On my blog posts that mark the turning of the new year, there is a certain sadness about the passing of another year, as we come to grips with another failed crop, yet another roster badly wanting for balance and experience. Finding a brand new day has proven to be incredibly difficult, but this season—more than any other I can recall since the Pronger deal—offers hope for the coming year, and beyond.
LANDSLIDE, YEAR OVER YEAR
- Oilers in October 2015: 4-8-0, goal differential -7
- Oilers in October 2016: 7-2-0, goal differential +10
- Oilers in November 2015: 4-7-2, goal differential -6
- Oilers in November 2016: 5-8-2 goal differential -3
- Oilers in December 2015: 7-6-1, goal differential -9
- Oilers in December 2016: 7-2-5, goal differential +3
- Oilers after 38, 2015: 15-20-3, goal differential -23
- Oilers after 38, 2016: 19-12-7, goal differential +10
November was a difficult month, but the club recovered in December and enter the second half of the season in a playoff spot. The Oilers are a better team than I thought they would be, and have solved more problems than I thought they would in 2016-17. What’s more, the remaining issues are obvious and should be solvable. If management addresses these issues during the summer, standing on the shoreline may involve pure joy one year from now.
WHAT TO EXPECT FROM JANUARY
- On the road to: Columbus, Boston, New Jersey, Ottawa (Expected Result: 2-1-1)
- At home to: San Jose, New Jersey, Calgary, Arizona, Florida, Nashville (Expected Result: 3-1-2)
- On the road to: Calgary, Anaheim, San Jose (Expected Result: 2-1-0)
- At home to: Minnesota (Expected Result: 0-1-0)
- Overall expected result: 7-4-3, 17 points in 14 games
Barring injury, I think the Oilers should be able to cash 17 points this coming month. If they do, the overall record will be 26-16-10, good for 62 points after 52 games. At that point, should it come to pass, we may be talking about the possibility of a 100-point season—the first since 1987. Incredibly, this team will have done it while never coming close to balance. Impressive impact from 97, Talbot, Leon and an ever deepening blue line.
Up front, the story really revolves around young Connor McDavid. He will turn 20 in just 11 days, and is on pace for a 93-point season (30-63-93). Leon Draisaitl is not yet at the point where we can suggest he pushes the river, we need to see him eclipse that 2.00/60 number at 5×5—he is currently at 1.84—and that day may be close at hand (he would need to have scored two more points in his 500 5×5 minutes).
A quick note before we move on, a nod toward three role players who really did perform beyond expectations in the first half of the season. Tyler Pitlick (2.22/60 at 5×5) and Mark Letestu (1.66/60 at 5×5) delivered quality performances and moved the needle for this team in a pretty solid first half run. Patrick Maroon (1.56 5×5/60), has 10 goals at 5×5, which ties McDavid. Maroon could do the Oilers a solid by taking full advantage of the move to 97s line that is taking place as we speak
Among defenders, I would rank Andrej Sekera (50.1 Corsi for 5×5 against toughest competition) and Matt Benning (55.9 Corsi for 5×5 against mid to lower competition) as the two outstanding performers so far this year. Darnell Nurse (53.2) and Eric Gryba (54.0) also deserve mention, although injuries took a chunk out of their first 38 games.
Cam Talbot (2.45, .919) is the only other player on the roster not named McDavid who has a claim on Team MVP status at this time. You can still find detractors, but that is almost always the case when it comes to discussing goaltending.
Several Oilers players have given uneven performances, through injury or slump of lord knows what else. Among this group we find Jesse Puljujarvi (1.52), who only scores on the McDavid line and Todd McLellan doesn’t put him there, but the young man can do a lot of good things aside from scoring. I think he might be a big story in this second half, if he gets a push on one of the skill lines.
Zack Kassian (1.48) is firing on all cylinders now, the only thing left is the scoring touch and there are signs of that humming, too. If we merely add in his three recent disallowed goals, that 5×5 number spikes to 1.97. He is close, and may cost more in a new contract than we are calculating at this time.
