Pacific Division Preview: Edmonton Oilers have ‘playoffs or bust’ mentality heading into 2018-19

After a 25-point drop in the standings last season, the Oilers hope a fresh start can get them back in the playoffs.

As the regular season approaches, we’ll take a look at Vegas’ seven Pacific Division opponents to examine how they fared in 2017-18, what moves they’ve made in the offseason and what their lineups may look like in the 2018-19 season. The Golden Knights have a full season and a trip to the Stanley Cup Final under their belts, so no one will be taking them lightly in Year 2. Here’s a look at the Edmonton Oilers.

Heading into the 2017-18 season, the Edmonton Oilers were considered Stanley Cup contenders coming off the franchise’s most successful season in over a decade. The team not only qualified for the playoffs for the first time since losing in the 2006 Stanley Cup Final but also picked up a first-round series win against San Jose, ultimately falling just one win shy of reaching the Western Conference Final. But the follow-up campaign was a tire fire of a year for everyone not named Connor McDavid, who won his second consecutive Art Ross Trophy by leading the NHL in points (108). Other than yet another impressive display by the generational superstar, which also earned him his second straight Ted Lindsay Award, not much went right for the Oilers last season.

Season recap

After finishing second in the Pacific Division and fourth in the Western Conference with 103 points in 2016-17, Edmonton took a 25-point dive with just 36 wins and 78 points in 2017-18, good for sixth in the division, 12th in the conference and 23rd in the league. They finished 17 points out of the playoffs.

The Oilers had the worst power play in the NHL, operating at a rate of just 14.8 percent. Their 25th-ranked penalty kill (76.7 percent) wasn’t much better, making special teams one of the downfalls of the Oilers’ season.

Further, the Oilers were 20th in the league in scoring with 2.79 goals per game and fifth in goals against (3.2).

Ironically, the Oilers were one of three teams that defeated the Golden Knights in regulation on more than one occasion last season, and Edmonton was one of only two teams that managed to pick up three wins against the Golden Misfits in Year 1.

McDavid tallied eight points in four games against Vegas, recording his second straight season with 100 points as he racked up a career-high 41 goals and 108 points in 82 games. Though he scored more than 50 of those points in less meaningful contests over the course of the final few months of the season, McDavid turned in another dominant performance. It’s particularly impressive that he hit the 40-goal mark since the power play was so dismal; in fact, 35 of his 41 goals came at even strength, which led the league.

Leon Draisaitl finished second on the team in scoring with 70 points, and the next-highest total was 48 (Ryan Nugent-Hopkins), though he played in just 62 games.

It was a particularly tough season for Cam Talbot, Milan Lucic and Oscar Klefbom.

Talbot set career lows in goals-against average (3.02) and save percentage (.908) while going 31-31-3, his win total down from 42 in 2016-17. Lucic scored 10 goals on the year, by far his lowest total in a full season since he was a rookie; he scored one goal in the final 46 games of the season. Klefbom played through an injured shoulder, and it was clear his game suffered for it. His inability to quarterback the power play was one of the key reasons the team’s man advantage was so ineffective.

In the end, the down year landed the Oilers the 10th overall pick in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, which they used to select defenseman Evan Bouchard.

Offseason moves

Perhaps the most significant problem general manager Peter Chiarelli had to address in the offseason was the lack of a reliable backup goaltender. Talbot has been a workhorse for the Oilers, playing 140 games in the past two seasons, which is more than any other goaltender in the league. It’s important that he be able to take a night off, especially if Edmonton will need him at his best for the final stretch of the regular season. Former KHL goaltender Mikko Koskinen could be the answer. The Oilers signed the 30-year-old former Islanders netminder to a one-year, $2.5 million deal. Both goalies are in contract years, so it’s possible the two could be an effective tandem.

Another key offseason move was re-signing defenseman Darnell Nurse, who was the team’s best defenseman last year and still has significant upside. A former first-round pick, Nurse set career highs in goals (6), assists (20) and points (26) despite a shooting percentage of 3.1, and he managed a career-best plus-15. Edmonton signed him to a two-year bridge deal that carries a cap hit of $3.2 million.

Forwards Ryan Strome and Drake Caggiula as well as defenseman Matt Benning also signed two-year extensions over the summer, valued at $6.2 million, $3 million and $3.8 million, respectively.

Aside from Koskinen, the team’s other main additions are center Kyle Brodziak and winger Tobias Rieder. Brodziak will center the fourth line after signing a two-year contract that carries a $1.15 million cap hit, and Rieder should provide secondary scoring and depth on the wing; he signed a one-year, $2 million deal.

Jakub Jerabek was signed this offseason but has since been traded to the St. Louis Blues for a sixth-round draft pick. Former Golden Knights defenseman Jason Garrison as well as forward Alex Chiasson just earned one-year, $650,000 contracts after signing PTO’s with the club this summer.

