Injuries, Mistakes Crippling Oilers Slender Playoff Ambitions
It was 2006 the last time the Edmonton Oilers reached the playoffs. Since then, the NHL has gone into lockout once again, Sidney Crosby won Gold for Team Canada at Vancouver 2010, the Winter Classic has been created and morphed into an international spectacle, the Winnipeg Jets have been reincarnated and league realignment has taken place. Of course, this is far from an extensive list of major Hockey events since 2006, but it gives the Oilers playoff exodus a sense of scale.
That playoff exodus was anticipated to extend at least another season back in October, even though significant managerial changes were made during the off-season. New General Manager Peter Chiarelli worked tirelessly to rectify the glaring deficiencies in the Oilers roster, but it was still merely seen as a rebuild of the rebuild.
However, as we enter the new year, the Oilers are actually in the playoff hunt. It isn’t as clear cut as that though, this is the Edmonton Oilers after all. A decidedly weak Pacific Division has led to all seven teams in the division having an opportunity to make the postseason despite only LA being above 18th position in the league. A six game winning streak to begin December even had the Oilers briefly occupying 3rd spot in the division.
Here’s why it’s not as clear cut as it may seem. The path ahead is still a treacherous one.
It is no secret that the Oilers have lacked a real NHL quality defence, and a quality veteran presence, for a number of years. Numerous attempts have been made to patch up a defence that has resembled a piece of Swiss Cheese for much of the last 10 years. Many veterans have come and gone but many of the same problems still remain. The coaching of Todd McLellan, and emergence of Brandon Davidson, Oscar Klefbom and Darnell Nurse has presented some reason for optimism, but they have just 177 NHL games between them. It is difficult to succeed when the majority of your defensive hopes are burdened by a trio of this inexperience.
With inexperience comes mistakes. A lack of nous and the know-how that every bona fide Cup contender has by the shovel load. Everything from bad turnovers to missed assignments and coverage has cost the Oilers this season, but that isn’t on the defence alone. They aren’t the only ones making errors. Goaltending, whilst generally better than it has been, has still been somewhat streaky with both Talbot and Nilsson blowing hot and cold.
Injuries have also wreaked havoc in Oil country. Only the Sabres have lost more man games to injury than Edmonton. The most notable of those was (and is) Connor McDavid, but more recently Klefbom and Davidson have spent time sidelined due to injury. This has coincided with a 2-6-1 skid since the aforementioned six game winning streak.
With a defence lacking even more quality and potential than normal, Nikita Nikitin and Brad Hunt recent call-ups to fill the void, it should not be surprising that the Oilers have struggled over the festive period. There may not be a worse time for such troubles to hit either. After a 5 game stretch against divisional opponents, these problems have been forced home. Going 1-3-1 through the five, meant crucial points have gone begging, that on another day might not. A one goal loss in Vancouver (yes, another), was followed up by the almost impressive surrender of a two goal second period lead in Calgary. LA snapped the Oilers 7-game home winning streak, largely thanks to three goals in 96 second period seconds. The primary cause of all this? Mistakes and inexperience. Edmonton finished the five divisional games with a 1-0 loss to Anaheim and a battling 4-3 shootout victory over Arizona.
Now, I should point out that there are several positives to take from the Oilers’ season to date, many of those unexpected, but there are also other problems on the flipside as well. Can the Oilers make the playoffs? Yes, absolutely they can – and not only mathematically. Game by game the team will grow, and getting vital pieces of the puzzle back from injury will help too. It would still be more of a surprise if they were to make than if they didn’t at this stage though, more tangible hopes should come next season.
Whatever the case may be, the second half of the season is sure to be fascinating. The Pacific Division is tighter than ever, each and every game full of meaning. That is certainly a welcome change for the Edmonton Oilers.
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