It’s no coincidence that the Edmonton Oilers’ disappointing 2017-18 season was chock-full of down years for several members of the team’s core group of players.
From the starting goaltender to multiple top-four defensemen to a $6-million winger, the struggles ran rampant right through the Edmonton lineup. Now, without much cap space available to bring in new key players, the Oilers will have to count on rebound seasons from the majority of this struggling group if they want any chance at a return to the postseason in 2019.
Let’s take an in-depth look at two Oilers whose return to form could greatly impact the team’s results in a positive way next season.
Starting goaltender Cam Talbot would be the first to admit that he failed to perform up to the expectations he had set for himself heading into the season. The 30-year old workhorse finished the 2017-18 campaign with a career-worst 3.02 goals-against average and .908 save percentage.
The plan going into the year was to give Talbot more days off than he had been able to enjoy the season before. The philosophy behind the idea was to allow the netminder to preserve some energy for the playoffs. While good in theory, there was one flaw in the tabled proposal: for the second consecutive offseason, the Oilers failed to acquire a proven backup goaltender who could be relied upon to help carry the load. This would prove to be a major oversight on general manager Peter Chiarelli’s part and ended up throwing a wrench into the whole idea.
Heir apparent Laurent Brossoit was unable to earn the trust of the players or the coaching staff as he struggled to put together two solid outings in a row. Chiarelli would later trade a mid-round draft pick to the Montreal Canadiens for veteran backstop Al Montoya, but the American battled injury and consistency issues of his own.
In the end, Talbot made an appearance in 67 of the Oilers’ 82 games in 2017-18 despite he himself missing some time due to injury. His 67 games actually tied Winnipeg Jets’ Vezina Trophy candidate Connor Hellebuyck for tops in the league.
Enter Mikko Koskinen
Hoping to curb the trend of subpar backup goaltending, the Oilers brought in a former KHL Goalie of the Year in 6-foot-6 Mikko Koskinen to (hopefully) challenge Talbot for playing time. Koskinen’s stats in the European leagues and international events are nothing short of spectacular but his previous tenure in North America was underwhelming at best.
The 29-year-old represents yet another huge gamble by the Oilers as he is still be considered an unproven commodity at this point. The difference between Koskinen and Brossoit is that this gamble is going to cost the team $2.5 million. The move has the potential to be a complete flop but Koskinen could also turn out to be the quality netminder that has been missing in Edmonton for quite some time.
An interesting fact with respect to the Oilers new goaltending tandem is that both netminders will be playing in contract years in 2018-19. Scheduled to become unrestricted free agents on July 1, 2019, both Talbot and Koskinen will be doing everything they can to cash in on what could be their last shots at big-money deals in the NHL.
If the Koskinen gamble pays off then the Oilers could finally have a tandem that features two goaltenders with whom the team is comfortable playing in front of. Such a situation could elevate the play and statistics of both puck stoppers and really make a difference in the team’s place in the standings. That would be the best-case scenario.
The worst-case scenario would see Koskinen struggle mightily just to adjust to the faster NHL game before eventually becoming the latest in a long line of failed second stringers. It really could go either way. The Oilers have tried a similar move before with Anders Nilsson and that wasn’t exactly a game changer.
With #IIHFWorlds starting tomorrow in Denmark, we're tossing back another @Molson_Canadian #TBT to Captain Connor & new #Oilers goalie Mikko Koskinen in 2016. Koskinen was named Best Goaltender of the tournament. pic.twitter.com/7XT5CgmWbt
— Edmonton Oilers (@EdmontonOilers) May 3, 2018
The only thing for certain is that Edmonton desperately needs at least one of their two goalies to step up and become the reliable last line of defense for a team that tends to give up more than its fair share of high-quality scoring chances against. It doesn’t matter so much if it’s Talbot or Koskinen – the important thing is that the Oilers cannot survive another season with the level of goaltending they received this past season and they need someone to grab the reins.
There probably isn’t a player in Edmonton who was more scrutinized this season than second-year Oiler Milan Lucic. The big man went ice cold following the Christmas break and finished the back half of the season with one goal in his final 46 games. In all honesty, that is an all-time slump which Lucic will probably never see the likes of again from now until the end of his career.
If you watched the games then you know that bad luck certainly played a factor in Lucic’s lack of production. He hit posts, was robbed by opposing goalies and missed open nets. Not to make any excuses for the guy but, in reality, he could have easily ended up with five or six more tallies than the 10 he finished the season with.
Lucic registered 79 shots on goal throughout the course of his final 46 games and ended the year in line with his usual shots per game totals. It’s not like the 29-year-old suddenly stopped getting scoring chances. He was snakebitten.
The left winger’s shooting percentage during that dreadful 46-game stretch was a minuscule 1.3% – a number well below the career average of 14.5% he enjoyed prior to the 2017-18 campaign. If you apply his career average shooting percentage to his shots on goal totals over the final 46 games of the season, Lucic would have scored 11 goals rather than the lone marker he did get. Burying those 11 pucks would have given Lucic 20 goals and 44 points on the year and almost certainly would have resulted in much less bad press.
While the terrible luck isn’t likely to replicate itself next season, there’s no denying that there are key adjustments that Lucic will need to make if he wants to return to the caliber of player he was in years past. The biggest adjustment will need to be to the speed of the game.
Lucic stated that he was in the best shape of his life entering the 2017-18 season but that doesn’t mean he was in the right kind of shape. An offseason focused on speed and explosiveness would go a long way to ensuring that the British Columbia native rebounds in a significant way.
Not only do Lucic’s feet need to become quicker, so does his hockey processor. The burly winger was too often the cause of turnovers as he developed the bad habit of blindly throwing the puck through the middle of the ice when trying to break out of the defensive zone. If he can’t spot an open man fast enough then the veteran needs to at least start making the safe play by chipping the puck off the boards and out. His 76 giveaways were second=most on the team and also represent his career high—not a good trend for an 11-year veteran.
On the other end of the spectrum, there was a common belief circulating this past season that Lucic hasn’t been as physical as in years past. The truth of the matter is that the winger led the Oilers with 254 hits and ranked second overall in the entire league in the category.
Sure, Lucic only had four fighting majors all season long but the reality is that fighting isn’t as commonplace as in the past and there aren’t many true heavyweights left in the game. Despite the low fighting totals, there’s no denying that Lucic is still an intimidating presence on the ice.
The other obvious concern with Lucic is his lengthy contract and the high cap hit he carries with him. The contract is basically buyout proof and also features a no-movement clause, so there’s not a lot of flexibility with it. The Oilers best course of action would be to do everything in their power to help Lucic to a big bounce-back season and then explore trade options while he has some value to other teams. There’s no guarantee the winger would accept a trade elsewhere but he might be open to a fresh start if things don’t improve for him in Edmonton.
After all, the Dion Phaneuf contract looked unmovable, and he’s been traded twice.
Mark Bowie covers the Edmonton Oilers and the QMJHL for THW.