It’s 10 games into the 2017-18 NHL season, and things haven’t gone according to plan for the Edmonton Oilers. The Oilers have the second-worst record in the Western Conference at 3-6-1, ahead of the winless Arizona Coyotes. Edmonton was supposed to be an offensive juggernaut led by Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. The total offense from the team has been anemic, though. Their current 2.20 goals-per-game is tied with the Montreal Canadiens for the worst total in the entire NHL.
The special teams have been an absolute nightmare. Edmonton’s power play was the fifth-best in the league last year at 22.9 percent. That same power play has gone stale and completely bottomed out at 12.1 percent. Only the Anaheim Ducks (12.1 percent) and the Columbus Blue Jackets (10.0%) are as weak. The Oilers’ power play, on paper, should be better than only four goals on 33 power-play opportunities.
The penalty kill was average in 2016-17 (80.7 percent), but has been on life support at 70.1 percent this year. Special teams are a disaster, the offense has dried up, and Edmonton’s back in the NHL basement.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way, so what’s wrong with the Oilers? Is it time to push the panic button, or can fans walk away from the ledge?
Breaking Down Edmonton’s Anemic Offense
Edmonton’s seemingly become a one-line team led by McDavid, Draisaitl and Patrick Maroon. The Oilers’ top line has 10 of the team’s 22 goals thus far. As Robin Brownlee pointed out, the likes of Drake Caggiula, Jussi Jokinen, Zack Kassian, Jujhar Khaira, Mark Letestu, Ryan Strome and Anton Slepyshev have just three goals between them. Even then, those three goals came from Letestu and Strome. The rest of that group has yet to find the back of the net.
In the summer, Oilers general manager Peter Chiarelli traded away a perennial 20-goal scorer in Jordan Eberle. Remember the 27-year-old went scoreless through 13 playoff games and even wound up on the fourth-line last spring. Chiarelli made a calculated risk in that deal, betting on Strome to bounce back in a new uniform. It was one of many calculated risks by the Oilers GM. After all, The Sports Forecaster pegged Strome to have a career year playing with McDavid and scoring 72 points.
Strome’s scored just once this season. He also hasn’t had a shot in three of the last four games. That’s a bet Chiarelli’s seemingly missed on, but 10 games are too small of a sample to judge. It’s one of the reasons to maybe not put stock in the rumours that Edmonton is already over the Strome experiment and is looking to trade the 24-year-old. Edmonton’s problems go deeper than Strome, though.
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Early Disappointments for the Oilers
Maybe the reason Chiarelli didn’t go out and grab a top-six right winger was his assessment of the franchise. Caggiula and Slepyshev took significant strides last spring and flirted with the top-six for stretches. Those two were expected to be better in their second NHL seasons. Both have had their injuries to start the year, and that’s part of the reason for their regression so far. Through a combined 12 games, the pair is goalless.
Then there’s the bet on Jesse Puljujarvi. He was playing better hockey by the end of the 2016-17 season in the AHL. He didn’t crack the opening night roster after all. The short answer is that the Oilers have had a revolving door on right wing. Todd McLellan hasn’t unlocked Pandora’s box this year for line combinations outside of that top line. When nine of your forwards contribute just 12 goals, you’re not going to win a lot of hockey games.
Oilers Need to Be More Than a One-Line Team
That problem is further magnified by teams that have been successful in keeping Maroon, McDavid, and Draisaitl off the scoresheet. There have been three games this season where Edmonton didn’t get a goal from their top line. They lost all three. During those games, the rest of the lineup contributed just six goals. You can’t win in today’s NHL without a balanced offense, and the Oilers don’t have that right now. Remember that group of players mentioned earlier that had just three goals amongst them? Add Milan Lucic, who has only one goal, to that list.
Teams have figured out that if you shut down the Oilers’ top line, you’ve got a great chance to win. It’s as if teams are daring Edmonton to beat them with the rest of their lineup. At least the Oilers are winning the Corsi battle though, right? The team is firing the puck at will, and only the Montreal Canadiens are averaging more shots on net. Edmonton’s second in the league with 37.7 shots per game. They also have the lowest shooting percentage (5.8 percent), so they’re not turning those high shot totals into goals.
There may be a high quantity of shots, but they might not be of any real quality. Go back and watch the game against the Washington Capitals. How many of those shots hit Braden Holtby in the crest? When it comes to scoring, the Oilers have one line, and then Ryan Nugent-Hopkins seems to be by himself. If the Oilers could find a triggerman for the 24-year-old, maybe the offense would spark.
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When Should We Hit the Panic Button?
The revolving door on right wing has been a major contributor to the Oilers’ early offensive struggles. Chiarelli also has to share in the blame for not going out and trying to snag an adequate forward to address the scarcity on the wing. Maybe the Oilers make a move to not only solve their scoring woes but also to address the lack of speed in their lineup. Is there a possibility to acquire a forward like Chris Kreider, Andreas Athanasiou, Vadim Shipachyov or someone else?
Something needs to change in a hurry. An answer needs to come from within the group that was one goal away from the Western Conference Final, or through an acquisition. It’s still way too early to hit the panic button, though. When should Oiler fans be worried? Think the 20-game mark of the season. Edmonton’s currently riding a woefully low .350 winning percentage through the first 10 games of the 2017-18 season. The team is now five points out of the playoffs. That’s a spread the Oilers can easily make up with a three-game winning streak.
Fast-forward to the 20-game mark and that spread becomes way more daunting. If the teams in the Western Conference keep their current pace, the Oilers could be looking at a 10-point difference if they maintain a .350 winning percentage. A lot of prognosticators say if you’re out of the playoff race by U.S. Thanksgiving, you likely won’t make the playoffs. It’s still way too early, but the concern is quickly mounting. How long can so many players on the Oilers be having the worst stretches of the season at the same time?
You have to wonder how many brain cells McLellan has lost banging his head against the wall trying to right this ship. The poor man has tried Strome in every position on every line except on defense or in goal. Kailer Yamamoto has been up, down and all around after being a revelation and willing himself onto the opening night roster. Yamamoto’s now sat the last two games while McLellan’s looked for answers from his veterans.
The Kailer Yamamoto Experiment
It’s likely Yamamoto will get back into the lineup for Edmonton’s next game against the Pittsburgh Penguins. He’d add some offensive punch and some much-needed speed into the Oilers’ forward units. He had also gotten better over the last handful of games before registering just one shot in his last two games. Yamamoto needs to be better. But remember that before those last two games he had 16 shots during a three-game point streak.
It’s not quite the time to panic, Oiler fans. Nor should you be looking at Edmonton potentially finishing with a lottery pick. Wait until the 20 game mark to hit that panic button. Until then the team needs to show some urgency during the next 10-game stretch that could have a big implication for their season.