2016-17 NHL Preview: Edmonton Oilers – Will The Futility End This Year?

09 Apr 2016;   Edmonton Oilers forward Connor McDavid (97) against the Vancouver Canucks during a game at Rogers Arena in Vancouver BC. Vancouver won 4-3 in a shootout. (Photograph by Bob Frid/Icon Sportswire)

It’s now August and hockey is again just a month away, with the World Cup of Hockey in September, which means — yes — it is that time of the year again! This month we will be previewing each team’s 2016-17 season. Tonight, it’s the Edmonton Oilers.

Additions: Adam Larsson, Milan Lucic, Jonas Gustavsson, Taylor Beck, Jesse Puljujärvi, Drake Caggiula, Nick Ellis, Jere Sallinen, Patrick Russell, Mark Fraser

Subtractions: Taylor Hall, Lauri Korpikoski, Luke Gazdic, Adam Cracknell, Adam Pardy, Adam Clendening, Brad Hunt, Andrew Miller, Rob Klinkhammer

For most Edmonton Oilers fans, the playoffs sound like the stuff of legend.  After falling ass-over-teakettle into generational-phenom Connor McDavid at the 2015 Entry Draft, the 2015-16 season was supposed to be different. They had McDavid; they then “promoted” GM Craig MacTavish and brought in Peter Chiarelli (incredibly, the first Oilers’ GM in over 35 years to have prior experience managing an NHL team) and highly-respected coach Todd McLellan from San Jose. As a result, they managed to pull in top free agent defender Andrej Sekera to provide some veteran talent to a group lacking in most areas, and traded for up-and-coming goalie Cam Talbot from the Rangers.

Many top pundits and talking heads, such as Ron Maclean, pegged the Oilers to finally pull themselves from the wreckage and make the Show. Alas, it was not to be.

Even up until the Christmas break, despite a subpar overall record and a serious clavicle injury to the aforementioned McDavid, the team didn’t look all that bad. Taylor Hall and sophomore Leon Draisaitl were handily destroying the opposition night in and night out, Brandon Davidson was emerging from nowhere as an excellent NHL defender, and Oscar Klefbom started to look like the top-pairing defender many suspected he could be. And then the injury bug really took hold.  Eberle, Yakupov, Nugent-Hopkins, Klefbom, Pouliot, Davidson, Gryba – say what you want about their lack of success as a team, but that’s a boatload of talent unavailable for a massive portion of the season that no team could possibly survive. Despite the astute moves of bringing in tough-but-skilled customers such as Patrick Maroon and Zack Kassian, while finally breaking off the relationship with much-maligned blueliner Justin Schultz, the Oilers could not overcome their troubles and slumped to yet another bottom-2 finish.

There was no way Chiarelli was going to stand pat and hope for simple growth and good health; after months of telegraphing that the core group of young stars – namely Hall, Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins – were not safe from trade, on June 29th the GM pulled the trigger on a blockbuster trade that sent Hall eastwards to the NJ Devils in return for defender Adam Larsson.  Two days later, as many expected, Milan Lucic was brought in as a UFA. These moves have proven highly divisive, though most agree that Chiarelli did not get good value for Hall, who for all his warts has been one of the most product forwards in the entire league over the last few seasons.

That said, Larsson has some seriously high potential, and while there were significant growing pains over his time with the Devils, he appears to be settling well in to a top-pairing role – something the Oilers desperately needed. Lucic may not provide the elite scoring of Hall, and is more complimentary than play-driver, he brings a dimension that many have felt the Oilers have not had since Chris Pronger left town – someone who will strike fear into the opposition, both with his temperament and with his talent. The team also signed Jonas Gustavsson as backup goalie, a baffling move given that there were many better out there, but it seems likely that he is simply a placeholder until AHL goalie Laurent Brossoit can make the jump. Finally, the team signed some promising college free agents, and also (once again) wore their lucky draft ties and saw talented Finn Jesse Puljujärvi fall to them.

Will these moves position the Oilers to finally make the jump that everyone has been waiting for? After years of stating confidently that “this is the year they make it back”, even though it breaks my heart, I am going to err on the side of caution and say that no, they will not. They will break the record for consecutive seasons outside the playoffs (currently tied with Florida at 10 seasons).

That is not to say they won’t come close.  The entire complexion of this team has truly changed. They already had the top forward talent, and some useful young chips on the blueline. They now have the muscle-with-skill, they have a bona-fide starting goalie, they are all (reportedly) looking healthy, McDavid looks ready to go supernova, and they now have something resembling balance.  If they remain healthy, this team could genuinely be pushing for a wildcard late into the season. However, as it stands, I don’t believe they are there just yet.

Prediction: Oilers just miss out on the final wildcard slot in the West.

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