When Ken Holland was introduced as general manager of the Edmonton Oilers this past May, he made it clear that his goal was to make the playoffs in 2019-20. At the time, it seemed like a lofty goal for an Oilers team that missed the playoffs by 11 points in 2018-19. However, with one-third of the season behind them, they sit atop the Pacific Division with a 16-8-3 record.
Last season, the Colorado Avalanche finished with 90 points and owned the second wild-card spot in the Western Conference. If we use a target playoff cut line of 90 points again this season, the Oilers would only need 55 points in their remaining 55 games to qualify for the tournament for the first time since 2016-17.
There are several leading factors for the team’s great start, including remarkable production from Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, the emergence of rookie Ethan Bear as a top-four defenceman, Mikko Koskinen’s stellar goaltending and new head coach Dave Tippett’s guidance. Still, they have a lot of work ahead of them. Here are three keys for the Oilers to make the playoffs in 2019-20.
Win the Winnable Games
While their critics will say they took advantage of a light schedule early on, they have defeated several strong teams such as the Washington Capitals, the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Colorado Avalanche. However, the Oilers have also lost to several teams near the bottom of the league like the Detroit Red Wings, the Minnesota Wild and the Los Angeles Kings.
There is more competitive balance in the NHL than ever before, so there are no longer any easy games on the schedule. Still, the Oilers have to beat the teams below them in the standings more often than not. It’s a good sign that they have thrived against elite clubs, but they can’t take their foot off the gas when they face a struggling or injury-plagued team.
As the Oilers get into February and March and the intensity of the games starts to ramp up, they need to treat every game with equal importance and bank as many points as possible. There will be nights where the other team deserves to win, but they can’t throw away games due to a lack of effort or sharpness.
Injuries have already become a concern for this group through the first two months of the season. The Oilers have been entirely healthy for less than one period so far. Adam Larsson suffered a fractured fibula late in the first period of the home opener, and the number of injured players has only continued to grow.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins hurt his hand against the Vegas Golden Knights on Saturday and will be out for at least four games. Thankfully, it doesn’t sound too serious, but the Oilers really can’t afford to lose him for any extended period of time. Nugent-Hopkins is the team’s third-best forward, and the team is challenged down the middle without him in the lineup.
Now, injuries are largely out of their control. However, this team simply doesn’t have the depth to cover for losing a player of McDavid or Draisaitl’s ilk, especially.
Special Teams Stay Strong
Tippett deserves a lot of credit for improving the team’s special teams so far this season. The Oilers have the best power play in the league (32.0%) and the second-ranked penalty kill (87.5%). While I don’t expect the team to continue scoring on roughly one out of every three opportunities with the man advantage, I don’t see them dropping off too much.
Additionally, the Oilers inexplicably don’t draw many power plays despite having the most skilled and fastest player in the league. So, they need to take advantage of the seldom chances they get. Although Tipped began his NHL coaching career designing the power play for the Kings, he’s probably better known for his defensive structure.
I think Tippett has done a masterful job to this point in turning the team’s dreadful penalty kill in 2018-19 into one of the league’s finest in 2019-20. Edmonton’s best penalty kill of the season came against the Avalanche on Wednesday when they prevented a goal for 125 seconds of 5-on-3. The key for the Oilers will be to have their systems clicking in March and April.