It’s been a long time since the Edmonton Oilers have lived up to their name and struck pay dirt as a franchise. 16 games into the 2016/17 season Edmonton is gushing forth with their best start in 5 years—leading the Pacific Division (albeit by a narrow margin against San Jose and Anaheim). Throughout this decade the Oilers were always finishing last, winning the NHL draft lottery and drafting number ones like Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Nail Yakupov without achieving any decisive results before finally finding the right franchise player in Connor McDavid.
Edmonton wasn’t merely content to play musical chairs with their number draft picks they were also doing the same with their head coaches: going from the late Pat Quinn to Tom Renney to Ralph Krueger to Dallas Eakins to Todd Nelson before finally finding the right man to coach the team in Todd McLellan. And even general managers too: from Steve Tambellini to Craig MacTavish before finally finding the right man to manage the team in Pete Chiarelli.
Now the circle game has ended and the Oilers are making progress towards restoring a once proud dynasty into winners and playoff contenders again. The resurrection begins with wunderkind Connor McDavid. Fully recovered from the injuries that cost him half of his rookie season, McDavid is justifying all the superlatives that adorn him: shooting; scoring; setting up line-mates Jordan Eberle and Patrick Maroon; playing solid two-way hockey, McDavid makes all things possible. His success becomes the Oilers success. As long as Connor McDavid remains healthy then Edmonton has a shot at ending its ten year streak of failing to make the playoffs.
But it’s not just offense that fuels the Oilers resurgence it’s a commitment to defensive play. Pete Chiarelli’s acquisitions of Milan Lucic, Benoit Pouliot, and Adam Larsson have bolstered the Edmonton defense significantly. Lucic and Pouliot are solid defensive forwards who provide experience and maturity both on and off the ice. Adam Larsson (who came to Edmonton in exchange for Taylor Hall) anchors the Oiler blue-line corps with his hitting and shot-blocking. Thanks to these men the Oilers have the fourth best penalty-killing unit in the NHL.
Goalie Cam Talbot is also providing Edmonton with solid, dependable goal-tending in a long, long while.
For Oilers head coach Todd McLellan this is a welcome return to familiar territory after losing 7 points off his career value (according to my rating system) last season when Edmonton finished last in the Pacific Division; all the while struggling to banish the acceptance of defeat and futility in the locker room. There were tense moments in the Oilers locker room with McLellan vowing to move players in order to get the winning attitude he wanted and during the off-season moves were made and the culture of losing and failure is slowly being banished.
McLellan has improved the Oilers offense from 27th to 10th in the NHL; their defense from 27th to 20th. But it’s their penalty-killing unit which has seen the greatest improvement; going from 18th to 4th in the NHL.
Ironically and interestingly their power-play offense has improved only gradually from 22nd to only 20th. I say ironically and interestingly because Todd McLellan has always emphasized (and gotten for the most part) solid results from his power-play units when he was coaching at San Jose.
Still, it is early in the season and the question that dogs Edmonton is whether they can maintain their competitiveness and remain in playoff competition. The Oilers have youth and talent but lack depth especially on the defensive end. When the trade deadline comes up on February 28, 2017, and Edmonton still remains a factor in the Pacific Division race, then it becomes incumbent on Oilers GM Pete Chiarelli (prolific trader par excellence) to augment the Oilers blue-line corps and, also, their power-play unit by making some trades.
It’s nice to see new teams in early playoff contention. It restores faith and hope in the eyes of a tired hockey fan who glories in the cult of the new.