The midway mark, a curious time across Oil Country. A certain uneasiness is cast, looming over things. Parallels between this year and last, play off the years of insecurity that has largely defined the salary cap era Edmonton Oilers.
A year older, yes, but wiser?
Even 20 games ago the sentiment was there, a tinge of disappointment. Was it foolish to think that the Oilers had become a new team, the middling ways of the past behind them? Was last season only a mirage? There were, of course, doubters, but the Oilers were thought to be more than their past, more than the snide and uninspired comments about the team weighing down the talents of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.
A brief gander at the records shows this stagnancy, or at least the appearance of such. Once again we find ourselves in mid-January, the Oilers fighting for a wildcard spot. Once again the Oilers need to discover a higher level of play in the second half of the schedule. The Los Angeles Kings and Seattle Kraken, among others, firmly entrenched in spots the Oilers should feel capable of.
Though there is one game more than half the season left, the Oilers should not take for granted that, ostensibly, they are in a battle with the Calgary Flames and Colorado Avalanche for the two wildcard spots. Both teams have a more consistent regular season than the Oilers in recent years, but all three believing that they will make the postseason means that at least one fanbase will be dealt a disappointing hand.
From the outset, comparisons to last season’s Oilers team were inevitable. It is true that both this January and last find the Oilers in need of rounding into form to secure a playoff spot.
Still many issues the Oilers need to resolve
The good news is that the Oilers have yet to fire on all cylinders, their best should be forthcoming. The team is certainly capable of more, as it’s been a constant stream of shortcomings, one thing or another, in the first half.
Early on the Oilers even strength defence was a concern, as was their lack of control over even strength play in general. In both areas the Oilers have been much better of late, a truly promising sign.
Though the penalty kill is still an issue, the forward health returning will be a huge boost to the team. Even with Evander Kane’s return still a ways away, the likes of Kailer Yamamoto and Ryan McLeod are not easily replaced. Though fill-ins like Mattias Janmark and Klim Kostin have done admirably, thriving in the increased roles, the Oilers will be better off with more options. It was the addition of Kane, a legitimate top six forward, that really brought the Oilers forward group to life last season. Missing a player of that talent does have an effect, no matter how much everyone else tries to step up.
Speculatively, Darnell Nurse’s injury likely held him back from his best early in the year, and still playing more than 25 minutes most nights his increasing level of play is a huge difference to the team. Brett Kulak and Tyson Barrie have been their synergistic selves, while Philip Broberg is starting to show stronger results week by week, despite his limited icetime. In all the blueline is coming into its own, priming the Oilers for a second half run, at least with this good health.
Stuart Skinner likely saved the Oilers from disaster, coming into his own as a starter sooner than most would have thought or hoped. Despite his profile, which suggests a lot of upside, it is likely a bit much to expect Skinner to continue playing as much or as well as he has. Luckily, Jack Campbell seems to have regained some confidence. Either way, the Oilers need to use both goalies as a tandem, and need to play strong team defence in front of them. Even the rare goalies thought of as absolute superstars seem to play behind strong defensive teams more often than not.
The path ahead to stay in playoff contention
All this is a long way of getting to the main point: though the Oilers are a mere four games above .500 (OT and shootout losses are effectively ties, and describing them in the same category as losses is misleading), there is good reason to think that their point rate will increase going forward. There may never be a perfect alignment of all aspects of the team, but the circumstantial shortcomings should be waning, more should start breaking the Oilers way in the second half.
The team itself feels the need to get going. In a press conference this week coach Jay Woodcroft described as much, saying that the time is now to play to win, that managing player’s confidence from a season long perspective is less and less of a priority for his staff.
This attitude is demonstrated effectively by Kostin taking Jesse Puljujarvi’s spot, at least for the time being. Perhaps though, maybe performance-based deployment changes should be more wholesale. Does Evan Bouchard deserve more icetime? Either way we should see the Oilers with a quicker trigger finger on tailoring icetime each night.
With ten games left in January, the Oilers will be going up against some of their immediate competition. Tonight, January 7, the Oilers will go up against a wildcard rival in the Colorado Avalanche, with games against division rivals like the Kraken and the Kings on the horizon.
Beyond that, the Oilers will face a lot of Eastern Conference teams in February and the first half of March, before facing off almost exclusively against divisional opponents from mid-March onwards.
Until then the Oilers will have to sort out their trade targets. There is talk that struggling teams will be inspired to sell more than normal, as they “bail for Bedard” so to speak (shout outs to the fantastic David Amber). Would this lower prices? The stagnant cap might hinder buyers from being able to do much of anything, might that lead to a quieter deadline? Surely injuries and esoteric cap calculations will play a part, perhaps more so than usual?
With so many upcoming games, especially late in the season, against presumptive sellers in the Anaheim Ducks, San Jose Sharks, and Arizona Coyotes, Oiler fans might benefit from the draft craze whether the Oilers make a deal or not.
Despite the understandable sense of unease, the Oilers are well positioned to turn the corner in the second half and to qualify for the playoffs.
Photo by Curtis Comeau/Icon Sportswire