Oilers panic feeling more rational than usual amid rough start to NHL season

The Edmonton Oilers tend to attract a certain level of alarmism, but this time the worry around the team seems justified.

Sitting 1-4-1 with Connor McDavid dealing with an injury, the Edmonton Oilers are not in a good place right now.

It's impossible to find yourself in an insurmountable hole this early in the season, but things could not be going much worse for Edmonton.

This is a team that entered the season looking like a top Stanley Cup contender has collected a grand total of three points in six games (with a minus-10 goal differential) despite only one of them coming against a 2022-23 playoff team. That club was the Winnipeg Jets, who got the final spot in the Western Conference by two points last season.

McDavid being out 1-2 weeks is an issue for the Oilers, but the biggest single problem for Edmonton is between the pipes. The combination of Jack Campbell and Stuart Skinner have produced an abominable .856 save percentage despite taking up the fifth-most salary cap space of any goaltender group.

The Oilers are in disarray after a 1-4-1 start. (Bruce Kluckhohn/NHLI via Getty Images)
The Oilers are in disarray after a 1-4-1 start. (Bruce Kluckhohn/NHLI via Getty Images)

Those two are sure to improve to some degree, but they combined for a slightly below-average .903 mark last season before a playoff crease dominated by Skinner produced a save percentage of .894.

It's possible to mitigate unimpressive goaltending, but this team hasn't done so yet — and its offensive performance (2.83 goals/game) against mediocre opposition is a concern.

It's too early to make definitive statements about where this team is headed, but those prone to panic might just be on to something.

Below is a brief summary of the issues facing the Oilers.

The McDavid factor

While there's a lack of clarity surrounding McDavid's injury, chances are it's not a significant long-term issue. The NHL's best player hasn't even been firmly ruled out of the Heritage Classic on Sunday, so there's reason for optimism about a relatively aggressive timeline.

The only real worry with McDavid is if there's some kind of setback, re-injury or limiting factor. Even if the superstar is able to play soon, if he's unable to be at his best that's a problem for the Oilers.

Chances are this is something that is adding consternation to the current difficult moment for Edmonton that isn't a long-term worry for the team.

The goaltending

McDavid may be fine soon, the goaltending situation is less certain to be OK. Some positive regression is likely, but their current tandem has a troubling recent track record.

Skinner is hardly proven with just 63 starts under his belt, and since the beginning of the 2023 calendar year he has a .897 save percentage in 42 appearances (including the playoffs). Meanwhile, Campbell's save percentage since the beginning of 2022 (also including playoffs) sits at .892 in 77 games.

Neither of these guys has put together a sustained run of success in quite some time. With the firepower the Oilers have, neither needs to be Ilya Sorokin, but at least one will have to be adequate to get Edmonton where it wants to go.

The Oilers aren't the only team with goaltending concerns, and the trade market doesn't seem to be brimming with viable options. As existential threats to Edmonton's 2023-24 campaign go, subpar netminding is firmly atop the list.

The size of the hole

We don't tend to consider six games as a season-defining stretch, but margins are slim in the NHL and the Oilers have indisputably tanked 7.3% of their 2023-24 campaign.

Last season it took 95 points to reach the Western Conference playoffs, which was roughly in line with what we've seen in recent full seasons when that number has fluctuated between 90 and 97.

Taking 95 as a reasonable goal, the Oilers would need to accumulate 92 points in the next 76 games to earn their spot. That's a 99-point pace over 82 games, which should be attainable for a squad that topped 100 in each the past two seasons.

The upcoming schedule

The section above could easily look worse in the weeks to come based on the schedule the Oilers have ahead. It's not a murderer's row of squads by any means, but there is a definite lack of get-right spots against cellar dwellers over the next dozen games.

  • Oct. 26 vs. Rangers

  • Oct. 29 vs. Flames

  • Nov. 2 vs. Stars

  • Nov 4. vs. Predators

The Rangers and Stars are both significant powers within their respective conferences. The Flames and Predators don't fit that description, but both are excellent possession squads that rank in the NHL's top five in expected goal percentage at 5v5.

Edmonton earned its only win against Nashville, but it needed a rare effort from Campbell (43 saves on 44 shots) to get that done.

  • Nov. 6 @ Canucks

  • Nov. 9 @ Sharks

  • Nov. 11 @ Kraken

  • Nov. 13 vs. Islanders

The Sharks game is one the Oilers can circle on the calendar, but going to Vancouver won't be a treat considering Edmonton has already lost two games to the Canucks by a combined score of 12-4. The Kraken are off to a slower start, but their offence has woken up lately. The Islanders are a middleweight, but their goaltending can always steal a game.

Although this is the easiest part of Edmonton's upcoming schedule, three of the games are on the road and only one comes against a truly weak opponent.

  • Nov 15 vs. Kraken

  • Nov. 18 @ Lightning

  • Nov. 20 @ Panthers

  • Nov. 22 @ Hurricanes

A home game against the Kraken isn't too bad, but that southeast road trip has potential to be brutal. In all only three of those games come against teams that missed the playoffs last year — and two of the squads that missed (the Flames and Predators) did so by three or fewer points and are playing elite possession hockey in 2023-24.

It's not going to be an easy time to make up ground.

Reasons for hope

The biggest reason for optimism with Edmonton is that the goaltending is due for some kind of bounce-back, even if it's modest, and the play in front of those netminders has often been fine. Edmonton ranks 10th in the NHL in xGF% at 5v5 (53.33%) and fourth in high-danger chance percentage (57.27%).

Fundamentally sound 5v5 play in conjunction with a power play that was historic last season should be enough to get this team on a roll at some point.

That will take McDavid at his best to achieve, and the team won't be able to sleepwalk to the playoffs at this point. Getting a decent seed will be a tall order, which could make their road difficult — assuming they reach the postseason. Managing even a 100-point campaign will take a 104.7-point pace, and catching up to a Vegas Golden Knights team that's already 11 points up to win the division already seems out of reach.

Worrying the Oilers are going to completely crash and burn may be premature, but there's legitimate reason to believe they're in for a tough fight from here. After just six games it's fair to say they look like less of a threat than they did at the beginning of the season.