Last season was supposed to be one of the ages. It was, but for all the wrong reasons.
The offense? Even with Connor McDavid, the Edmonton Oilers were 20th in scoring and dead last on the power play. Extended slumps from Oscar Klefbom and Cam Talbot hurt the defense as well, as they were also in the back of the pack in several major defensive categories.
Considering the season began with McDavid scoring a hat trick to knock off their provincial rivals at home, there was too much to be desired.
Now Todd McLellan has to right the ship before he loses his job, which will certainly happen if he cannot get a McDavid-led team back into the playoffs. Here is a look of what to expect this year.
If I wanted to, I could just talk about McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. They were the only skaters to eclipse 50 points last season, and they are quite obviously the biggest threats on the team. This year’s team, however, figures to be much deeper in production because of key additions and expected improvements from the returners.
Interestingly enough, the Oilers have dug into some of the St. Louis Blues’ depth chart in an attempt to plug up some holes. They added veterans Kyle Brodziak, who signed a two-year deal, and Scottie Upshall. Yet Ty Rattie, who was a second round pick for the Blues in 2011, has trended toward a breakout season. He found the net five times for Edmonton after joining the team in late February (14 games played).
With an October roster spot within reach, Rattie has been the most impressive player on the team. He has proved that McDavid is not the only Oiler to nab points in bunches, as he has had three games with at least two goals, including a hat trick in a blowout win over Vancouver on Sept. 25. His latest point was an overtime assist to, fittingly, McDavid against Arizona on Sept. 27.
Assuming Rattie has proven his worth to make the roster, the question becomes who should join McDavid and Draisaitl on the top line. If Rattie’s hot preseason becomes a trend, then it would be simple for McLellan to plant Rattie on that line to give the offense a boost early.
The disadvantage of such a combination is that there would be no enforcer on the line, which could result in opponents becoming more aggressive toward McDavid without an immediate consequence. Considering his value to the team, Edmonton can ill-afford to lose McDavid for an extended period of time. Because of this concern, Patrick Maroon was an excellent choice to join the top line before being traded last year. If McLellan wants to continue having an enforcer to protect McDavid, then Zack Kassian or Brodziak are locks for that final spot. This option would especially work if Rattie finds chemistry with second-line center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who has shown some signs of getting hot in recent years.
Draisaitl could also make a solid pairing with fellow German countryman Tobias Rieder, who played for both Arizona and Los Angeles last year, or fellow first round picks Kailer Yamamoto and Jesse Puljujarvi, both of which are expected to have breakout seasons. Ryan Strome, Jujhar Khaira, and Drake Caggiula are all players around the age of 25 who should have opportunities for improved performances.
The offense looks great on paper, but the defense could still use some work. While the Oilers took Evan Bouchard with the 10th overall pick, he is not expected to be ready for this season.
That leaves a lot of second-tier defensemen and the hope for one of them to take the next step. Three of the top defensemen on the roster are first round picks, but none of them have reached those high expectations. Oscar Klefbom looked poised to be a top defenseman after 12 goals and 26 assists in 2016-2017, but he took a step back last season with just 21 points and a +/- of -12. He should still be counted on to turn things around, and there is plenty of upside for a top pairing that would include him and Darnell Nurse. Nurse, drafted seventh overall in 2013, actually had a good year for the Oilers, picking up a career-best 26 points and +/- of 15 while playing in every game. He got a two-year deal to stay in Edmonton over the summer in the hopes that there will be more financial flexibility in 2020 (Remember the Draisaitl and McDavid contracts have made things especially difficult these days).
With New Jersey already dominating Edmonton in the Taylor Hall trade, all Edmonton can do is hope that Adam Larsson can save some of the front office’s dignity. The former fourth overall pick by New Jersey has never been much of a scorer, as his four goals last season tied a career high. He has at least remained respectable in the +/- category, doing nearly as well as Nurse last year and having a combined +36 in his final two seasons with a similarly bad Devils team (although their defense was solid in those years). Still, he would need to have an unusually monstrous year to give Edmonton anything close to what Hall has done for New Jersey.
At least for the beginning, Andrej Sekera, Matthew Benning, and Kris Russell figure to round out the defensive unit, but expect Ethan Bear, Kevin Gravel, and Jakub Jerabek to get their opportunities. Bear was modest in his first NHL action last year, and he would benefit from a team that expected to do much better.
There is no mystery to who figures to get the starts in goal. Cam Talbot and Al Montoya figure to switch off based on performance, but Talbot has the most pressure of any NHL goalie. It seemed like his breakout would last from the team’s playoff run in 2017, but perhaps his heavy usage wore him out this year. He struggled to 31 wins in 67 starts and a GAA north of three, prompting Montoya, who was traded from Montreal, to get more looks.
If Talbot cannot recover, then all of Edmonton will probably start tracking the progress of Stuart Skinner, a third round pick in 2017, and Olivier Rodrigue, a skinny, second round pick from this year.
Prediction: 91 points
They have had a really good year and a really bad year. This season calls for one in the middle. Of course, McDavid will have an influence on making this team better than usual, which makes sense because the Oilers probably would have had a good chance at the first overall pick without him because of the lack of production from the other lines.
The offense should be better, but who will come through is still in question. A stronger year from Nugent-Hopkins, Klefbom, and Nurse would make this team dangerous come March, and Rattie could become a common name in jersey sales if he continues his hot pursuit from preseason. Finally, this team should certainly be playoff bound if Talbot returns to his 2016-2017 ways.
For now, I have Edmonton as a fringe playoff team with some wiggle room depending on the team’s consistency. At the very least, the fans should feel better knowing that there is someone who can be productive other than McDavid and Draisaitl.