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Keeping Score: Oilers playoff-bound?

It’s officially been a decade of playoff-less hockey for Edmonton Oiler fans. That’s ten whole years of reluctantly skimming through playoff brackets to select a consolation team. Relatively speaking, though, that’s not that long of a drought. The Chicago Cubs, also hoping to snap a dirty streak this year, haven’t won a World Series title since 1908. Albeit they’ve made the playoffs and have played in the Series in that span but generations of Cubs fans have been born and died without tasting the glory that gives eternal worth to being a sports fan. So, will Oiler Nation inch closer to a skid that’s really worth crying about, or will this be the year Edmonton returns to its playoff mantle? These amateurs think they have the answer …

Connor O’Donovan, Sports Editor

Seeing as hockey, like sports in general, has become a numbers game, let’s start with a look at the Oilers’ performance last year.

In 2015-16, while playing at even strength, the 29th-place Oilers scored 133 goals and allowed 167 for an even strength “goals for percentage” of 44. League wide, they’re ranked 24th in that category. However, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Oscar Klefbom were both injured at the time Connor McDavid came back, so we can predict that having all three of those key players healthy at the same time will improve the Oilers’ goal differentials and overall point performance.

Only eight teams make the playoffs in each conference, though, and the bottom line is that the Oilers need to score a lot more this year if they want to be in that top eight. The actions GM Peter Chiarelli has taken in the offseason might improve the team enough to put them in the wild card race, but they won’t be enough to guarantee the Oilers a playoff spot.

Let’s start with the infamous Hall-Larsson trade that rocked the Oiler fanbase in late June. That trade lost the Oil their best performer in the fashionable Corsi category (shots on net plus shots missing net plus shots blocked) and gained them an unproven defenceman with a Corsi score less than any of the other five defencemen that will likely make up the Oilers top six. Larsson is a big boy and fits in amongst a family of wide waistlines on the Oilers back end but size doesn’t mean a whole lot when it doesn’t result in shots on goal.

Edmonton was lucky enough to draft Swedish forward Jesse Puljujarvi, named MVP of the 2016 World Junior Championships after leading all skaters with 12 assists and 17 points. Moving to the NHL will be a big step for Puljujarvi and though he should round out into a high-output player in the near future, it’s unlikely his impact will be significant this season.

The best received of Chiarelli’s blockbuster offseason transactions was the signing of left-winger Milan Lucic. Remember when it was reported he was touring Rogers Place? Oh, the delight! The signing made Hall-for- Larsson look more like Hall-for-Lucic (the Oilers will pay Larsson $2 million less than they would have paid Hall) which was nice for fans and Lucic’s size and force should result in more offensive opportunities for McDavid and Jordan Eberle, his likely linemates. He’ll struggle to replace Hall’s output though, let alone exceed it.

Finally, we had the recent dealing of our ill-fated Nail Yakupov to St. Louis for next to nothing. As talented and enthusiastic as that steely-eyed Russian might be (he actually ranked second on the Oilers in shots per 60 minutes played), he had trouble contributing to plays that put pucks in the net. This could be seen as a good move but Yakupov’s shot output suggests he is capable of higher output than he has produced. Chiarelli also signed defenceman Kris Russell recently. Russell will help block shots and kill penalties but, again, the difference on the Oilers stat sheet over 82 games will barely be noticeable.

Like I said, these moves won’t put the Oilers in a playoff position, especially since the remaining players on the team will have trouble keeping up with overall talent inflation in the Western Conference and Pacific Division. The teams the Oilers would be competing against in a wildcard race – Calgary Flames, Chicago Blackhawks, Winnipeg Jets – are full of improving talent. Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau will light the lamp in Calgary. Artemi Panarin is looking prime to complement the stoic output of Chicago’s established stalwarts. Mark Scheifele, Patrik Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers will all help the Jets improve. Even if McDavid, say, can increase the Oilers’ 2016-17 output by 30 goals, the team will only still be hovering around the midpoint in goals for percentage.

