The Edmonton Oilers have spent the past several season rebuilding with young talent, but so far there’s been little reward for their efforts.
Entering this season, it was expected the Oilers would finally poised to take a significant step forward. Some (including myself) suggested they could contend for one of the lower playoff berths in the Western Conference. Others doubted they’d do that well, but expected a finish much close to playoff contention than basement dwelling.
The varying levels of optimism were understandable. Right wing Jordan Eberle (selected 22nd overall in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft) was coming off a 76-point season. Left wing Taylor Hall (first overall, 2010) had 27 goals and 53 points in an injury-shortened (61 games) sophomore season. Center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (first overall, 2011) finished one point behind Hall and was runner-up for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year. Under-appreciated center Sam Gagner (6th overall, 2007) completed his fifth consecutive 40-plus point season. Goaltender Devan Dubnyk (14th overall, 2004) was coming off a career-best season in games-played (47), wins (20) and GAA (2.67).
Joining them this season was rookie right wing Nail Yakupov (first overall, 2012) and promising defenseman Justin Schultz, signed as a free agent from the Anaheim Ducks last summer.
With all but Dubnyk having played either in the AHL or in Europe during the lockout, the Oilers were expected to have an advantage over many teams in this shortened season.
That abundance of young talent had some giddy observers comparing this season’s Oilers to those much-lauded young guns of the early 1980s, when Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, Grant Fuhr, Jarri Kurri and Glen Anderson began their legendary journey toward NHL dominance.
But after a 4-2-1 start, it’s been downhill for the Oilers this season. They went 4-5-3 in February, and entering their March 10th game against the Chicago Blackhawks were 0-4-1 for this month, dropping them to last in the Western Conference.
At this pace, the Oilers could find themselves with favorable odds of winning the draft lottery for the fourth consecutive season.
Optimistic Oilers fans won’t give up on the season, pointing out their club sits only six points away from the final playoff berth in the Conference with half a season (24 games) remaining in the schedule.
Realists, however, will look at their recent deteriorating play (including back-to-back shutout losses against Detroit and Nashville in which they were outscored 9-0) and dismiss the notion of a significant turnaround over the remainder of the season.
Long-suffering Oilers fans can be forgiven for wondering when the much-anticipated emergence of this promising roster as a playoff contender, if not a league powerhouse, will finally happen.
So what’s gone wrong?
Dubnyk has been inconsistent. When he’s on his game, he’s terrific, and when he’s not, he’s horrible. There seems little in-between with his performance this season. In eight of his 20 starts, his GAA has been 3.00 or higher, his SP below .900.
He was also outplayed by an ageing Nikolai Khabibulin in late-February (2-2-1, 2.12 GAA, .935 SP) until the crumbling “Bulin Wall” was felled by a nagging groin injury. Call-up Yann Danis has only seen two games of relief work, and isn’t likely to see much action beyond that role.
Defense continues to be a problem. As of March 9th, the Oilers had the highest shots-against per game (33.7), the second-worst team plus-minus (-105), and were 20th overall in goals-against per game (2.88). The sole positive was they had the seventh-best penalty kill in the league (84.2%).
Shaky goaltending is partially to blame, but the poor overall defensive play is the main reason for those poor numbers.
Justin Schultz is playing well in his rookie campaign, Ladislav Smid ranks among the top ten in blocked shots and hits, while Nick Schultz is also among the league leaders in blocked shots. After this trio, however, the blueline depth significantly drops off.
The biggest disappointment is veteran Ryan Whitney, who hasn’t been the same since the two surgeries on his right ankle. Whitney’s mobility, so crucial to his puck-moving style, has been reduced, hampering his effectiveness. A healthy scratch in seven games last month, he’s been given third-pairing duty.
The depth isn’t much better on the checking lines, where the most notable names are fading veterans Ryan Smyth and Eric Belanger. Shawn Horcoff, whose offensive production has fallen noticeably since 2009, is finally returning to action after missing a month to a broken knuckle. Little wonder there’s been reports of the Oilers seeking a skilled, physical forward.
As for their young star forwards, Gagner is having a good year, on track for 42 points in 48 games, well ahead of his usual pace over an 82-game schedule. Hall is currently on pace for 41 points in 45 games, factoring in time missed to injury and suspension.
Eberle, who was tearing it up with the AHL’s Oklahoma City Barons during the lockout (51 points in 34 games, which as of this writing still makes him the Barons leading scorer), has 17 points in in 24 games with the Oilers. Not bad, but not on the same pace as his career-best numbers of a year ago.
Nugent-Hopkins, hampered by a nagging shoulder injury, has only 8 points in 23 games, well off the numbers of his NHL debut. Yakupov has 12 points in 24 games, good for sixth overall among NHL rookies, but he’s still adjusting to the NHL game.
Overall, the 2013 Oilers possess young forwards with varying degrees of promise on their scoring lines, a skilled young defenseman who could blossom one day into a Norris contender, a goalie still struggling to find his game without a suitable backup to spell him off, and a lack of skilled depth on the checking lines and defense.
As their young stars grow together, the Oilers will improve, but management must address their problem areas if this club is to become a playoff contender. Unfortunately, they won’t have enough time to salvage this season. Hopefully, they’ll address most of these needs in the off-season.