Oilers focused on improving even-strength play to become true contenders

As the Edmonton Oilers begin training camp, Sportsnet's Gene Principe takes a look at how the team is approaching the start of the season after their abrupt ending last year.

EDMONTON — For most of six months, the Edmonton Oilers had a pretty good thing going last season. But a week in August erased much of it, as the team that sat at or near the top of the Pacific Division all season long bombed out in the Qualifying Round.

Forgotten by many was the fact the Oilers were just three points behind the Pacific-leading Vegas Golden Knights, five points above the playoff cut-off line, and had the most points and winning percentage of any Canadian club.

So the question as this team opened training camp Sunday at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology — pushed out of Rogers Place by the World Juniors — is simple:

Which team should we focus on as we try to predict the 2021 season? The good Oilers of October through March? Or the bad Oilers of August?

“That’s an interesting question,” began team captain Connor McDavid. “It’s hard to just dismiss the (71) games that we played … but we remember the season based on what we did last. And we didn’t play very good, obviously, (in the Qualifying Round).”

So, Connor. What is your final answer?

“I think we build on what we worked on all season long, continue to build on that. We’ve added some new pieces here, which are exciting, and we’ll come into camp Day 1 here ready to go.”

Leon Draisaitl? Your thoughts?

“We’re looking at the team that showed it pretty much all season,” he said with confidence. “We were playing for a division title. That’s the team we want to be, and that’s the team that I think we will be. Obviously the playoffs didn’t go the way we hoped; we weren’t as prepared as we should have been. But I think we’re looking at that team that was playing for a division title.”

Let’s look at it this way: If you were judging the Blackhawks, would you focus on the team that had a nice week in August versus Edmonton? Or would your template be the 12th-place team that was six points out of the playoffs on March 12, that led the NHL in scoring chances allowed?

Yes, the Oilers absolutely stunk against Chicago. And when looking for improvements, they can clearly find some that apply to both segments of their season.

“I don’t think we have a problem scoring goals. It’s keeping the puck out of our net,” said McDavid, when asked about what his team will focus on to try and become a true contender. “A lot has been made about that. No one’s putting their head in the sand here. Everyone understands where we’re at, and we’ve got to keep the puck out of our net if we want to be successful.”

Let’s break that down a bit: Edmonton finished 15th in the NHL last season allowing 3.03 goals against per game. However, at five-on-five it ranked 26th in the NHL.

In short, special teams carried this club. And we all know that special teams get mitigated in the playoffs, where less penalties are called.

So we asked Draisaitl where the focus should be?

“Definitely our five-on-five play. Whether it’s defensively or offensively, we can be better in both areas. Our special teams were really good last year … but our five-on-five game can improve,” he said.

General manager Ken Holland has taken a fairly good regular season team and made it deeper, with adds like Kyle Turris, Tyson Barrie, Dominik Kahun and Slater Koekkoek. Where forwards like James Neal, Alex Chiasson and Jujhar Khaira were once walk-on starters, now they’re being forced to earn spots in the lineup.

The goaltending is iffy, sure, but it was good enough to produce a division contender last season — despite playing behind a team that ranked 24th in the NHL in scoring chances allowed per 60:00, per Natural Stat Trick.

[snippet id=4167285]

“Last season when we were playing our best we were a five-man unit on the ice and everyone was working together,” said Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the longest serving Oiler. “The kind of style we have success with is the skating style. There’s constant pressure, with the second and third forward reading off the first guy and D-men ready to pinch. Once everybody starts working together like that, that’s when we’ve had success.”

The Oilers long ago figured out how to play entertaining hockey. But this is Nugent-Hopkins’ 10th year in Edmonton. They still haven’t figured out how to win.

Even the new guy, Barrie, knows that is the true goal in Edmonton.

“It’s probably no secret, without even talking to the staff or anything, what this team’s goal should be,” Barrie said. “That is to take the next step and contend for a Stanley Cup. We’ve got a Canadian division we’ve got to get through first and make the playoffs first and foremost.

“But the goal for this team is obviously a lot grander than that.”


When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.