What a difference a month makes. It wasn’t too long ago when a late December loss to the Anaheim Ducks left Oil Country in relative shambles. The tepid start to the season had been all but cemented, the Edmonton Oilers limping to the end of the calendar year hovering near 0.500, sparking up years long conversations about the team’s viability, even speculations of Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl’s future. It seemed that the playoff run of last season was merely a momentary mirage like 2017 or 2006 before it.
The Oilers are controlling play
Since then the team has rounded into form on all fronts, looking like the perennial contender we were expecting before the season. The sharpness, tactical precision, attention to detail, and control of play that manifested under coach Jay Woodcroft last season returned. With the Oilers star power, controlling play at anything over 50% in expected goals makes them a force to be reckoned with, capable of handling even the best teams in the league. What we’ve seen recently is entirely different, as shown aptly by this chart courtesy of Evolving Hockey, with the Oilers controlling expected goals better than any other team in the league currently is.
In other words, not only do the Oilers have elite talent that might well be unparalleled league-wide, but they are an elite team as a whole. The year to year improvement we have seen under GM Ken Holland’s tenure is continuing.
Yes, a few things have helped the Oilers in this respect, with the 2023 portion of their regular season schedule being much easier than the 2022 portion. So too have individual performances buoyed the overall team performance, the revelation that is Philip Broberg, the resurgence of Jack Campbell, and the return of Evander Kane in particular. Even the penalty kill, which began the season at a poor efficiency, has begun to turn around, in part thanks to the call up of Vincent Desharnais. Internally, basically everything has gone well for the Oilers in the past month.
Western Conference woes for every other team
Even more good news comes when we examine the trends outside of the team, as the Pacific Division—and to an extent the Western Conference as a whole—has been thrown into chaos. The Seattle Kraken and Vegas Golden Knights are floundering, the Knights suffering some key injuries as well. The Los Angeles Kings and Calgary Flames have been treading water. The division title is very much in play for the Oilers, who have rocketed up the standings during their extended point streak.
Even in the wild card race, which might have been the area of concern earlier this season, is crumbling to an extent. The St. Louis Blues are officially selling, after trading both Vladimir Tarasenko and Niko Mikkola to the New York Rangers; the Minnesota Wild are reeling, while the Nashville Predators are merely keeping pace. The Oilers have lifted themselves from the wildcard slush emphatically.
The past month and a half has shown us that a lot can change quickly, and the Oilers will need to continue their efforts, but it is reasonable to think that the team is finally showing it’s true colours. There will be adversity on the path ahead but the Oilers are well equipped to overcome it.
The path ahead
It hasn’t all been good news, as the situation surrounding Jesse Puljujarvi continues to devolve. Regardless of how good Puljujarvi might still be in the future, it is hard not to imagine that both player and team are better off parting ways. The Oilers would lose a lineup regular, but the potential cap savings are an opportunity of their own, perhaps the Oilers only opportunity to add at the deadline.
With a lot of draft capital at their disposal, the Oilers could get aggressive at the deadline, but Holland’s modus operandi of smaller deadline adds seems more likely, with a versatile bottom forward seeming the most likely addition—perhaps Nick Bjugstad or Noel Acciari.
The loss of Puljujarvi would also open up more room for Dylan Holloway. After an incredible training camp that saw him force his way onto the opening roster, Holloway has merely survived in limited minutes to this point. However, we have seen increasing signs of life from Holloway, a trend that should continue as his confidence grows. Holloway is poised to make a bigger impact down the stretch, and having young ascending talent pushing up the lineup is a necessary flavour for playoff success. Perhaps, like Broberg and Desharnais, the answer to a question in the Oilers lineup, in this case another scoring forward, is already in house.
With a pair of matinees against the Ottawa Senators and Montreal Canadiens coming this weekend, the rest of February features matchup against some non-playoff teams, with some contenders sprinkled in. This is a great mix for the Oilers who should be able to rack up points while having some stiffer competition to keep them grounded.
The first half of March is by far the toughest stretch of the remaining schedule, before the Oilers will take on the lower portion of the Pacific Division from late March until the playoffs. This makes it incredibly unlikely that the Oilers will be worrying about qualifying for the postseason, in fact giving them a favourable path to claim home ice in at least the first round.
Photo by Curtis Comeau/Icon Sportswire