The offseason of 2015 was filled with excitement in Oilers nation, but it’s also felt like we’ve been waiting an eternity to see the team actually take the ice in meaningful games. Now, as the regular season looms, all of the moves and changes made in the summer will come to fruition. Amidst the glee of obtaining Connor McDavid, the positiveness surrounding management and the promise of all the young talent, the games are still yet to be played. It’s difficult to temper expectations under the current circumstances. Fans on twitter were in mid-season form while watching a preseason game against the rival Flames. It won’t be easy to be realistic right now.
The McDavid Effect
Whether it be from coaches, former players like Wayne Gretzky, or current players like Sidney Crosby and Steven Stamkos, the buzz around Connor McDavid is huge. It’s widely acknowledged that this kid is the real deal. But just how much of an effect will he have on the Oilers in his first NHL season? Most recently, generational players in their rookie years did make a noticeable impact on their teams, but it took time. Alex Ovechkin didn’t see the postseason until his third year in the league. Crosby’s Penguins didn’t make the playoffs in his freshman year, but that team was filled with aging veterans, and were still in somewhat of a transition.
The Oilers have a bright, young team to surround McDavid and a core that has been playing together for a few years already. He is stepping into an environment that is poised and primed to take the next step. But are the playoffs a realistic goal this season? The Oilers missed the post-season by 35 points last year. That is a lot of ground to make up. While it’s not impossible, it’s most certainly going to be a challenge. The cut-off for the playoffs in the Western Conference last season was 97 points. Did the Oilers improve enough to leapfrog the teams ahead of them? Did any of those teams take a step back, making them vulnerable?
The State of the Defence
The Oilers allowed the most goals-per-game in the league last season, a stat that most certainly must improve if they want any sniff at the postseason. There have been three notable additions on the Oilers blueline, in Andrej Sekera, Griffin Reinhart and Erik Gryba. Those are decent pickups, but is the Oilers defence strong enough as currently constructed? Sekera is a good player, and he’ll likely play on the top-pairing, but he wouldn’t, and shouldn’t, be considered a number one defenceman. Reinhart looked good in his first taste of preseason action, but there’s no telling what kind of impact he will have.
Then there’s the case of Darnell Nurse, who has been developing quite well. He brings a physical presence that the Oilers need, and he combines that with good puck moving skills. But will Nurse make the team out of camp? The Oilers have a glut of defenceman on the roster. Granted, many of them are low-level guys, but there are only six spots to be had. Nurse may be impressive, but if the Oilers feel the NHL isn’t the best step for his development, he will be headed to the AHL. The recent re-signing of Oscar Klefbom may suggest that Nurse isn’t the lock many fans hope he is. Obviously the team could move someone via trade, but that’s all speculation.
Has the Goaltending Improved Enough?
The Achilles heel of the Oilers has long been their goaltending. Whether that be due to bad team defence or not, the team needed some stability in net. Cam Talbot was highly coveted on the market, and the Oilers did well to obtain him, but he has only played in 57 regular season NHL games. This isn’t to say he won’t be great and a legitimate starter, however no one really knows what to expect from him. Ben Scrivens is still around to battle for the backup position, but unless he really picks up his play, a guy like Anders Nilsson could edge him out.
The Oilers shouldn’t finish last in goals against again, because there has been enough improvements to get them out of the basement. But there are simply too many unknowns to say that all their woes will be fixed. One thing is for certain: new management will undoubtedly change the toxic culture that has existed in this organization over the past few years. It’s clear that the decision-making process is headed in the right direction. But there were so many flaws up and down this lineup that one positive offseason won’t immediately heal them all.
The Flames, Canucks, Wild and Jets aren’t locks to make the playoffs for a second straight season, leaving the door open for non-playoff teams to push their way in. The Oilers will be fighting for one of those spots. Fans want to experience the excitement of playoff hockey, but seeing their team competitive all year long is going to be major step forward as well. It’s not a matter of assuming they won’t be good or settling for less than great. But high expectations usually set up disappointment. Now I could easily be wrong, and I’m fine with that, but I don’t think the Oilers will make the playoffs this season. I know they’ll contend for a spot. And I know, without a doubt, that you’re looking at a team on the rise. They’re going to become a real force to be reckoned with.