Most observers believed that the Edmonton Oilers were poised to improve on their dismal last decade this season, given the continued development of Connor McDavid in his sophomore year, despite the scrutiny surrounding the trade of Taylor Hall to New Jersey in exchange for Adam Larsson.
The thought was, Milan Lucic replaces a good chunk of the offence they lost by trading Hall, as does progression by McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, while the return of Oscar Klefbom combined with the acquisitions of Larsson and Kris Russell helps to solidify a weak defence.
While no one looks at the Oilers’ defensive corps and sees a Cup-contending group, they are certainly better than last season, and another year of solid goaltending from Cam Talbot goes a long way. Even still though, no one expected the Oilers to open the season 7-1-0.
The Oilers have similar even-strength possession numbers to their struggling neighbours to the south in Calgary; boasting a slightly below league average 48.64 per cent score and venue adjusted Corsi. However the Oilers also have the fifth-highest PDO in the NHL at 5-on-5, sitting at 103.48, and the second-highest PDO in the league in all situations at 106.13 according to Corsica.hockey.
That’s not necessarily a knock on the Oilers; it’s nearly impossible for a team to win seven of eight games and not have the percentages in its favour.
The question though, is whether the Oilers have actually improved, or whether this run is all percentages driven.
As it turns out, Edmonton has made significant improvements in terms of scoring chances. It’s currently a lower than average event team in that regard overall, but its improvement over last season is huge, cutting down scoring chances against and increasing scoring chances for.
What may be even more important is that the Oilers are currently fifth in the NHL in high-danger scoring chances per 20 minutes played at even strength, up there with the elites, and they’re allowing fewer high-danger chances against than average, a huge change from the typically porous defensive teams we’ve seen in Edmonton.
It’s probably unlikely that the Oilers will continue to be a better than average defensive team the rest of the season, but that initial drop in scoring chances and high-danger scoring chances against goes a long way to explaining how Talbot went from about league-average goaltending last season to Carey Price-like numbers so far in 2016-17.
With that said, Talbot’s average numbers last season were impressive anyway, considering the scoring chances the Oilers were allowing, especially in regards to pre-shot movement, where Edmonton was among the worst teams in the league defensively.
Considering their possession numbers, the Oilers are still likely going to be in a dogfight to make the playoffs by the end of the season, but even if they end up being just average on the defensive side, Talbot should post stellar numbers. Combine that with the impact McDavid has on scoring, and you can expect the Oilers to be an above-average PDO team anyway.
One thing I wonder about with the Oilers is how much the injuries to Klefbom and McDavid in particular hid progress that Todd McLellan had made systemically last season.
Teams don’t go from bad to good overnight, and maybe projections for the Oilers would have been higher if we had actually seen them at their best last season. For now though, it seems like Edmonton is possibly on the good side of average for the first time in a long time.