Edmonton Oilers’ season hinges on which Cam Talbot shows up

We can't make this up, as the Edmonton Oilers German connection, Leon Draisaitl and Tobias Rieder combine for the first goal in their final preseason game in Cologne, Germany.

The hypothesis that the Edmonton Oilers are a team that needs “too many things to go right” to be counted on as a playoff team this season is one worth challenging.

Think of teams that win: They get goaltending, their stars have good years, and they inevitably get some contributions from unexpected places. Now, find us a team that didn’t have all those things “go right,” yet still found success?

But we’ll give the doubters this much: When it comes to goaltending, there is no debate. If Cam Talbot doesn’t revert to his former self, Edmonton doesn’t have a prayer.

A career .919 goaltender, Talbot’s save percentage plummeted to .908 last season. We can debate all the factors that need to fall into place for Edmonton to make the playoffs, but if Talbot does not revert to the mean, every one of those factors becomes moot.

“I expect myself to be above the mean,” Talbot declared before leaving for Europe with the Oilers. “I’m holding myself to a higher standard. I want to outperform my career numbers this year. That’s my goal.”

Oilers general manager Peter Chiarelli described a 78-point season last year as “death by 1,000 cuts.” The primary gaping gash opened in Game No. 2 however, as Talbot followed an opening night shutout by allowing three goals on seven shots and getting yanked in Vancouver.

Neither he, nor his team, ever found solid footing again. Or, at least, in time for the season to be relevant.

“In the big picture we underachieved as a team. That’s just the way it is. I didn’t have the start I wanted, neither did the team,” said Talbot. “But I feel like, down the stretch I was rolling, and I felt as good as I did all season long.”

Once the season was deemed a failure, Talbot quietly reset some personal goals that could set the table for some optimism through the off-season.

“I hit those numbers that I wanted to hit. I wanted to feel some sort of positivity heading into the summer,” he said. “They weren’t anywhere close to the goals I’d set for myself at the start of the year, but you reset. Start from scratch again … to achieve some sort of positivity out of a bad season.”

This fall, Talbot’s pre-season has been a clinic in redemption. He posted a .943 save percentage, winning all four games he started. He was laser sharp from the first, junior-laden exhibition game, right through to a 39-save performance against a Flames lineup that was most legit.

In a contract year, Talbot could not be in a better place as he takes the net Saturday in Gothenburg, Sweden against New Jersey.

“For us it’s that thing you’re taught as a kid: To have a short-term memory. Talbs is a complete professional,” said the recently demoted backup Al Montoya, who could see a different goalie in Talbot from the one who walked out of Rogers Place in April. “You really worry about what you can, and that’s stopping the puck.”

It’s amazing how much can be personally undone, when the team has the kind of season Edmonton had last year. Two seasons ago Talbot led the NHL in games played (73) and wins (42), while playing nearly 500 more minutes than the next busiest goalie.

Then, last year happened.

How many games opened with a goal on one of the first three shots? On either a Talbot lapse, or a backdoor tap-in on a penalty kill that was simply egregious?

Either way, those early goals put a dent on Talbot’s confidence, while in front of him the team’s swagger deteriorated slowly. It was vintage chicken-and-egg: the worse the team played, the higher the quality of the scoring chances that ensued. The more pucks that got past Talbot, the worse the team played.

Did he ever figure out what went wrong?

“No. I don’t know if anybody did,” Talbot admitted, shaking his head. “It was kind of the perfect storm last year. Everything just kind of went the wrong way for us.”

OK, so it’s a new season. That means you get a do-over.

We challenged Talbot: “You’re a leader on this team. How do you get this thing going in the right direction?”

“First and foremost I hold myself accountable,” he said. “The biggest thing is, no one is going to tell me — no one has to tell me — that I should have had that one. You (media) guys have been around me long enough to know, if something goes wrong I know that it’s my fault. I’ll take responsibility for it.

“Coming from guys like Connor (McDavid) and myself, that trickles down. Guys will hold themselves more accountable, to a higher standard, and I think that’s just better for everybody.”

And maybe, just maybe, as many things go right this season for Talbot and the Oilers, as went wrong last season.

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