35 games in, just under half the season, the Christmas break brings a brief reprieve for us to take a look at the bigger picture for the Oilers. At 18–15–2 the Oilers find themselves just outside a playoff spot, certainly not ideal for a group that was looking to build off the performance of last season.
Moreover, the NHL’s Western Conference is taking an interesting shape. Chicago, Anaheim, Arizona, and San Jose are all firmly in the Bedard sweepstakes, settling into their place near the bottom of the standings. The trio of Vancouver, Nashville, and St. Louis might still harbour some hopes at a late season turnaround, a push for the postseason, yet by most counts such a surge is considered far fetched.
That leaves nine teams vying for eight spots. Not even halfway through the year and this diminished pool of playoff candidates allows the focus to narrow. Naturally, these nine will be looking to round into form come the spring, giving themselves a strong framework from which to enter the postseason. Despite that, the reality might be much more attrition based, as a slew of injuries or poor play might see any of the nine playoff hopefuls crash and burn down the stretch.
Shortcomings and struggles of the team
More than most of these playoff hopefuls, the Oilers have had ups and downs, strengths and weaknesses along their journey so far. Naturally, the star power of the Oilers towers above their counterparts, counteracted by the amount of glaring shortcomings in their game.
The play at 5v5 has been middling. The penalty kill has been abysmal. The stellar goaltending of Stuart Skinner is beginning to falter, coming back to earth amidst his heavy workload. Jack Campbell has continued to not receive much work, even as the Oilers take on weaker competition.
Part of the issue is that the Oilers have lost games to inferior opponents, Anaheim and Vancouver, on home ice no less. Skinner started both games, neither particularly strong outings from him. Regardless of the precarious optics surrounding his contract, or how poorly his play has been, the modern NHL requires a tandem approach to the crease, and the Oilers need to be able to rely on Campbell in these easier starts, at least. Especially since the Oilers are not faring well against these teams in the first place, let alone that it was both Lukas Dostal and Collin Delia, as in not the starters for either the Anaheim Ducks or Vancouver Canucks.
Campbell has recently switched pads, at least in practices, showing that he is resetting himself to a degree. At this point his raw numbers are worse than Skinner’s, but this isn’t reflected in his record. The Oilers terrible penalty kill will not help either goalie.
Meanwhile, on the blueline, we’ve seen Darnell Nurse’s load be managed, needed given he hasn’t been at his best. Tyson Barrie has been strong alongside Brett Kulak, as Evan Bouchard has had less consistent usage. Ultimately the ideal situation for the Oilers would be a much more even deployment of their three defence pairings.
Some of the injured forwards have started to return, which might represent the biggest reason for optimism. Things have gotten thin, and what should be the Oilers greatest area of strength had been reduced significantly. Though some valuable contributors have emerged, Mattias Janmark most of all and Klim Kostin at times, the likes of Kailer Yamamoto, Ryan McLeod, and Evander Kane have been impactful losses.
Though Kane’s scoring touch is missed, it might be McLeod’s potential contributions that have been the most difficult. His defensive prowess at even strength and on the penalty kill are two key areas that the Oilers need better results in, and quite frankly he needs to be key contributor if this Oilers team has contending hopes. His return against Vancouver on the 23rd saw him at just over ten minutes of icetime which is not enough.
With McDavid, Draisaitl, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins playing so well on offence, the Oilers need a de-facto defensive option to rely on down the middle. This will help their offensively minded blueline, to bring the penalty kill to respectability, and essentially to embody the identity of the non-superstar faction of this Oilers team. McLeod needs to be empowered with a role and linemates meaningful enough to achieve these tasks.
What the lies ahead in the new year for the Oilers
Despite this long list of shortcomings, the Oilers should not feel panicked. They find themselves in reasonable striking distance of the playoffs, even after a lot of turmoil and adversity. There will certainly be more storms ahead, and the Oilers will have to find a higher level in the future. There have been a lot of positive signs, with the Oilers faring well against some of the better teams in the league, leaving an even greater sense of disappointment when losing to poor teams in regulation at home.
In the month or so ahead, the Oilers will find themselves with several fantastic opportunities to control the playoff race ahead of them, squaring off against the Calgary Flames, Winnipeg Jets, Los Angeles Kings, Colorado Avalanche, Vegas Golden Knights, and three times the Seattle Kraken before February. With a potential 12 point swing against the upstart group in Seattle, the Oilers can go a long way towards setting their season right.
The Oilers have not had a dominant stretch so far this season, maxing out at five straight wins in late October, and equaling or bettering this mark would go a long way towards pushing into a divisional playoff spot. Despite the lack of great results the Oilers have managed to stay relatively consistent, not going through many long losing stretches either.
Photo by Katherine Gawlik/Icon Sportswire