Oilers’ Hot Start About to be Tested

After scorching out to an 8-3-1 record to start the 2019-20 season, it is hard for the usually lowly Edmonton Oilers to fly under the radar around the league for getting off to one of the best starts the team has ever had in its 40-year history. The general media and fans have fallen in love with the team’s top-heavy, star-studded appeal and the consensus of followers believe head coach Dave Tippett has swiftly mended all the cracks in the Oilers’ systematic play which have plagued the club for the past two seasons. Generally, everything seems to be going pretty well in Oil Country!

Faking It and Making It so Far

I hate to be a home wrecker, or a party pooper, or a bearer of bad news, but no matter what you call me, I need to warn you that sadly, the hockey community has just fallen for a masterpiece facade so far thanks to a generous schedule gifted by the NHL and the superb play of the Oilers top-six forwards and goaltenders.

By no means do I aim to discount the excellent play of rookie defenseman Ethan Bear, and the early bounce back James Neal has shown; nor am I forgetting about the recently extinguished power-play, the drastically improved penalty kill, and the team’s ability to successfully manage the absence of a top-four defenseman in Adam Larsson and other depth injuries. I admit and admire how well the club has been playing.

Edmonton Oilers James Neal
Edmonton Oilers forward James Neal (Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports)

But what I need to make clear to everyone is that we have not seen the real Oilers of 2019-20 yet. Yes, I know we are only 12 games into the season and you cannot truly see what a team is made of until the midway point or so, but the performance of the club so far will quite likely be unsustainable and an outlier when the year is all said and done. Again, I am not saying that McDavid and Draisaitl will not average a point per game or the Smith-Koskinen duo won’t hold it’s own. All I am saying is this: do not read too much into these first 12 games and get your hopes up on a team that has so often disappointed fans over the past decade of doom.

Mike Smith Edmonton Oilers
Mike Smith, Edmonton Oilers (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Taking Advantage of the Schedule

The secret to success has been taking full advantage of the beneficial October schedule the league assigned to them. Tippett and his staff knew full well how important it was to immediately earn points in the bank to help them further down the stretch in a potentially tight playoff race, thus explaining why management and the coaches harped so much on getting all the players up and running at 100% for puck drop on Oct. 2. To get a glimpse of how well this 12 game stretch worked in Edmonton’s favour, let’s take a look below at how the Oilers have collected 17 out of a possible 24 points thus-far.

Dave Tippett Seattle
Edmonton Oilers head coach Dave Tippett (AP Photo/LM Otero, file)

As of Oct. 28, the Oilers have only played against three playoff teams from last season (the New York Islanders, Winnipeg Jets, and the Washington Capitals), going 2-0-1 against them. In comparison to last season’s first 12 games, the Oilers played nine teams who made the playoffs the year previously going 7-4-1 out of the gates, ultimately leading to another absence from the NHL postseason. Additionally, the Oilers have been fortunate to have gotten games scheduled against teams coming off of back-to-back sets, week-long breaks, or extensive travel the day before.

Tippett and the Oilers certainly made the most of these situations between October 8-18, playing the Islanders, New Jersey Devils, Philadelphia Flyers, and the Detroit Red Wings all on the second nights of back-to-back matchups, in addition to a victory over the New York Rangers following their bye week. More rest certainly played a factor in the games against the Devils and Red Wings especially, as the orange and blue were able to squeeze out victories in tight situations on both occasions in a shoot-out or in the last few seconds of regulation. Read into this scheduling as much as you want, but make no mistake these situations have definitely been in the Oilers favour so far.

Pacific Comparisons

Furthermore, it is often helpful to compare success with teams within the same division finishing last season with identical results to get a good sense of how an organization is doing so far. Relatively, the Oilers’ divisional rivals who missed out on the playoffs last season have had more challenging schedules up until now and have surpassed what their critics have expected of them so far. The Anaheim Ducks have played 10 playoff teams in their first 13 games and currently sit at a record above .500. The same can be said for the Arizona Coyotes, who have played against six playoff teams in their first 10 games and also own a respectable winning record. Until the Oilers play more playoff teams and games against Western Conference teams like their divisional opponents have, playoff deprived fans in Edmonton should not be reading too much into the early season success the club has shown thus far.

Vinnie Hinostroza, Connor McDavid
Arizona Coyotes’ Vinnie Hinostroza checks Edmonton Oilers’ Connor McDavid. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson)

Up and Down Power Play

The red hot power play that has recently been extinguished also has had an easier task playing against only four penalty-killing units that ranked in the top 15 special teams category last year. In recent games against stingier defences, it has been evident that the Oilers still need to find another alternative to gaining the zone if McDavid cannot come blazing in or the unit is unable to retrieve possession after dumping the puck in deep. Tippett and his staff still have some work to do in giving the players some structure on entry before they let the top guns run loose with their offensive flare, but it will be interesting to see if any coordination is executed well enough in the next stretch of games against rugged their Pacific division opponents.

Where’s the Offensive Depth?

The Oilers currently have a very similar record to what they posted at this point last season against “easier” competition and still face the same issue of not getting any depth scoring from their bottom-six forwards. Being a top-heavy team, relying on four players (Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Neal substituting Alex Chiasson’s 22 goals last year) to provide offence night in and night out is unsustainable, and that is exactly what the team did last year and is still demonstrating right now. History does repeat itself, and honestly, this season looks eerily similar to last season already.

Edmonton Oilers Ryan Nugent-Hopkins
Edmonton Oilers center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)

I give full credit to Tippett and general manager Ken Holland for grasping and taking advantage of this hot start by instilling in their players how important the start of this season, more than many others, is for the club because of the string of non-playoff teams the Oilers play first. But over the next few weeks, the Oilers’ true identity will be put to the test as they play six out of the next ten games against playoff teams from last year and eight contests against divisional opponents in the month of November. If Edmonton can manage to put at least 14 points in the playoff bank by the end of November, I will be able to remove the facade tag from this team and label them with a progressing grade after playing out important divisional games against similarly structured opponents.