Everyone in Edmonton is hoping for a bounce-back season.
The Oilers had just 78 points for the year, finishing 15 back of the last playoff spot, with three Western Conference teams between themselves and the playoffs. This despite a 108-point season from shoulda-been-MVP Connor McDavid. This despite the team finishing second in the Pacific with 103 points just a season before.
And in a lot of ways, the Oilers seemed like a pretty good bounce-back candidate even to impartial outsiders. Cam Talbot had the worst season of his career, for one thing. Plus Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Adam Larsson, Andrej Sekera, and Oscar Klefbom all missed good-sized chunks of the season.
Plus they brought in Tobias Rieder who seems like an okay bet as a middle-six contributor, as well as imported a KHL goalie with a solid track record, and bought out Eric Gryba, who was horrible last season. A full season of Pontus Aberg, maybe Kailer Yamamoto, and the maturation of Jesse Puljujarvi could also be big helps in boosting the Oilers’ non-McDavid offense. (If you couldn’t tell, the Oilers’ real problems offensively came on the wings.)
When one also considers the improbably good seasons out of Vegas, Los Angeles, and maybe even Anaheim, it’s easy to see the Oilers making up a good chunk of the ground they lost last year and getting back into the playoff conversation. Not that anyone was banking (you’d hope) on another 100-point season but being competitive would have been a big improvement. Of course, much like a lot of stuff went wrong last season, a lot of stuff would have to go right this time around.
Which is where Andrej Sekera’s potentially season-ending injury, suffered in training recently, becomes a potentially big problem right off the bat.
Again, you’re likely to get full seasons of still-improving young defenders like Klefbom and Darnell Nurse, and Larsson, if healthy, should be near his career peak performance. Absorbing the loss, potentially for the full 82, of a very solid middle-pairing defender like Sekera is a huge blow, even if he is a left shot guy on a team already loaded with them.
There are some solid enough stop-gap options on the free agent market, for sure. And the Oilers might want to consider trading for some of the higher-end young defenders that are rumored to be on the trade block. Simply put, you can’t go into the season with a neck-and-neck race between Kris Russell and Matt Benning as your fourth-best defender. One might, I guess, point out that a guy like William Lagesson, who played in Sweden last season and is already 22, or Evan Bouchard might be an okay fill-in farther down the roster.
But it’s tough to argue that the loss of Sekera in and of itself is the huge issue the Oilers face. The lack of impact defensemen on the team as a whole is the bigger issue. We’ve seen it time and again: Teams with good forward groups end up struggling because they don’t have anyone who can go back, get the puck, and transition it into the neutral and offensive zones fluidly. Last season I talked a lot about how McDavid can be that kind of full 200-foot player, meaning defenders don’t have to be relied upon to carry the puck when he’s on the ice, but he’s only on the ice for about 21 minutes a night.
That leaves you 39 in which you don’t have a reliable retrieve-and-carry guy, which is what’s going to hamstring you long-term. And if you can’t forecheck — the Oilers definitely couldn’t, largely because their wings were terrible last year — you can’t prevent the other team from breaking it out with ease.
All of which increases the workload for your goalie. I don’t think it’s a coincidence Talbot’s performance last year suffered so mightily after he appeared in 86 games between the regular season and playoffs in 2016-17. It’s too big a workload, and he still played 67 games last season (facing only about 500 fewer shots from the year before), which leads one to wonder if this now over-30 goalie has simply been ground into dust.
To go from .920 goaltending to .908 in a single offseason happens, sure, but outside factors like overuse — Talbot is third in minutes and second in shots faced over the last two seasons, regular- and postseasons inclusive — are big red flags. Put another way, if Talbot hadn’t been .919 two seasons ago, do the Oilers even get close to 100 points? Probably not. So even if he’s just average this coming season, their odds of returning to the playoffs are shaky. That is, unless Mikko Koskinen (coming off huge career KHL numbers, not that those necessarily mean anything) can lighten his load, potentially significantly.
Let’s make it clear: If you think replacing Sekera is the big hurdle, Toby Enstrom is right there bobbing around in the UFA pool on Aug. 17, waiting for a one-year deal. Those two players are probably about the same in terms of quality.
Even in an ideal situation, the Oilers needed a lot more than 82 games from their No. 3/4 defenseman to be better this season. Just because Sekera played less than half of last season doesn’t mean his return was going to fix all the problems they ran into.
One imagines that the Oilers are being given something of a mulligan after last season. Really good year through McDavid playing the full 82 and Talbot standing on his head literally almost every game. Then a step back, seemingly because a lot of key players were hurt for large portions of the season. We’ve seen it before, but that allows teams to get away with being a little less introspective than they perhaps ought to be. Peter Chiarelli could go to his bosses and say, “Well look at the man-games lost, especially on the blue line.” The Oilers took a big step back last year and maybe a medium-sized step forward again this summer.
Still leaves them well short of where people probably think they “ought to be,” but then again the Pacific seems like a disaster area for 2018-19, so who knows?
You’d hesitate to say the Sekera injury, for what could be the entire season, is going to be a similarly damaging blow if everyone else can stay healthy. But maybe we’re only dealing with diminished expectations that, perhaps, shouldn’t have been as high as they were in the first place.
While Sekera’s loss certainly doesn’t help, there are bigger issues throughout the roster, and perhaps behind the bench, that remain unaddressed. Adding a few okay depth wingers and a backup goaltender don’t paper them over.
All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.