What Oilers need to return to contention this season

Oilers defenceman Oscar Klefbom is ready to put a frustrating 2017-18 season behind him, and start helping his teammates win again; Also discusses excitement of opening the campaign in Stockholm, Sweden.

EDMONTON — As training camp opens on Thursday, the tact Edmonton Oilers head coach Todd McLellan will take is to invoke the recent past as a motivator, but avoid burying his players in negatives. It’s kind of like trying to talk American politics without ever mentioning Donald Trump.

Here in Edmonton, everyone needs to learn from the past. But at the same time, as they like to say these days, his players need to simply “move forward.”

So McLellan will be talking in three- and five-year increments. Think descending goals-against average, power play success, a stingy penalty kill versus what happens when the PK leaks.

But regardless of McLellan’s bigger picture views, here in The Big E there is only one time period that anyone is interested in discussing:

Two years ago, when this team had 103 points and nearly won the Pacific. Versus last season, when they had 78 and were buried by Christmas.

Which team represents the real Oilers? Which season was the aberration?

Lets talk about what has to happen this year for the answer to that question to become the one Oilers fans would prefer. And it starts in goal:

Cam Talbot

Talbot had a career .919 save percentage prior to last season. Then he posted a .908. That stat from your No. 1 can be the difference — all by itself — between a playoff team and one that comes up short. Of course, in reality, it is also a team stat.

We’ve always thought a goalie is like a good roof on your house. If your team isn’t structurally sound, the goalie won’t hold it together. But when the roof leaks, even a solid foundation will rot. The conclusion: If you don’t have both team structure and good goaltending, it becomes a long, leaky winter.

Corsica gives us Delta Save Percentage (dSv%), which accounts for shot quality as well as shot quantity. It also tells us how well Talbot stacks up against a league-average goalie over the past two seasons.

In 2016-17 Talbot had a 1.42 dSv%. Translation: he was 40 percent better than the average goalie.

Last season, he was -0.08. And, yes, that stat meets the eye test.

Goals Against

How did McLellan’s club end a 10-year playoff drought in 2016-17, going from 70 points and last in the West to 103 points and fourth? They got control of their goals against, plain and simple.

Three seasons ago the Oilers allowed 245 goals against — ranking 26th in a 30-team NHL. The next year they pared that down to 212 (eighth), and made the playoffs.

Last season? How about 263 goals against and 25th in the NHL, posting a minus-29 goal differential. Forty-one more goals against represents a half-goal per game. It equals a losing season, simple math.

Of the bottom 15 teams in goal differential last season, only one (New Jersey) made the playoffs. Fix that and you have a chance at the dance.


Zack Kassian

Really, it’s not just about Kassian. But rather, the fact he personifies what has to happen in Edmonton for success to follow. Kassian, Drake Caggiula, Milan Lucic, Oscar Klefbom, Adam Larsson, Leon Draisaitl… Which Oiler DOESN’T have to get back on track this season, other than the obvious one?

Two seasons ago, Kassian, a fourth-line right-winger and penalty killer, provided momentum shifts with timely hits, the odd scrap, and some simple, raw emotion. Last season, like his teammates’ games, Kassian’s performance was too often flat.

He did all the same things, scored the same seven goals, but nary a game turned on a Kassian play, the way they had the season before. Like so many teammates, Kassian needs to rise to an occasion again. He can turn momentum, and has to for Edmonton to recoup.

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Special Teams

Seldom have we seen a season where so much depends on a group of assistant coaches, but the resuscitation of the Oilers special teams is absolutely imperative in 2018-19. An embarrassment last season, poor special teams was at the root of the coaches office cleanout — except for McLellan — and now new assistants Trent Yawney (penalty kill), Manny Viveiros (power play) and Glen Gulutzan (both) will be on the hook for the expected improvement.

Example: Connor McDavid and Draisaitl combined for 54 power-play points two seasons ago. Last year they had 31, with Draisaitl’s power-play production dropping off by 59 per cent.

On the penalty kill, there were too many backdoor tap-ins that left Talbot chanceless, and then when he could see the shot he did not play the role of Edmonton’s best penalty killer often enough. Either those units change, or the Oilers don’t recover. Simple math.

Oscar Klefbom

Klefbom might not be a true No. 1 defenceman, granted, but he is Edmonton’s No. 1 defenceman, and in order to be so, he has to remain healthy. He’s been injured through two of the past three seasons, and I’ll bet you can guess which year the Oilers thrived.

In ‘16-17, Klefbom played all 82 games, averaged 22:22 per game, had 16 power-play points and posted 12-26-38 overall. At age 23, he had finally arrived.

Then last season began with a shoulder injury that he nursed all year long. It hindered his shot, his defence, his production (5-16-21), and absolutely killed the power play, where he had just one goal.

Klefbom is a very good defenceman, when healthy. This blue line isn’t good enough to survive another injury-marred season from the young Swede.

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