EDMONTON — Considering the Edmonton Oilers‘ 21st century performance, simply being relevant and in the playoff conversation 20 games into a season is a positive step.
But let’s face it, with U.S. Thanksgiving on Thursday, and the only game left between now and then a stern test at the Shark Tank Tuesday in San Jose, it’s probably inaccurate to use the word “relevant” if it isn’t preceded by the qualifier “barely.”
Yep, it’s possible to miss the playoffs for three years out of Connor McDavid’s first four National Hockey League seasons, and the Oilers are putting that to the test with a 9-10-1 mark through their first 20 games. They had a nice start but are now officially reeling, having lost six of their past seven games with “Coach Watch” in full activation as they set out on a three-game California road trip.
So let’s take a look at this ongoing rebuild, as it lists along nine seasons after drafting Taylor Hall with the No. 1 overall pick in 2010, shall we?
Most encouraging development
We knew nothing about Mikko Koskinen when GM Peter Chiarelli gave him $2.5 million and a no-movement clause on a one-year deal. Today and for the foreseeable future however, he is the Oilers’ No. 1 netminder, having posted a .917 save percentage and a 2.60 goals-against average.
Of course, we’d never know any of this if Cam Talbot was having a bounce-back season (more on that later), but give the big Finn credit. Without him the Oilers would be nowhere near sniffing distance of the playoff line.
Honorable mention to Alex Chiasson, who showed up on a PTO and has notched eight goals on 19 shots on goal. He has supplanted Milan Lucic on the top power-play unit, and been the only bright spot when it comes to support scoring.
Most concerning development(s)
Name ‘em. Talbot? Milan Lucic? Matt Benning? Jesse Puljujarvi? Organizational depth? The defence corps? The front office?
Talbot’s game has fallen off the edge of the Earth (.888 and 3.31). His game is a mess. Lucic has one goal in 20 games this season, and is on a run of two goals in his last 66 games played. His hands are gone and it is hard to fathom they’ll ever return. He’s doing everything else — hitting, fighting, leading, etc. — but at $6 million and on pace for four goals and 20 points this season, the acquisition has become a millstone for Chiarelli.
Puljujarvi, 20, was finally dispatched to the minors, where he’ll grow. Benning, however, is 24 and really struggling. He’s part of a D-corps that Chiarelli recently described in a radio interview thusly: “Right now, our six starting D, none of them are exceptional passers.”
That truth bomb, sadly, is highly accurate.
Most surprising development
The realization that this program is likely not good enough. That the 103-point season from two years ago was the aberration, and the 78-point season last year is perhaps closer to the real deal.
Now, not everyone is surprised. Some predicted this. But right now, a playoff miss would be devastating for a team that will have missed 12 of the past 13 spring tournaments, while McDavid wastes another May at the world championships.
MVP of first quarter
Who else? McDavid.
The Oilers captain has 28 points on a team that has scored 57 goals. Do the math — he is everything to this team, an organization that hasn’t given him the necessary support. Or, traded away people who would have helped, and gotten far, far too little in return.
McDavid will compete for his third consecutive Art Ross Trophy this season, hamstrung by a lack of support from the rest of the roster. It’s a flagrant foul for the Oilers to deny him another year of playoffs, if that’s how things pan out.
What to watch for in second quarter
Nothing is out of the question.
After three seasons in the new Rogers Place, a portion of luxury box leases will expire — the clients who signed three-year leases, as opposed to five- or seven-year buys, can walk away. It’s a nervous time, as ownership fears a backlash from folks who pay some of the highest prices in the entire NHL to see a team that flails.
Will head coach Todd McLellan make the end of another lost season? UPDATE: Nope. The GM? Who knows?
We’d predict a regime change if this season goes sour. What does that mean?
In this town, anything is possible.