Anton Lander (1.47) and Anton Slepyshev (1.45) are in the minors, but did good things up in Edmonton that should not be forgotten. When the deadline hits, I think one or both men may be back for the stretch run. Slepyshev especially has impressed the coach based on verbal.
Milan Lucic (7.11 5×4/60) and Jordan Eberle (6.03 5×4/60) make the list here due to terrific power-play performances. However, their 5×5 scoring is very poor (1.21 and 1.34, respectively) and that cannot stand. If you are looking for players who have been underperforming in areas where they are established, 5×5 points/60 totals by Lucic and Eberle is a mighty fine place to start.
Drake Caggiula (0.86 5×5/60 and 6.36 5×5/60) makes this list in the same way as Lucic and Eberle—strong 5×4 performance. I am impressed with his game, but consistency is an issue and he isn’t 18. I wonder if he, like Matt Benning, simply got worn out from the pace of the schedule at points in the first half. More rest may be required with this player in the second half of the season.
Oscar Klefbom (52.3 Corsi for 5×5 percentage) makes the wobble list only because of some specific and costly mistakes. I am not one to harp on specific moments in a game, the wider view makes the most sense to me. That said, when a young player repeats vapor lock many times, well, let’s say a few great ones who have been through this town had the same issue (hello, Mr. Coffey). I expect Oscar will have a long and productive career, hopefully in Edmonton.
Adam Larsson (49.8 Corsi for 5×5 percentage) has been all I thought he would be defensively, facing tough opponents and battling back hard. Teams coming into Edmonton can no longer wheel in the Oilers end as they did in yesteryear, because Larsson has a nasty edge to him. I have placed Larsson in this area because of the lack of offense—more to the point, the lack of effective outlet passing. He needs to improve on it, and that shouldn’t be difficult. We saw glimpses in New Jersey, perhaps it is still a matter of trust and getting his feet on the ground.
Brandon Davidson (51.8) lands here, probably unfair because we haven’t seen much of him. That said, it has taken a little time to get rolling and a couple of nights have been an adventure. I really like his long-term future if he can stay healthy.
Kris Russell (45.6) also makes the list, despite performing poorly in my chosen metric. Russell ranks No. 2 (behind Sekera) in Shots-against per 60, and that appears to be what the Oilers value in a defender. I think Oilers fans who are not especially bullish on Russell may have to come to grips with his presence for the next several years. The Oilers like him, full stop. If he does sign, probably puts the future of men like Klefbom and Davidson in jeopardy as Oilers.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (1.24 5×5/60, and 3.66 5×4/60) is my favorite player, so it gives me no pleasure in placing him here. His recent move up the depth chart to run with better players seems to be helping, perhaps that is the best medicine. Simply put, RNH hasn’t done enough—not in the dot, not at 5×5, not on the power play—to justify a higher grade. I think he is a quality NHL player and hope he has a massive second half, making this grade look silly. Godspeed, young man.
Matt Hendricks (1.33 5×5/60) has been an adventure defensively, and has lost another step. Neither is acceptable for a player of his type, and it is a tribute to Hendricks that he knows it better than anyone. I expect he will go at the deadline, having impressed the hell out of Oilers Nation with his consistent effort and exceptional utility.
Benoit Pouliot (1.09 5×5/60) had a truly weird first half of the season. It is rare to see a veteran lose confidence in his own abilities, but that appears to have been the case here. The veteran winger took some bad penalties, got himself into the doghouse, and solved the problem by being less aggressive—and that is a key to his game. Showing signs of coming out of it, and more important Todd McLellan is showing signs of trust. Oilers need him to be all he can be in order to make the playoffs.
Jonas Gustavsson (6gp, 2.90 .893) has not played well, and fans worry about his starts. That is an interesting curio, but what is alarming is Todd McLellan’s hesitancy to play him. If you are a backup goalie in the NHL, and the coach runs his non-elite starter into the ground in order to avoid playing you, rent everything. Car, house, television.
Coming at 5pm: Who is out there that might be of interest to Edmonton at the deadline, and beyond.