So, are the Oilers going to make the playoffs this year? Some people are genuinely convinced that they will (Michael Menzies) but that’s one bandwagon I won’t jump on. The Oil will circle the promised land like Anthony Henday enthusiasts, but they’ll fail to take the exit towards the NHL’s creamy nougat centre.

Michael Menzies, Assistant Sports Editor

This is the year the Oilers make the leap.

I was seven when the Edmonton Oilers last made the playoffs.

Seven. Years. Old.

I have vague recollections of Oiler playoff hockey, Fernando Pisani going top cheddar on Cam Ward shorthanded in overtime in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final. Blurs and foggy memories cloud my brain so much that I can’t be sure it even happened. For the most part, I have lived an Oiler-free playoff existence. My years of biggest fandom, wasted on a rebuild with too many unanswered questions, led many to wonder in the first place – why do we even care this much about the team anymore? Oiler fans care more than they should and, finally, I’m ready to declare the Edmonton Oilers ready to earn a berth into the playoffs.

The Oilers roster finally has a makeup you can envision competing night in, night out for 82 games. They have the most skilled skater in the NHL – ready to prove he is that – Connor McDavid, who, if healthy, could receive both Art Ross and Hart Trophy votes. An experienced NHL first line of Lucic-McDavid-Eberle followed up with skilled centres Leon Draitsitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the forward core has not been the issue for many years. Plus, they finally have the appropriate size to compete in the heaviest division in the league. Milan Lucic, Patrick Maroon, Zach Kassian, Leon Draitsitl, Adam Larsson, Benoit Pouliot and newly drafted Jesse Puljujarvi all top over six foot two and 215 pounds.

With the work they’ve done ending the Nail Yakupov debacle and using that new cap space to sign a proven pro defenceman, Kris Russell, the Edmonton Oilers have the pieces in place to jump start a playoff push and, more important, the consistent work ethic needed to compete in the NHL on a night by night basis.

The defence still needs a bit of work, but they got their right shot D-man and, for now, it looks serviceable for the season. Questions remain about Oscar Klefbom’s ability to stay healthy and Darnell Nurse’s development to be the top pair rearguard he was scouted as. A lot also weighs on the shoulders of the most important player in a game – the goaltender. Cam Talbot was decent for his first full year of starting NHL contests. Is there potential for even more growth? Perhaps there is if the defence is stouter but if he puts up similar numbers and finds a way to stop the Charmin-soft goal from going in every now and again, the Oiler brass will be happy.

A lot also weighs on the shoulders of the most important player in a game – the goaltender. Cam Talbot was decent for his first full year of starting NHL contests. Is there potential for even more growth? Perhaps there is if the defence is stouter but if he puts up similar numbers and finds a way to stop the Charmin-soft goal from going in every now and again, the Oiler brass will be happy.

The California teams haven’t been this weak for years, which is another reason for optimism. Now, the San Jose Sharks are coming off a Final visit but the Los Angeles Kings were exposed last year as a lethargic, slower team than the one of old. Their defensive corps isn’t as solid as before and once past the anchors of Drew Doughty and Jake Muzzin, the names become pedestrian. And despite the Ducks appearing to be chock-full of talent, the tension seems high already for a consistently underachieving playoff team. Couple that with a new (old) coach Randy Carlyle, who replaces the canned Bruce Boudreau, excitement is tepid for a team that is also dangerously close to the salary cap limit.

As all major pro sports go, the teams that stay the healthiest often end up doing the best. Hockey is, of course, no exception. If there are injuries, the Oilers are more equipped to deal with them than in the past. The general manager in his second season wants to make this team succeed just as much as the loyal (for the Oil) fans. I say with a stroke of luck and a largely healthy year down the stretch, the Oilers will end an 11-year playoff drought this spring and finish third in the Pacific Division.

Image from ducks.ice.nhl.com

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