After suffering a 5-2 loss to the Montreal Canadiens at Rogers Place on Saturday (March 5), the Edmonton Oilers have played 56 games, which just happens to be the length of the entire 2020-21 NHL regular season. That’s notable because if the 2021-22 season ended today, they would not be advancing to the playoffs.
Entering play Sunday (March 6), Edmonton sat ninth in the Western Conference, one point back of the Dallas Stars for the final wild-card spot, and two points back of the Vegas Golden Knights for third in the Pacific Division.
Had this been one year ago, the Oilers would be cleaning out their lockers, facing questions of how a season that started so promising had gone so far off the rails and how a team with so much potential had so grossly underachieved. Again.
While they crashed and burned in the opening round of the playoffs last year, being swept 4-0 by the Winnipeg Jets, the Oilers had a good 2020-21 regular season, finishing second in their division with 72 points from a record of 35-19-2. Now at the 56-game mark of their 2021-22 schedule, the Oilers are well off that pace from one season ago, with 64 points from a record of 30-22-4.
Comparing the Oilers teams of the last two years, it’s not hard to see why their point percentage through 56 games has dropped from 0.643 to 0.572. A glance at the stats shows regression in just about every aspect of the team’s performance.
Oilers Have Seen Huge Increase in Goals Against
While they’re putting pucks in opposition nets at virtually the same rate (184 in 2021-22; 183 in 2020-21), the Oilers have been scored on 26 more times this season, which equates to a whopping increase of nearly 0.5 in goals-against average (GAA). In 2020-21, Edmonton tied for 11th in the NHL with a 2.75 GAA. This season they are 22nd with a 3.21 GAA.
It’s not like Oilers’ goalies are facing a ton more rubber (31.46 shots against per 60 minutes in 2021-22, slightly up from 30.58 per 60 last season), but they’re finding themselves in more challenging situations and thus having to make tougher saves with greater frequency.
According to Natural Stat Trick, the Oilers have seen increases across the board in scoring chances against per 60 minutes (from 27.76 in 2020-21 to 28.55 in 2021-22), scoring chance shots against per 60 (16.69 to 17.82), high danger chances against per 60 (10.49 to 11.54), and high danger shots against per 60 (7.64 to 8.59).
As a result, the Oilers’ expected goals against per 60 has jumped from 2.60 to 2.83, and the double-whammy is that they aren’t getting remotely close to what they’d hoped out of No.1 goalie Mike Smith, who went 21-6-2 with a 2.31 GAA and .923 save percentage (SV%) in 2020-21.
Injuries have limited Smith to just 15 games this season, and on the occasion that he has been able to play, the 39-year-old netminder has simply not been good, going 5-8-1 with a 3.57 GAA and .891 SV%. His shortfall is even more pronounced given that 23-year-old Stuart Skinner has made major strides (6-6-0 with a 2.62 GAA and .913 SV% in 13 appearances after playing just one game in 2020-21) and fellow veteran Mikko Koskinen is rolling along with a 19-8-3 record, which is a huge jump in win percentage from last season when he went .500 (13-13-0).
Oilers’ Special Teams Have Slipped
The Oilers have surrendered 42 goals while short-handed, which is fourth-most in the NHL, and ranks 27th in the league with a 75.7 percent penalty kill. Last season, they gave up just 27 goals while short-handed and had the NHL’s ninth-ranked penalty kill at 82.5 percent.
The most incredible aspect of this downturn is that it’s all come in the last three months. On Dec. 4, the Oilers were near the top of the overall standings with a 16-6-0 record and ranked second in the NHL with an 88.4 percent penalty kill. In the time since, they have allowed 34 power-play goals, a staggering average of one per game, and a penalty-kill of 67.4 percent, the worst in the league by a wide margin over that span.
Additionally, the Oilers’ power play has taken a slight dip, from 48 goals and a 27.6% success rate, both best in the NHL, to 42 (third in the NHL) and 25.6 percent (fourth).
Oilers Veterans Aren’t Producing at Same Level
Edmonton’s top four point leaders from 2020-21 have experienced a drop, some significantly: Connor McDavid from 105 points (1.88 per game) to 79 (1.44); Leon Draisaitl from 84 (1.50) to 79 (1.41), Tyson Barrie from 48 (0.86) to 23 (0.41); and Darnell Nurse from 36 (0.64) to 23 (0.41). All combined, that quartet has recorded 204 points through 56 games this season, a decrease of over 25 percent from the 273 they totalled in 2020-21.
Considering they are tied for first place in the NHL points race, it would be absurd to criticize Draisaitl and McDavid for a drop in production, particularly the latter, whose 105 points in 2020-21 was one of the greatest offensive seasons in NHL history. However, it does show how badly Edmonton needs its dynamic duo to play at an almost-impossible level every night if the Oilers are going to be among the league’s best teams. Even as they have gotten greater depth scoring this season, it hasn’t been enough to offset what’s going on at the opposite end of the ice.
The good news for the Oilers is that this isn’t 2021 and there is still time to reverse course. They have 26 games remaining, which, framed in the context of last year’s abbreviated schedule, is almost half a season.
Really, all that matters is that the Oilers find a way into the postseason dance. Once they get there, the previous 82 games won’t matter; just like the previous 56 games didn’t matter in 2021, a lesson they learned the hard way.
The Oilers return to action Monday (March 7), with a trip to the Scotiabank Saddledome where they will take on the Pacific Division-leading Calgary Flames. They have beaten the Flames in the teams’ first two meetings this season.
Brian is an Edmonton-based sports writer and broadcaster. His experience includes working as a sports reporter for the Edmonton Sun, where he covered the Edmonton Oil Kings 2013-14 Memorial Cup championship season.