Oilers Already Facing Must-Win Games

In the early days of the 2019-20 season, the Edmonton Oilers have had ups and downs like no other club. This is statistically provable in that the Oilers were the first team in NHL history to win the first five games of the season in come from behind victories.

After those five games, however, the Oilers only managed to win four of their next nine. Not very encouraging for a club that racked up five consecutive character-building wins. This unfortunate stretch includes six games in which Edmonton scored two or fewer goals per game and were shut out in back to back games.

So, What Changed?

If you look at the losses you may notice that the scoring depth that created the early success has dried out. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl continue to produce, but after those two, the numbers are bleak.

Leon Draisaitl, Connor McDavid
Edmonton Oilers’ Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson)

In the nine games in which the Oilers seem to have lost momentum, McDavid and Draisaitl collectively have 10 goals. The rest of the team collectively has…10 goals That’s not an acceptable ratio when you consider that in the first five games McDavid and Draisaitl had eight goals and the rest of the team had 14 goals. There’s a difference between depending on your top guys to be consistent and depending on your top guys to provide 50% of the offense.

Winning four of nine games might not sound like a big deal, but to put things in perspective, let’s look at a team that had a similar start just last season. The Buffalo Sabres were turning heads at the beginning of the 2018-19 season when they won 17 of their first 25 games. The result? A final record of 33-39-10. It’s almost like when you’re working out five days a week, then decide it’s okay to skip one day, next thing you know, you’re skipping a fourth day in a row. Then, in a flash, you haven’t hit the gym in a month and that spare tire is back.

How do the Oilers Break this Slump?

That one is a lot harder to answer. Ultimately the coach or, possibly, the general manager needs to have answers, whether that is shuffling lines (coach) or making a trade (GM). Since the season is not even a month old, making a trade right now is the team announcing that they are hitting the panic button, so let’s look at shuffling lines.

Ken Holland, Dave Tippett
Edmonton Oilers President of Hockey Operations and general manager Ken Holland and new head coach Dave Tippett (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson)

I’m not going to actually map out how I would entirely shuffle these lines. What I’m suggesting is demoting Zack Kassian in hopes that he can catch the fire with a different line and give someone else a chance to play with McDavid and Draisaitl, two of the best players in the league. Alex Chiasson, for example, has not done much this season. Time for a promotion? That’s not how most of the world works, but in hockey sometimes a shakeup can give a guy that racked up 22 goals last season a chance for similar numbers.

Another look would be, and forgive my defying conventional wisdom, is trying Ryan Nugent-Hopkins on the top line. This conventional wisdom I speak of is that a lot of teams have an unspoken rule in which the second-line center doesn’t move. It’s an idealistic notion that if you pull this player from that spot, the team’s depth is gone and the sky will fall. The reality of the second line is that James Neal racked up the majority of his goals without Nugent-Hopkins assisting. So, I say, look at the correlation and adjust accordingly.

The positive takeaway from the slump is that in the nine games, the Oilers only had one game in which they allowed more than three goals. This reflects well on the goaltending and defense, so really, we’re looking at five or six forwards who need to get into a rhythm. If the defense and goaltending are working and you trust in your coach (which I do), it’s just a matter of getting through the growing pains and everyone getting with the program.