A curious time befalls Oil Country with the trade deadline looming, now a week and a half away. Going 2–1–3 since our last Oil Check, the Edmonton Oilers have been treading water in the standings despite a mix of uneven play. Early in the season it was slow starts that plagued the team; now it seems to be the other way around with the Oilers blowing back-to-back 3–0 leads against the New York Rangers and Colorado Avalanche.
Are there signs of fragility from the Oilers?
Though each standing point is critical, the “loser point” the Oilers have been collecting with regularity has not been enough to satiate the fan base. From a distance the recent stretch is not too concerning. The matinee loss to the Montreal Canadiens—the second half of a back-to-back with travel—has been the only game in which the team has failed to collect any points. Getting three out of four possible points from Eastern Conference teams that might well be playoff contenders were they in the Western Conference, the Detroit Red Wings and Ottawa Senators, is solid work. The aforementioned Rangers and Avalanche are contending teams, games in which the Oilers played well enough to have a chance at victory.
More specific signs of positivity are present as well. The Oilers have been controlling play at a strong rate, and the penalty kill has been much more effective than in the early months of the season. One might even say that a team has to be good enough to have leads in the first place before blowing them.
Naturally these purposefully optimistic observations are hardly enough to quell fan reactions to an alleged contender losing four in a row before the trade deadline. Hockey, the chaotic and random sport that it is, will always have a variance of results, as evidenced by the Oilers being far from the only contending team to lose to rebuilders this season. However, with this stretch coming at such a pivotal moment, an insecurity rises through the collective conscience of the fan base; are the Oilers fragile?
Defence remains the biggest struggle
Though such a scathing accusation cannot be made lightly, it can be made in a number of different ways. Perhaps the blueline, one of the most modern, skilled, puck moving units in the league misses the in zone defensive contributions of the recently demoted (for cap purposes) Vincent Desharnais. Ideally, having a designated defensive option on the right side is quite important for this Oilers team, a role Desharnais fills well.
Perhaps the Oilers need more defensive centres for late game lead holding situations. No team is too perfect to not be improved, yet there is hardly consensus to be had here. Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins are hardly defensive stalwarts, though Derek Ryan and Ryan McLeod offer some utility here.
Jesse Puljujarvi’s tenuous relationship to the team’s future continues, and Mattias Janmark has been a key contributor in defensive situations. Warren Foegele is no slouch, famously producing strong flow of play results deeper in the lineup. Even pure depth options in Devin Shore and Brad Malone exist, as players who can pinch up to the fourth line in a faceoff specialist and penalty killing role.
There are, at least, a multitude of defensive options up front, though the pool of elite defensive forwards available is shrinking with Ryan O’Reilly dealt.
Gone are the days of claiming the Oilers are not tough or snarly enough, for the most part. Puljujarvi, Evander Kane, and Klim Kostin have been mean this season, though, once again, the Oilers likely miss their net front bouncer in Desharnais.
It might be said that the Oilers are inherently streaky, with McDavid and Draisaitl scoring enough to let the Oilers punch above their weight class. Over the past few years we’ve seen how thin the margins between good and bad can be for the team. A prime example being when Kane joined the club last year, transforming the forward depth from good to overwhelming in an instant.
The tactical effectiveness that coach Jay Woodcroft has been able to enact recently, and in the back half of last season, can carry the Oilers to the heights of the league, while the lack thereof, as seen early this season, can see the club middling in the wildcard sludge.
The Oilers don’t have a goaltending problem
The elephant in the room is the performance of the goaltending. There have been some extenuating circumstances that have influenced recent deployment, but the fact is that Jack Campbell has started 12 of the past 16 games, roughly a 62-game pace over a full season. There have certainly been some tough looking moments, his raw numbers like save percentage are underwhelming, and his contract as a whole does seem concerning, but this current usage is not exactly putting Campbell in a position to succeed. Despite all this, a rough recent stretch, as well as an even worse performance to start the season, Campbell has a record of 17–8–4 on the year. In short, Campbell has not cost the Oilers many points.
As it stands now, both Oilers goalies have appeared in 30 games. Although the road to this split has been uneven, we should expect that these duties are more evenly shared going forward. Goaltending in general can be mystifying to try to quantify, but it shouldn’t be a huge surprise that there are ebbs and flows, even on a year-to-year basis, to the performance of a position that is at the mercy of every other player on the ice.
Stuart Skinner might well continue his upward trajectory towards a true number one goalie, as he has continued to build a strong resume through the past three seasons. Just as easily, there might be some down moments, months, or even seasons along the way for Skinner.
Regardless, with goalie tandems more and more commonplace across the league, the Oilers have just enough skill at just enough value to have a puncher’s chance. These days, it seems, goaltending is seen as an issue for every team around the league without a legitimate Vezina candidate, a high standard, one that the Oilers are hardly alone in falling short of. With such an important position these insecurities are hardly surprising, but some context and perspective should be held in evaluating the position fairly.
What lies ahead for the team
On paper the schedule ahead does not get any easier, with two games against each of the Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Winnipeg Jets on the horizon. The next month should provide a stiff test, some sort of measuring stick for the Oilers as the deadline passes.
With the St. Louis Blues selling off in a big way, and the Calgary Flames flickering, the path to a playoff spot is becoming more assured. The eight teams currently occupying playoff spots in the West are likely to remain relatively unchanged. The quest for the Oilers is in jostling for seeding, something that is very much up for grabs, as well as finding a high level of cohesive play, something we’ve seen signs of. Regardless of what, if anything, the Oilers add before the trade deadline there is a lot for this team to feel good about, even amidst a losing skid.
Photo by Brett Holmes/Icon Sportswire