to make the playoffs they’ll need supporting players like Puljujarvi to be part of that solution. If the stars align and a healthy, motivated Puljujarvi comes into 2018-19 chomping at the bit, can he score 20 goals, and maybe 50 points? No one is expecting him to have world-beater numbers. Going from 8 to 20 and then suddenly 50 points is a gigantic increase, but isn’t it about time? Is a 20-20-40 season more realistic? Bank on something in the middle.
Bouchard & Yamamoto Won’t Play Full Seasons
Evan Bouchard has garnered a lot of attention and praise for the year he had with the OHL’s London Knights, registering 87 points in the process. It led to the Oilers grinning when they got the offensive puck-mover with the tenth overall pick. He participated in the World Juniors Summer Showcase and has a realistic shot at making Canada’s 2019 WJC squad. The Oilers defense depth right now doesn’t have a true vacancy.
The right side is loaded with Adam Larsson, Kris Russell, and Matt Benning. Unless he can knock the socks off the decision-makers, expect Bouchard to get an extended look that might even include a nine-game audition to start the year. After that it’s likely he ends up back in junior to play for a very deep London squad that’s loaded on defense.
Kailer Yamamoto is another name worth mentioning. He’s got an outside shot at making Edmonton’s opening-night roster like he did a year ago. The questionable nature of the right wing depth chart is his opening, but the Oilers are committed to giving Ty Rattie an extended look in the top-six, they’re unlikely to demote Puljujarvi to the AHL, and Rieder looks like a decent top-six addition. Zack Kassian is penciled into the No. 4 spot, thus there are more players than jobs.
The best thing for the 20-year-old will be to start the year in the AHL where he’ll get first line minutes with the Condors and first power play unit time. He’ll be put in every opportunity to succeed and find his pro legs. After making the Oilers out of camp last year, Yamamoto will once again challenge for a job. If he’s unsuccessful in making the club, expect him to get first re-call opportunities. Once the Oilers figure out what they have in the NHL (say in January), expect Yamamoto to come back swinging and end the year as a full-time Oiler.
Cam Talbot Returns to 2016-17 Form
Lastly, you can’t win if you can’t stop the puck. Edmonton might have McDavid and Draisaitl leading the charge, but this isn’t a team that’s going to challenge teams to outscore them in 7-5 games. They don’t have the high octane offense to challenge teams to that type of hockey. Last season Talbot had without a doubt his worst year in the Oilers crease. He was sloppy, allowed teams to capitalize early, and couldn’t make the big save when it was needed.
Talbot played 67 games last season and held a disappointing 3.02 goals-against average (GAA) and a .908 save percentage (SV%). This comes a year after posting a 2.39 GAA and a .919 SV% through 73 games and earning some Vezina Trophy consideration. So now that the 31-year-old is entering the final year of his contract, can he return to his 2016-17 Team MVP worthy performance?
Financial motivation aside, the disappointment in the year has to spark him to once again be the backbone of this squad. He’s been an absolute workhorse and no other NHL goalie has played more games over the past three seasons than Talbot’s 196 outings. The added threat of newly acquired Mikko Koskinen from the KHL pushing for minutes has to motivate Talbot to keep his spot as the No. 1.
If he falters you can bet the club will turn to Koskinen who carries a hefty contract for a backup. If I’m a betting man and you look at the trend of where Talbot’s played, you can bank on his 2017-18 season being a one-off compared to his career numbers. He’s a goalie that’ll net you 30-plus wins per season and has averaged a 2.50 GAA and a .918 SV% through his 253-game NHL career. If he bounces back, this team will have a shot at making up those 17 points that caused them to miss the playoffs.
Do you agree or disagree with these predictions? Let us know your thoughts in the comment section below, and let us know what predictions you have for the 2018-19 season.
Edmonton Oilers regular contributor providing insight on all things Oilers including club history, prospect profiles, trade breakdowns, and everything else in between. Check back regularly for new and exciting content. Follow on Twitter @SanderTHW.