Oilers Need to Break From Tradition of Losing During the Holidays

The holiday season is said to be the most wonderful time of the year, but that doesn’t seem to be the case in Oil Country, where the Edmonton Oilers almost never have a holly, jolly Christmas. 

That’s the case again this season, as the Oilers limped into the NHL’s four-day holiday break with just one win in their last five games, punctuated with a 5-2 loss at Rogers Place to the Vancouver Canucks on Friday (Dec. 23) that left them on the outside of the playoff picture. 

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Leading 2-0 after 20 minutes against a visiting Vancouver squad that was playing for a second consecutive night, the Oilers should have come away with two points. Instead, they lost for a third straight time at home, and dropped their fourth straight decision to an opponent below them in the standings. 

Oilers Have a History of Poor Play in December 

Even now, when for the first time since the 1980s their lineup includes four players that have at least 15 goals before Christmas (Leon Draisaitl, Zach Hyman, Connor McDavid and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins), the Oilers have been unable to break from what has become an unfortunate holiday tradition: They have embraced the festive spirit of giving, but it’s valuable points that they’re being so generous with.

Connor McDavid Edmonton Oilers
Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

(Note: the stats that follow all exclude the 2012-13 and 2020-21 seasons, both of which did not start until January, because of an owners-imposed lockout and the COVID-19 pandemic, respectively.) 

Since they last reached the Stanley Cup in 2006, the Oilers have won more than two of their five games leading up to the Christmas break just twice. Going back to 2009-10, their cumulative record in the five games prior to Dec. 25 is an ugly 18-35-7 (including their 1-2-2 mark this season), meaning they’ve won just 30 percent of those games and garnered 35.8 percent of the available points.  

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But if that sounds bad, the Oilers’ post-Dec. 25 record is even worse. Going back to 2009-10, in the first five games following the holiday break, their cumulative record is 14-30-11, meaning they’ve won 25.5 percent of those games and picked up 35.5 percent of the available points. In its first game back after Christmas, they have won just twice going back to 2009-10, and only three times since the NHL returned from its season-long shutdown in 2004-05.  

No Easy Explanation for Oilers’ Festive Funk

So what gives? There’s nothing tangible that can explain why the Oilers so often struggle at this time of year. Sometimes their schedule is tough, other times it’s not. Sometimes they’re injury-riddled, other times they’re healthy. The only constant from year to year is the dates on the calendar. Could it just be a case of the dog days of winter? 

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But if that is the case, it raises questions about why the Oilers are prone to such lapses and unable to maintain a level of consistency throughout an entire 82-game schedule. That’s what separates the champions from the contenders, never mind the also-rans, and with the way they’re playing right now, it’s debatable which of the latter two categories they fall into.   

Oilers Still Have Time to Get Season on Track 

The good news is that a festive slump doesn’t usually spell doom for the Oilers’ season. Just last season, they arrived at the Christmas break having won just two of the past eight games and came out of the break going without a win in seven straight games, posting a record of 2-11-2 from Dec. 3, 2021, to Jan. 20, 2022. Then they turned around and went 21-11-4 in their final 46 regular season games and wound up making a run all the way to the Western Conference Final.

Another prime example is the 1997-98 season, when Edmonton went seven straight games without a win from the middle of December to the first week of January, then won a league-best 24 times over the final 40 games and carried that momentum through a first-round upset of the Colorado Avalanche. 

Related: 5 Reasons to Be Optimistic That the Oilers Will Make Playoffs 

It does bear mentioning that both aforementioned instances coincided with foundational changes: In 1997-98, it was a pair of blockbuster trades (acquiring Bill Guerin from the New Jersey Devils and Roman Hamrlik from the Tampa Bay Lightning); last season, it was a coaching change (Jay Woodcroft replacing Dave Tippett) and a huge free-agent signing (Evander Kane). And indeed, the 2022-23 version of the Oilers do not look like a team that can go far as presently constructed. 

Regardless, it won’t come easy for the Oilers to break the habit of their post-Christmas doldrums and reverse recent trends by starting the New Year off right. They have a pair of away games against divisional foes, against the Calgary Flames on Tuesday (Dec. 27) and the Seattle Kraken on Friday (Dec. 30), before returning home for four games, then heading out on a four-game trip. Overall, their next seven games are all against teams that currently have more points than they do. It’s been another blue Christmas in Oil Country, but perhaps the Oilers can make this an orange-and-blue New Year.