The ’12 Days of Christmas’ is a classic holiday song first published in its current form in 1908. In a nod to the classic carol, join The Hockey Writers as we count down the 12 Days of Hockeymas. Each day, we will provide you with a piece of hockey history as we eagerly await the start of the 2020-21 NHL season.
The Edmonton Oilers have seen some rough times over the past decade. Since squeezing into the playoffs as the eighth seed and making an unlikely run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2005-06, they’ve only made the playoffs twice. What has been holding the team back since then?
Offense Hasn’t Been Great
With players like Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl challenging for the Art Ross Trophy year after year, it doesn’t seem right to name scoring as one of the faults of these Oilers teams. But before the dynamic duo stepped on the scene, the offence just hadn’t been cutting it. In the 14 years since the Oilers’ Cup Final run, the team has scored fewer goals than the league average in all but three seasons.
On top of this, prior to McDavid making his debut, the Oilers struggled to find high-end goal scorers, having only three players score 30 or more goals in the time since their Cup Final run — Ryan Smyth in 2007-08, Dustin Penner in 2009-10, and Jordan Eberle in 2011-12. To find a 40-goal scorer for the Oilers, one would have to look as far back as the early ’90s. The last Oiler to score 40 or more goals prior to McDavid was Petr Klima during the 1990-91 season.
Now, things have improved for the Oilers offence, thanks to top-end talents like McDavid and Draisaitl, but for years, the team was held back by a lack of consistent scoring.
Oilers Have Lacked an Elite Defender
Chris Pronger was a massive part of the Oilers’ Cup Final team, with his playoff heroism showing the impact that an elite defender has on his team. Since his departure, the Oilers have struggled to find a defender that can fill the hole he left.
Over the past 14 seasons, the Oilers have only had one player receive Norris Trophy votes for best defenceman. That player was Sheldon Souray in 2008-09, meaning that no Oiler has received a Norris Trophy vote in over 10 years. This makes the Oilers one of only two teams not to have a player receive Norris votes over that span, with the other being the New Jersey Devils.
Having taken defenders like Evan Bouchard and Philip Broberg with high picks in two of the last three drafts, the Oilers seem to be focused on building a strong defensive core for the future. Other young defencemen such as Caleb Jones and William Lagesson have now become a part of the Oilers’ prospect pipeline and will look to make the most of whatever chances they get this season. With these prospects as well as established players like Darnell Nurse, Tyson Barrie, Adam Larsson, and Ethan Bear who is settling into the NHL, the Oilers’ defense looks to be more solid than it has been in years.
The Goaltending Carousel Kept Spinning
While the Oilers spent years struggling to find their top defender and get consistent scoring, it certainly didn’t help that there was a revolving door of goaltenders playing for the team. Since the departure of Dwayne Roloson, the goalie that took them to the Cup Final, the Oilers have had eight goaltenders play at least 35 games for the team.
Cycling through the likes of Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers, Devan Dubnyk, and Nikolai Khabibulin among others, the Oilers have had a lot of difficulties finding a solid goaltender that they can commit to. The goalies they have had were seldom anything to write home about, usually underperforming in goaltending metrics when compared to their peers.
The closest thing the Oilers have had in recent years to a steady netminder was Cam Talbot who shouldered a heavy workload, playing upwards of 55 games three times for the team, including one season where he played in 73 games and finished top 10 in the NHL in save percentage among starting goaltenders. He was also an important piece of an Oilers team that made their deepest playoff run in over a decade, going the distance with the Anaheim Ducks in Round 2 of the 2017 Playoffs.
The Oilers now have Mikko Koskinen locked up for two more seasons with Mike Smith providing support. While it remains to be seen whether there is another level to Koskinen’s game, at the very least, the consistency of having him in net for at least the near future will be key to the team’s success.
The Old Boys Club
The old boys club has long been something that has plagued the Oilers. From the constant hiring of former Oilers players in executive positions to the failing upwards of other past executives, the team for years was unable to move on from the past and get a fresh start.
One alarming report surfaced in 2018, reported on by Mark Spector, bringing to light the “Red Wine Summits.” These summits were a gathering of former Oilers, meeting up post-game to pitch ideas to the organization. The scary thing is that they seemed to be listening. Spector speculated that these summits played a part in Paul Coffey, another Oilers’ “old boy” being hired as a part-time development coach (a role that he has since vacated). Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman further supported this idea, as he pondered whether someone other than then general manager Peter Chiarelli had made the call to hire Coffey.
With new coaching and general manager hires over the past couple of seasons, as well as the departures of former executives Craig MacTavish and Scott Howson, it seems that the Oilers are finally moving away from the influence of the old boys club.
A Bright Future
Despite the Oilers’ struggles to consistently reach the playoffs since their 2005-06 Stanley Cup Final run, it seems that things are looking up for the team. They now have top scorers, the deepest defence they’ve had in years, and a goaltender that will likely be able to provide a sense of constancy. With all that accompanied by having moved away from outside influences, the Oilers look to have a very bright future.