Lastly, Edmonton bought out the final contract year of defenseman Eric Gryba. Additional notable departures include Patrick Maroon (traded at deadline), Mark Letestu (traded at deadline), Pontus Aberg (claimed off waivers by Anaheim), Mike Cammalleri (not re-signed), Yohann Auvitu (signed in KHL) and Anton Slepyshev (signed in KHL). Interestingly, Gryba, Maroon and Auvitu led the team in Corsi For percentage last year among players who played in at least 20 games.

Lineup preview

Acquiring Strome in exchange for Jordan Eberle last offseason allowed Nugent-Hopkins to shift to wing, ultimately settling on the left side of McDavid. This duo will make up two-thirds of the top line this season. Nugent-Hopkins’ faceoff struggles will no longer be an issue, and though the McDavid-Draisaitl combination was deadly, having Draisaitl center his own line gives the Oilers much better depth.

Youngsters Jesse Puljujarvi, Kailer Yamamoto and Ty Rattie have impressed during camp and could fill up the right side of the top nine to start the season, with Rattie set to play alongside McDavid. The two hope to carry over the chemistry they developed at the end of last season. Rieder will have a middle-six role unless Rattie struggles early. Caggiula, Zack Kassian, Jujhar Khaira and Chiasson will contend for the final forward slots.

The Oilers are facing multiple injuries on the back end, with Andrej Sekera out indefinitely, Kris Russell starting the season on injured reserve and Adam Larsson getting pulled from a recent game against Calgary. It’s unclear whether Russell or Larsson will miss extended time.

Therefore, here’s one possibility for what Edmonton’s lines could look like this season:

Nugent-Hopkins — McDavid — Rattie
Lucic — Draisaitl — Puljujarvi
Rieder — Strome — Yamamoto
Khaira — Brodziak — Kassian

Klefbom — Larsson
Nurse — Benning
Russell — Bouchard


Quick hits

2017-18 Team record: 36-40-6—78
Position in standings: Division-6, Conference-12, League-23
Pacific Division record: 16-11-3
Record against Vegas: 3-1-0
Playoff result: Did not qualify
Leading Scorers: McDavid (41-67—108), Draisaitl (25-45—70), Nugent-Hopkins (24-24—48)
Top Corsi For % (min. 20 GP): Gryba (55.15), Maroon (52.94), Auvitu (52.53), McDavid (52.41)
Power play (NHL rank): 14.8 percent (31)
Penalty kill (NHL rank): 76.7 percent (25)
Goals for (NHL rank): 229 (20)
Goals against (NHL rank): 262 (5)
Team MVP: McDavid (41-67—108)
Season opener: Oct. 6 @ New Jersey (NHL Global Series)

Bottom line

The Oilers made minimal offseason adjustments despite last year’s disappointing campaign. Chiarelli is banking on the assumption that last year was the fluke rather than the success achieved during the 2016-17 playoff run. Edmonton will ice a similar lineup as last year, though it is one that should be younger and faster, with multiple young stars looking to break out and prove their worth at the NHL level.

But the Oilers face tremendous pressure to right the disastrous wrong that was the 2017-18 trainwreck. In fact, there’s arguably more pressure on the Oilers this year than there was this time last summer when they were expected to make a deep playoff run. Another down year could spell the end of Chiarelli and/or head coach Todd McLellan, and it could also force management to reshuffle the deck to build a stronger supporting cast around the McDavid-Draisaitl core.

Considering how the last two seasons have gone down, it’s pretty much playoffs or bust for Edmonton this year. McDavid is openly fed up with losing and remains more determined than ever. When you light a fire under one of the best players in the world, good things are bound to happen. But there’s certainly a chance McDavid will have an even better year yet will be unable to advance the team’s overall progress. He intends to score more goals and has been working on his shot all summer, but there’s only so much one player can do in today’s NHL.

Even if McDavid hits 50 goals and 110-120 points, it won’t change the fact that the Oilers will not rediscover their 2016-17 success without getting better goaltending and a lot more support from secondary scorers. Even Draisaitl took a step back in his play last year despite what the final stat line may say. Everyone except McDavid needs to be much better, especially guys like Talbot, Lucic and Klefbom, for the Oilers to even entertain the idea of climbing back into the playoff race. A strong start will be crucial, and McDavid is hoping his determination and passion will inspire the rest of the team right out of the gate. It’ll be a tall task, but no matter what, the Oilers can’t afford to keep wasting Art Ross Trophy performances.

Golden Knights vs. Oilers schedule

Nov. 18 @ Edmonton
Dec. 1 @ Edmonton
Mar. 17 vs. Edmonton
Apr. 1 vs. Edmonton