You often hear players talk about the notion of taking games one at a time. Sometimes, they’ll even suggest they focus on things one period, one step or one shot at a time. Very rarely will you hear an NHL player, or any professional athlete for that matter, discuss the end goal before they’ve achieved it. For that reason, a lot of people, including myself, are looking at this young 2016-17 NHL season as a series of tests for the Edmonton Oilers — tests that so far, the team is passing with flying colors.
Test One: Shedding the Losing Mentality
The Oilers started this season without a lot of supporters. Inside the locker room, the players understood this was a new year and not the same team that ended last season a draft lottery contender. The roster was introducing new faces, all the while, moving out very familiar faces some considered synonymous with the Oilers losing ways.
While people outside the locker room noticed the personnel changes, it didn’t mean Edmonton was looked at as an improved hockey club. Most considered the team more balanced, but the changes marginal at best. It was believed the Edmonton Oilers would struggle to gain any real ground in the standings.
The first test for the team was going to be shedding the image of a young team that didn’t know how to win. Could they stop finding and using excuses like injuries, age and inexperience, or leadership as ways to explain poor results? Would they finally be a team that people believed had the proper pieces to do something successful?
So far, despite injuries, they’ve persevered. Despite age, they’ve played a solid, more steady game. Despite the challenges in going from a bottom-five team to a top-five team, the Oilers are playing like the want to defy the odds.
Test Two: Finding a Leader
Edmonton didn’t have a captain last season. They went with four assistants and this year, the honor of team captain was being passed to a 19-year-old sophomore, who while he had the potential to be amongst the elite in the NHL, was still just a kid.
There wasn’t much doubt Connor McDavid was the logical choice. He possessed all the skills needed to be a captain with the exception of one — experience as a leader in the NHL. This was the challenge facing the organization. Could he handle the pressure? Edmonton believed he could.
His learning curve has been steep. Within three games the Oilers turned in a terrible performance against the Buffalo Sabres and what resulted was a controversial decision to move a mandated day off in lieu of a teaching opportunity for the team.
Despite some unfair criticism, McDavid took the media buzz in stride. He took a bullet for his team, the Oilers came back and proceeded to put four amazing performances together to find themselves tied for second in the NHL standings. Meanwhile, McDavid leads the team in scoring and is at the top of the standings as a player in the NHL.
Connor McDavid is, in every way, the captain of the Edmonton Oilers.
Test Three: Rebounding
Everyone gets knocked down. It’s the winners who get up, shake it off and turn that losing experience into something positive. In the past, the Oilers haven’t been able to rebound. When they lost, they lost a lot. When they couldn’t score, it lasted for games upon games. When the goaltending was bad, it stayed bad.
This year, one of the tests would be what happened when the Oilers came upon hard times. How would they handle it?
The way Edmonton came back after losing badly to Buffalo told Oiler fans a lot. Edmonton wasn’t going to let any deviation from the plan to play better hockey seep into their game, regardless of how early into the season it was. Poor play wasn’t going to be tolerated and poor performances were going to be called out. Among them were Cam Talbot and Benoit Pouliot, both quickly labeled as players who needed to improve.
To Talbot’s credit, he improved — a lot. He went from an underperforming goaltender who had fans worried he wasn’t everything he was supposed to be, to one of the hottest goaltenders in the NHL. In the four most recent games after the Sabres loss, Talbot has let in only four goals and has a better than .970 save percentage. Pouliot, on the other hand, remains prone to poor penalties but he rebounded offensively against the Capitals with two goals.
Test Four: A Good Start and Against Better Teams
The Oilers had a tendency not to win games that counted. Against every NHL team, their record over the past few seasons wasn’t pretty, but against Western Conference opponents — where the games and point swings really made a difference — Edmonton was terrible.
Another test was getting their season started off strong with a favorable schedule and winning some of those games against teams who traditionally ran their show.
Edmonton started the season playing division rivals the Calgary Flames and won both games. After their loss to the Sabres, Edmonton needed a win against the Carolina Hurricanes and got it. They moved onto a St. Louis team that historically had their way with Edmonton and the Oilers won a decisive game. They followed it up with wins over Winnipeg and the Washington Capitals.
If the Oilers wanted to believe they were capable of making a run this year, they were going to have to get off to a good start and beat these teams. To date, they’ve done so. Now, the question isn’t can the Oilers beat teams, but can they keep beating teams? Are they for real?
Test Five: The Road
Edmonton had a nice home schedule to start the year. They’re about to take their winning record on the road, starting with a game against the Vancouver Canucks on Friday. Of their next seven games, six of those are not at Rogers Place. Edmonton will face the Canucks, come back home for a contest against the Ottawa Senators and then hit the road to play Toronto, the Rangers, the Islanders, Detroit and Pittsburgh.
These games aren’t sure things by any stretch, but if the Oilers continue their strong play, they should realistically look to come out of the first 15 games of the season with no worse than a 10-5-0 record. Going just over .500 would get them there and give them twenty points in fifteen games.
The next test is the Canucks. How will Edmonton prepare and will they pass the test? The Canucks are coming in as losers of three straight and Edmonton as winners of four straight. This test will include playing, not against a team that has lost a few and is fragile, but against a Vancouver team that needs to be kicked while they’re down.
Do the Oilers have that competitive spirit in them? Oilers fans are about to find out.