EDMONTON — After a red-hot opening quarter, and then a not-so-hot second quarter of the 2019-20 season, the Edmonton Oilers have settled into what that old Arizona Cardinals coach once described:
They are who we thought they were — a top-heavy team that can beat anyone when they get all hands on deck, but one that can lose to anyone when their two stars aren’t carrying them offensively.
There are no free nights for the Oilers, worth ethic-wise. They’re simply not deep enough in talent to win when the lineup isn’t there from top to bottom, and considering that no team brings it every night in an 82-game season, the standings at the halfway point are no surprise where Edmonton is concerned. They are a middle of the road, fringe playoff contender — which is better than they’ve been at the halfway point in many a season past, that’s for certain.
Tied for 15th in the NHL as we write this (after 43 games), tied for seventh in the West, and tied for the wildcard spots with Calgary and Winnipeg, though the Jets hold games in hand. That spells victory for a team looking not to become the only NHL club ever to miss the playoffs in 13 of 14 seasons.
How has the first half of the first season of the Ken Holland/Dave Tippett era gone? Hey, we’ve seen worse…
Team Record: 21-17-5, (T-7th in West)
Goals for: 127, (17th in NHL)
Goals against: 137, (25th in NHL)
Power Play: 30.0 per cent, (1st in NHL)
Penalty kill: 83.6 per cent, (4th in NHL)
Best surprise: Special teams
Combined, Edmonton has the best special teams in the NHL. We knew the powerplay could be good with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, but Holland’s Bottom 6 acquisitions have helped heal a PK that used to be the Achilles heel in Edmonton. A major improvement.
Biggest disappointment: Collective goals against
Edmonton is minus-11 in goal differential, and sport a roster of minus-players from top to bottom, with only two regular players in the black. They need to be stingier in the second half.
The good news is that two Oilers forwards — and we’ll let you guess which two — have led the NHL scoring race virtually from wire to wire throughout the first half. The bad news is that one of them (Draisaitl) has let his defensive game slip so far that since Nov. 15 he has been on the ice for just 12 even-strength goals for as compared to 38 against.
On a team that lacks depth up front — and playing 22:30 per game — the erosion of Draisaitl’s defensive game is killing the Oilers. He (17:23) and McDavid (17:48) play vastly more even-strength minutes than the next Oilers forward, and McDavid is at minus-10 compared to Draisaitl’s minus-26 since Nov. 15. Ouch!
Below them, Holland has built a Bottom 6 that can kill penalties and defend, but hasn’t helped out enough offensively, leaving the yoke of production largely to the two superstars. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who has started to heat up, has just 9-16-25, but higher than expected goals totals from James Neal (19) and Zack Kassian (13) have helped to balance that out.
Overall grade — C
The biggest addition here has been Ethan Bear, who made the team unexpectedly and now is third on the staff, averaging just over 21 minutes per game. He’s a good, right-shot passer and shooter who does all the things a new-age defenceman is asked to do, and helped a ton when Adam Larsson missed 22 games with a broken leg.
Overall this defence is, like the forwards, just OK, however. There is not a legit No. 1 D-man here, and one could argue if there’s a true top pairing guy? Or if Oscar Klefbom, Darnell Nurse and Bear are simply high-end second pairing D-men. In a contract year, Nurse poses a conundrum as his offensive game is a bit behind last year’s pace (though he gets almost zero PP time) and his standing as a shutdown defenceman is still in question.
This D-corps is, like the rest of the team, simply OK, while waiting for some farmhands to mature.
Overall grade — C
If you’d have told Tippett that Mikko Koskinen would be in the Top 15 (13th) among NHL starters with a saves percentage of .912 at the halfway point, he’d have done cartwheels. Koskinen was a major question mark, and by and large, he has given the Oilers more than enough goaltending on a nightly basis, while Mike Smith’s game has been much more up and down — from a .931 saves percentage up until Nov. 3, to an .856 sv% ever since.
Together, they’ve given the Oilers the opportunity to succeed. Unlike a Frederik Andersen in Toronto however, when the Oilers leave their goalies entirely unattended, they have not been of the calibre to steal points. As a tandem, these two get some credit for the excellent penalty killing numbers, and Koskinen, in particular, has helped make this position one that isn’t being talked about in Edmonton much this season — which is a good thing.
Overall Grade — B-minus.
Tippett comes advertised as someone who has an immediate impact on a team’s defensive numbers upon his arrival as head coach. Upon joining Dallas, Tippett shaved 44 goals off the goals allowed and fixed the goals differential by plus-74. In Arizona, it was 53 goals less and a plus-59 improvement.
In Edmonton, however, he’s on pace for a 12-goal improvement on goals against and just 21 on goal differential. That’s how endemic the defensive issues are here, and with two forwards (guess who) averaging more than a minute per shift — and often playing the entire two-minutes of powerplay time — oftentimes the defensive game of his stars is a bigger deal than the rest of the group.
In Tippett’s defence, he needs more players who can help before he starts taking time away from McDavid and Draisaitl. This team needs a third-line centre and, say, two Middle 6 wingers before you can look at the coach and say he’s not getting the most out of his lineup. In the end, Tippet has his team in playoff contention at midseason, something very few Oilers coaches have done of late.
Overall Grade — B.