NHL Quarter Mark Report: Oilers not close to hitting pre-season goals

Connor McDavid. (Jason Franson/CP)

Predictions are fun, and back in September we discussed whether the Edmonton Oilers were legitimate Stanley Cup contenders, or just a pretty decent team in need of further maturation.

If anyone out there saw them as a 28th-ranked team — where they stand at the quarter mark — we certainly never saw that prediction anywhere.

The Oilers’ first quarter has been a train wreck, and as someone in their dressing room said recently, “It’s getting late early.”

They look like they’ll miss the playoffs. It’s shocking, really, how bad things have gone in Edmonton.

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THE GOOD: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Darnell Nurse. That’s it, that’s all. OK, maybe Jesse Puljujarvi too. And it goes without saying, Connor McDavid, who is on pace for 100 points.

Nugent-Hopkins had eight goals and 15 points in his first 20 games, and at age 24 is beginning to look like he could be a No. 2 centre on a successful team sooner than later. Perhaps the best sign of maturity? A career 43 per cent face off man, Nugent-Hopkins has gone 50.5 per cent in the circle thus far in 2017-18. Have the puck more, and your stats get better. Imagine that?

Nurse has taken the step this season that Matt Benning took last, skating the puck while choosing his spots like a solid, top-four defenceman. Could he be a No. 2 one day? Nurse is only 22. The sky’s the limit.

Puljujarvi didn’t make the team out of camp, but spent his AHL stint well. He’s back and looks like an NHL player, a huge part of repairing what’s gone wrong in Edmonton.

THE BAD: Where to start? GM Peter Chiarelli gambled that Anton Slepyshev and Drake Caggiula would help make up the goals lost when Jordan Eberle was dealt for Ryan Strome. Well, Slepyshev and Caggiula have been mostly injured, and Strome has three goals.

Chiarelli assumed the team’s No. 1 defenceman, Oscar Klefbom, would play at the same level he did last season. Wrong — Klefbom has been awful. The GM figured goalie Cam Talbot would play at somewhere near his level from last season. Nope — Talbot has been inconsistent, with a save percentage of .903. Mark Letestu, the trusty fourth-line centre, is minus-11. As a group, the bottom-six forwards have scored two even strength goals. The defence corps has seven.

Did anyone see all of that coming? Surely, Chiarelli did not.

Fault the GM for not predicting some downturns in his roster. Fault the players for executing those downturns. Either way, you are what your record says you are, and the Oilers are a 7-11-2 — bad team through 20 games.

TRENDING: The Oilers are trending down from last season, obviously, but in this 20-game sample, they’ve been too erratic to spot a trend. They can’t string any wins together — they’ve won back-to-back games just once so far — so it’s no wonder they can’t climb to .500 after winning two of their opening eight games.

They need a bunch of wins, and quick. American Thanksgiving is nigh, and last we checked, 28 teams don’t make the playoffs.

BOLD PREDICTION: OK, here goes: Chiarelli pulls off a major deal for Oliver Ekman-Larsson, which sparks the Oilers defensively and offensively at the same time. Of course, it costs Nugent-Hopkins, but Draisaitl reverts to second-line centre and they all live happily ever after, pulling a Nashville by squeaking into the playoffs and making a run.

Total fantasy? You bet. Any basis for this prediction? Absolutely none. But you asked for a bold prediction.

GRADE: D-. The goaltending has been below average, the defence even worse, and the bottom seven forwards have been a drag on the whole project. You can blame the GM for banking on a bunch of things that simply haven’t happened, or for not signing a bunch of new players over the summer and dealing away some old ones.

We’re more apt to blame a player for performing under his expectations, and there have been many of those, than the coach or GM.

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