The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars. Though apparently if you’re covering the Edmonton Oilers or a fan of them, that’s the going theme. Perhaps after years and years of the same problem, Oilers observers are just tired of complaining about the same things, so they’re looking for things that aren’t there merely for the sake of variety.
Five weeks ago, everything was coming up Milhouse for the Oilers. They beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 5-2 on December 1, to move their record to 16-5-0. They were atop the Pacific Division, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl were sitting atop the scoring race (still are, to be fair) and the MVP discussion. For just a brief second there, it looked like the Oilers might finally live up to the level that McDavid has deserved since he got to town.
Since then, the Oilers have gone 2-8-2, and are barely clinging on to a wildcard spot, with several teams hot on their heels and having games in hand. As you can see, everyone’s handling it well.
The temptation is to label the Oilers a complete disaster, rotting all the way down to the foundation, and once again restart the “McDavid Demands Trade” clock, which seemingly gets more of a workout than the Doomsday Clock (in Edmonton, these are probably the same thing).
However, we can do better than panicky, wind-burned hockey experts to see what’s really under the hood.
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A major problem for the Oilers since that December 1 date is that their Omega-13 of a power play has gone cold the past month. Before December 1, the power play was connecting at a 35 percent rate, which cures a lot of ills but is also not sustainable for a whole season. Even with that, the Oilers were creating by far the most expected goals on the power play as well, so it was full value for their galactic scoring rates. The thing was, it was scoring on 21 percent of the shots the Oilers took on the power play. That’s rather insane.
Since that date, the Oilers power play is generating even more chances than it was before the crash (10.46 xG per 60 minutes since 12/1 vs. 10.1 before). It’s just seen itsshooting-percentage drop in half to 10 percent. There’s nothing structurally wrong here other than opposing goalies are making the occasional save the past month. That happens.
There’s nothing wrong at even-strength, either. Even during this winter of discontent, the Oilers Corsi-percentage and expected-goals percentage at five-on-five are both above water, each at 51 percent. So even though they can’t buy a win with love or money, they’re doing just about all the things they need to to win games. You can’t ask much more than getting more of the attempts and the better of the scoring chances.
So what’s wrong? Well, their head coach seems to know:
Perhaps Dave Tippett can’t take the fact that his GM has provided him two quaalude-ridden wildebeests as his goalie tandem for his entire run behind the bench in EdMo. Here is what Mikko Koskinen has managed since December 1, as far as save percentages per game: .875, .846, .903, .800, .897, .857. That’s one game over 90 percent. He gave everyone a succinct summary of his “brilliance” last night when he gifted the Rangers their opening goal in their 4-1 win:
Mike Smith returned from injury/remaking Matlock recently, and he gave up 10 goals in his two starts in December. The Oilers have the fourth-worst save-percentage at even-strength in the league, and the three teams below them–the Devils, the Coyotes, and the Kraken–are the league’s plankton. It’s actually impressive that the Oilers were able to overcome this court jester goaltending for so long.
Because everywhere else you look, the Oilers are as set as they’ve been in years. They finally have a top four in defense, as top pairing Darnell Nurse and Evan Bouchard have been deployed as offensive weapons. Oilers fans haven’t stopped bitching about Duncan Keith since he arrived, but he and partner Cody Ceci are taking the dungeon shifts (38 percent offensive zone starts) and consistently turning the ice over. There isn’t much more you could ask of them.
Yes, as always is the case with the Oilers, they have trouble producing goals beyond Draisaitl and McDavid. But the two have mostly been split up on the season, and Draisaitl has been able to be second in the league in scoring while starting far more of his shifts outside the offensive zone than in the past as a No. 2 center instead of McDavid’s winger.
Yes, the Oilers completely lack a bottom six in the forward set. This isn’t new or a surprise. They have no goalie. They haven’t in years, as they keep trying a new magic potion or spell to conjure anything resembling competence from Smith. But the idea that this is some rot that can’t be overcome is ludicrous. They need a goalie, and should be making calls about Marc-Andre Fleury or Semyon Varlamov (or true chaos, Carey Price) yesterday. Or maybe they need to just turn things over to Stuart Skinner (.916 save-percentage in nine starts this year) in net and leave Smith in the woods with a marrow bone. They need another forward or two beyond their top-two lines. But this has always been the case.
Whatever their faults are that we’ve known, structurally the Oilers have been fine or better all season. But no structure holds up when the mere suggestion of a shot-against ends up as a goal. Their coach is saying it. Maybe if GM Ken Holland can stop waxing about his days in Detroit that seem more and more a fluke than genius for five minutes, he could do something about it.