EDMONTON — When you’ve missed the playoffs for 12 of the past 13 years, you’ve fired your coach and GM, and the average age of your goalies is nearly 35 years old, you need a few things to go right if you’re going to find success.
More than a few things, actually.
But for the Edmonton Oilers, there were three things in particular that unfolded in such a way that success followed.
We dug into those, because if you can’t watch any hockey, at least you should be able to read about it.
Leon “Gotta Have Hart” Draisaitl
We’re not saying this performance was in doubt. You don’t score 50 goals and 105 points, like Draisaitl did last season, by mistake.
But nobody knew what Draisaitl’s production would be if the Oilers were to permanently station him on his own line — away from Connor McDavid. Well, what head coach Dave Tippett found out on Dec. 31, when he created the Draisaitl-Ryan Nugent-Hopkins-Kailer Yamamoto unit mid-game against the New York Rangers, is that with an extra Top 6 winger, the Oilers could run two effective top lines, one centred by Draisaitl and one by McDavid.
Draisaitl went on to outscore the rest of the league since New Year’s Eve, averaging 1.63 points per game. At “the pause,” he also leads the NHL in scoring with 110 points — 13 points ahead of the next highest scorer, McDavid — and also leads with 67 assists (four more than McDavid and Artemi Panarin).
The Oilers have the best player in the world, and Draisaitl has outplayed him this season. The 50-goal, 100-point season wasn’t a fluke. Turns out, it was a start.
Had he played 82 games this season, Draisaitl was on pace for 127 points. Other than Nikita Kucherov’s 128 points last season, that’s the highest total to win the Art Ross (assuming here) since 1996-97. And there’s no reason to believe he couldn’t have surpassed Kucherov’s total, with McDavid pressing from behind.
The Oilers have two of the Top 5 players in the National Hockey League today. Full stop. They should be able to win more than one Stanley Cup with a roster that begins with Draisaitl and McDavid.
The Goalie Guild
Mikko Koskinen came into the season as a 31-year-old goalie with the glove hand of an ageing Gump Worsley. Then GM Ken Holland signed Mike Smith, whose numbers for the Calgary Flames last season — .898 save percentage, 2.72 goals-against average — inspired almost no confidence whatsoever.
Here was an Oilers team with one goalie who was being paid $4.5 million (Koskinen) and was certainly not a No. 1, and another who was on his way over the hill at age 37, coming off an inconsistent season — his 14th in the league. Yikes!
Well, somehow Koskinen fixed his glove hand, stealing five points in his three most recent starts despite the fact Edmonton was outshot 43-25 (on average) in those games. And Smith? All he did after a cumbersome December was go 12-3-4 ever since, tied for second in the NHL in points accrued by a netminder since Jan. 1.
You know the old line about goaltending being 50 per cent of your game, unless you don’t have any? Then it’s 100 per cent?
Well, there were some serious question marks about the most important position in hockey when the Oilers went to camp in September. Smith and Koskinen won’t be up for the Vezina, but they’ve given their team the proverbial chance to win almost every single night of the season.
Good enough that we can see another one-year deal for Smith this summer, and a return of a tandem that will average 36 years of age next season.
Special Teams that Win Games
Go back a decade. With a penalty killing success rate of 79.8 per cent, the Oilers have had the third-worst PK percentage in the NHL over the past 10 seasons.
This season, the Oilers have ranked second in the NHL for most of the season, sitting at a lofty 84.4 per cent at “the pause.”
The power play hasn’t been near the historic anchor that the PK has, but this year it was pushing history in its efficiency. The Edmonton power play has ranked first in the NHL pretty much wire-to-wire this season and hit “the pause” at 29.5 per cent.
For some historical perspective, the 1977-78 Canadiens hold the NHL record for best PP unit at 31.9 per cent. But the best power play in team history goes back to the early Wayne Gretzky days when the Boys on the Bus posted a 29.3 per cent mark back in 1982-83.
So much of the Oilers success this season has come because they win the special teams battle almost every night. Frankly, this isn’t a team that is going to beat you at five-on-five most nights. But it averages 0.83 power-play goals per game, while allowing just 0.44 while shorthanded.
They say that if the percentages of your two special teams units add up to over 100, you’re doing OK. The Oilers’ two units add up to a dazzling 113.9.
So, what does that mean? This season, second place goes to Boston at 109.4. Historically, the best combined number was posted by the 1977-78 New York Islanders, at 114.9.
The fact Edmonton sits one percentage point behind the best-ever total posted by an NHL team is a major reason why the Oilers hit “the pause” as a legit contender in the West, all but a lock to make the playoffs for just the second time in 14 years.