It’s hard to know how to feel about this season’s first 12 games if you are an Edmonton Oilers fan. The rabid fan base is tired of losing and desperately wanted to buy into the hype that the Oilers could start strong because their young core of players–Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Justin Schultz and Teemu Hartikainen–was on fire while playing for the Oklahoma City Barons during the lockout. Theoretically, they would be in great game shape and have a leg up on their competition, so this notion had fans thinking a playoff run was possible.
But the pragmatic crowd suggested Oilers fans should temper their enthusiasm. There’s a reason the Oilers have had the number one draft pick three years running. A shortened season and the additions of Nail Yakupov and Schultz weren’t going to eliminate the fact that the team had questions in net and a thin and porous defense. Some said the Oilers should stumble through one more year, phase out the vets, bring in more young talent, maybe get one more really high draft pick and then explode in the 2013-2014 season.
So depending on which side you were on before the puck dropped last month, this season has either been disappointing or better than expected.
The Oilers made the right choice by giving Devan Dubnyk a two-year contract extension. He has been an absolute steal considering his cap hit is $3.5 mllion for each of the next two years. At 5-3-3, his GAA is below 2.50 and his save percentage is just a tick below 93, even with the Oilers facing the second-highest number of shots per game at 34. The Oilers defense has been as flimsy as advertised, but Dubnyk’s magnificent play in net has kept the team in many games so far, so kudos to them for finding their goaltender of the future.
The acquisition of Schultz (four goals, three assists) and the drafting of Yakupov (five goals,three3 assists) have also been good moves. Six of Schultz’s seven points have come on the Oilers’ prolific power play and he is already leading the team in on-ice time, averaging more than 23 minutes per game. Yakupov is tied with Ales Hemsky for the team lead in goals.
Sam Gagner started the season by scoring points in his first 10 games and leads the team in points with 13, while Hall (11 points), Eberle (eight) and Hemsky (eight) have played solidly as well. All things considered, their young offense hasn’t been that bad.
Unfortunately, the Oilers’ offense has been anemic unless they are on special teams. They are fifth in the league in power play percentage (24.1 percent) and penalty kill percentage (86.9 percent), and are ninth in goals allowed (2.4 per game), but they rank 24th in goals scored (2.3 per game). They only score half as many goals on even strength as their opponents do. 16 of their 28 goals have come on the power play or shorthanded (where they already rank second in the league with two), and considering that you usually spend the majority of the game at even strength, that’s a significant problem.
Making things worse is the fact that Ben Eager, Ryan Jones, Nugent-Hopkins, Theo Peckham, Nikolai Khabibulin, Andy Sutton, Anton Lander and the team’s top two faceoff winners–Shawn Horcoff and Eric Belanger–have all missed significant time because of injuries. Throw in the ineffective play of Ryan Smyth, horrific defense by Ryan Whitney and Magnus Paajarvi and Hartikainen still not gelling with the team because head coach Ralph Krueger doesn’t seem to know where to play them and it’s no wonder the Oilers have been so up and down.
The Oilers are fighting for a playoff spot right now and that’s good. It will give the Baby Oilers their first real chance to play meaningful games in February. They need to experience this feeling in order to learn how to win consistently at the NHL level. Realistically, though, Oilers fans shouldn’t expect the team’s play to improve much. Does this mean they should prepare for another bottom-three finish? Possibly. The Oilers start a nine-game road trip this month, which could sink their season if it doesn’t go well. But who knows? That road trip could go surprisingly well and somehow save their season.