As the Edmonton Oilers set to embark on a new NHL season, they look markedly different from last year’s team. Taylor Hall and Nail Yakupov are gone. Milan Lucic, Kris Russell, Jesse Puljujarvi and Adam Larsson are in. Connor McDavid is wearing the “C”. New season = new mindset? If you ask the Captain, the answer is yes.
“We’ve just got to change the whole culture in the Oilers room,” McDavid said. “For so many years now, we’ve had that expecting-to-lose kind of mentality going in. That definitely needs to change.” [Edmonton Journal]
Indeed it does. The Oilers MO for the past few seasons has been that of failure. The fans expected them to lose, the rest of the league expected them to lose, and maybe even the players did as well. But that culture needs to be dumped out, and maybe starting fresh in a new building with a semi-new leadership core will be the first step towards that needed change.
Have the Oilers Improved Enough?
A couple of areas were addressed over the offseason in Edmonton. One being the blue line, and the other being team “toughness.”
Lucic spoke the hard truth describing the mindset of opponents when they face the Oilers: “I can tell you, from an opponent’s standpoint, you were never scared or intimidated heading into a game against the Oilers.”
Mark Letestu echoed those sentiments. “I’ve been a player coming into Edmonton before I got here. It wasn’t a fearful place to come in. You knew if you could skate with them, get them into mistakes, you’d win.”
Lucic isn’t the only bruising body they added. Moves last season to bring in Patrick Maroon and Zack Kassian instantly upped the grit factor, and having one of those guys on three separate lines will go a long way. Will the Oilers magically become harder to play against? A lot of that has to do with their style of play. I’d imagine that coach Todd McLellan wants to see guys going into the corners, taking the body and making life difficult for opponents rather than let them have their way in the defensive zone.
A big key for the Oilers will be puck possession. If you’re constantly chasing the game, you’re going to make mistakes. The defence has to be better at starting the play and moving the puck up to the forwards. Despite not being a favourite of the analytics crowd, Kris Russell will instantly help their transition game. Adam Larsson provides a bigger body on the back-end who can eat a tonne of high-quality minutes. He may not be the guy to jump into the rush, but you still need players of his ilk. A healthy Oscar Klefbom will go a long way for that blue line as well.
The question is, how much have the Oilers improved, and is it enough to be in contention for the postseason? There are still a few question marks, like the right side for example. The departure of Yakupov and the exit of Kris Versteeg to Calgary left them thin on right wing and puts the pressure on rookie Jesse Puljujarvi to perform. Leon Draisaitl could slide over (and he probably will), giving fewer minutes to Puljujarvi. They also have a few injuries to contend with. But when fully healthy, this is a better team than the one that started last season.
What Will it Take to Make the Playoffs?
We always hear that the NHL is a copycat league, but what does that mean for the Oilers? Well on the positive, by looking at the latest Stanley Cup champions, you apparently don’t need a high-profile blue line. The Pittsburgh Penguins won with a few unknowns on defence, including an injury to one of their best in Trevor Daley. Kris Letang did all the heavy lifting, and the rest of the group just stuck to the system. And that was the key. Penguins coach Mike Sullivan was able to put together the perfect structure for the group that he had.
When you have guys like Ben Lovejoy, Ian Cole and Justin Schultz playing a part on a championship blue line, you start to pay attention. Can the Oilers emulate that? Is the defence corp in Edmonton the same or better than that in Pittsburgh? Let’s put it this way: Daley was cast out of Chicago. Schultz (well we all know what happened with him), Lovejoy was not up-to-par for most of the season, Cole was decent but underwhelming, and Brian Dumoulin was a pleasant surprise. Olli Maatta is a good young player who struggled at times. Letang is an elite defenceman who was really the catalyst of that team, but even he had his rough moments.
The point is, they still won despite not having the most “elite” group on paper. Give them a lot of credit, they played well, and it was a sight to behold. So now the question for the Oilers is can they develop a system that plays to the strengths of what they have, rather than point out the flaws, and what they don’t have?
There was a time last season where no one even thought the Penguins would make the playoffs, let alone win it all. The Oilers had 70 points last year. The Minnesota Wild just made the cut with 87. Can Edmonton realistically make a 17-point jump?
The Oilers Keys to the Postseason
- Have a good start. The Oilers can’t afford to come out of the gate slowly. They need to start building momentum right away.
- Stick to the plan. The hope is that McLellan has been able to implement a system that best suits his players. It only took Penguins coach Sullivan half a season to get his to work. And that included many new faces coming in. There are no excuses for the Oilers.
- Play sound defence. Every player on the Oilers has to commit to playing a 200-foot game. No lollygagging in the neutral zone, no hanging out at the blue line. Opponents have had their way in the Oilers zone for too long. Pundits believe the defence corp has gotten better. Time to prove it.
- Clean up the mistakes. The Oilers have to focus on playing sound hockey, make the right plays and don’t try to do too much.
- Make good decisions. If the Oilers start playing giveaway with the puck, it’s not going to end well. Hockey today is all about possession and the Oilers have to start playing that game. No sloppy turnovers. Pay attention to detail.
Goaltending will be huge for the Oilers. Cam Talbot wants to be a No. 1 goalie in the NHL? He has to prove it.
Lucic wants to help the Oilers be tougher? Play hard, lead by example and don’t take dumb penalties.
Is Connor McDavid the best player in the NHL? He has to earn that title first.
The Oilers have their work cut out for them, there is no question. Can they realistically make a jump in the standings? One or two guys won’t save this team. It’s going to be a collective effort. There may be one more season left in the wilderness for these Oilers, but they’re going to make a run for it. There’s no excuse not to.
Marcy, a former hockey player, is a hockey correspondent on CTV News and TSN radio. She began her career as a Sports Journalist in 2009 and has been part of The Hockey Writers since 2010, where she is currently a senior writer and editor.