Spiralling Oilers already behind the 8 ball in playoff race

Reaching the 95-point mark that tends to be enough for a wild-card berth would require the Oilers to play at a 104-point pace from here on out.

The Edmonton Oilers had a golden opportunity to build a little momentum on Monday night.

A win over the Vancouver Canucks would have provided some payback from a brutal pair of losses by a combined 12-4 score to open the season — and shown that the Oilers can beat a team playing at a high level.

With the hopeless San Jose Sharks coming up on the schedule on Thursday, it also would've given Edmonton an excellent chance of getting a streak going.

To say the team let that chance slip through its fingers would be a bit euphemistic, considering it got pummelled by a 6-2 margin as head coach Jay Woodcroft got ejected.

Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers are in the midst of a nasty rough patch. (Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)
Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers are in the midst of a nasty rough patch. (Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)

To be fair to the Oilers, that score isn't completely reflective of how the game looked. Edmonton outshot the Canucks 43-36 and carried the 5-on-5 play, earning 57.14% of the scoring chances and producing an expected goal rate of 56.91%.

Nothing came of all of that largely due to a standout performance from Canucks goalie Thatcher Demko — who has been incredible so far this season.

While the Oilers aren't getting flummoxed by elite goaltenders on a nightly basis, Monday was a bit of a microcosm of Edmonton's season. Despite the team's high-end skill, Edmonton's team shooting percentage at 5-on-5 is just 6.2% — a number that ranks 27th in the NHL.

The Oilers' opponents aren't having nearly as much difficulty with their shooting, as Edmonton's 5-on-5 save percentage of .888 ranks 30th in the league, and the team's goaltending hasn't come alive on the penalty kill, either, with a .791 mark — good for 29th in the NHL.

Because Edmonton has tended to control the play well and produced a brutal shooting percentage and save percentage, it's easy to see the team as likely to bounce back. That does seem like a probable outcome, as there's no way this roster will generate a .227 points percentage all season long.

While some kind of rebound is sure to happen, the magnitude is what matters. The Oilers' hopes of winning the Pacific Division have effectively evaporated as the Vegas Golden Knights are already 18 points ahead of them.

This start is so bad the Oilers are in "reach the playoffs and hope you get hot" mode less than a month into the season. Even reaching the 95-point mark that tends to be enough for a wild-card berth would require a 104-point pace from here on out.

Winning games at a clip like that is within reach for this team coming off a 109-point campaign, but it's far from a given.

Edmonton's offense will have to drive that turnaround, as the team still has all of the most important pieces that helped it score a league-best 3.96 goals per game last season. The Connor McDavid-Leon Draisaitl duo will need to be among the NHL's best to make that happen, and they haven't been yet from a pure production standpoint.

McDavid has worked around an upper-body injury, but he still ranks 60th in the NHL in points and just 25th in points per game among players who've appeared nine or more times this season.

Draisaitl has been slightly better, but he's still outside the top 15 in points, and 42 players have managed more goals than him this season.

Last season that duo accounted for 35.7% of the Oilers' goals, and so far in 2023-24 that number sits at a modest 18.5%. Put another way, McDavid and Draisaitl combined for 1.4 goals per game in 2022-23 and this season that number sits at 0.64. Even if that's affected slightly by McDavid missing a couple of games, it's still a notable difference.

The good news on this front is that there's overwhelming evidence that these two can get the team's offense humming at an elite level. What's less clear is how the goaltending will shake out.

Not all the goals Edmonton has allowed can be attributed to shaky work in the crease, but the Oilers are an above-average shot-suppression team that has conceded the eighth-fewest high-danger chances in the NHL (123).

Much of the blame lies with the netminders:

While the Oilers are likely to see some positive regression with their goaltenders simply because they've been absurdly inept thus far, it's tough to see a road to a reliable situation between the pipes — even with the team waiving Jack Campbell on Tuesday.

Getting Campbell off the roster opens the door for a new body, but the Oilers aren't brimming with appealing in-house options. They are reportedly planning to call up veteran Calvin Pickard — a 31-year-old with a career GSAA of -25.4 who hasn't played more than six NHL games in a season since 2018-19.

Stuart Skinner is still in the picture, but he's struggled since the 2022-23 playoffs began. He represents Edmonton's best chance for competent goaltending, but he's hardly a sure thing.

Since Connor Hellebuyck signed an extension with the Winnipeg Jets, the trade market for reliable goalies has run dry, too. Most teams with adequate goaltending are in the mix for a playoff spot, and with the rising popularity of tandems, clubs are less inclined to move off of a second goaltender who's performing well.

This is the issue that will be more difficult to solve. Edmonton hasn't suddenly forgotten how to score, but keeping the puck out of its net is a problem with no easy solution.

McDavid, Draisaitl and the Oilers' other offensive weapons are good enough to win some high-scoring games and make it clear this team is better than it's shown so far. But the combination of a brutal start and its leaky goaltending could do a great deal to hold this team back.