Last week I outlined why I think the Oilers are the odds on favorite to once again finish last in the Western Conference this season. In an interview with the Edmonton Sun, Taylor Hall laid out his thoughts on the upcoming season and not only does he disagree with me that the Oilers will finish last, he thinks that the playoffs are a realistic goal for the team. While I don't share Hall's optimistic outlook on the Oilers' likely fortunes this season I do hope that he's right because watching wins is a lot more fun than watching losses.
In the spirit of August optimism, then, I think it's time to look at a few things that need to happen for the Oilers to be anywhere near playoff contention as the season nears it's conclusion. One of the things that I think will be a key factor in the Oilers climbing the standings and making a run at the playoffs this season is being better against their Northwest Division rivals.
In the Northwest Division, the Oilers' rivals include one of the best teams in the NHL in the Vancouver Canucks but also three other teams that missed the playoffs last season. When Scott checked in on the teams in the Northwest he found that the Canucks are still very good but that the Flames, Wild, and Avalanche haven't improved significantly during the off-season. If those three teams haven't improved much, if at all, that is good news for the Oilers as they play each one of them six times, and nothing helps a team move up the standings like taking advantage of other bad hockey teams.
Last year the Oilers won just six games against the other teams in the Northwest Division; they fared best against the Avalanche, posting a 3-0-3 record; two late season wins against the Canucks were all the Oilers managed against the eventual Stanley Cup finalists; after a win on opening night against Calgary it went all downhill from there; and the Wild outright blanked the Oilers. Thanks to Bettman points the Oilers got 17 out of a possible 48 points, while their opponents got 36; without a doubt there is room for improvement. Overall, the Oilers were 27th in the league against the Northwest; only the Thrashers, Avalanche and Senators were worse.
If the Oilers could improve to even .500 within their division that would give them an extra seven points in the standings. That's not nearly enough to get them into the playoffs but every little bit helps. Shifting a couple of the overtime/shootout loses into the win column would also help the Oilers out by dropping those teams above them in the standings back a bit too. Again, every little bit helps. Combine those points with the 17 available if the Oilers were to get just average goaltending (a longshot at best) and 86 points is much closer to Hall's goal. Add two points for a full season of Ales Hemsky and two more for a full season of Ryan Whitney and all of a sudden...
Back to the division -- improving from a .354 record inside the division to .500 won't be easy. That the Oilers have to play Vancouver six times doesn't make it any easier, but by repeating last year's success against Vancouver (if you can really call a 2-4-0 record a success) the Oilers would be well on their way to .500. Would two wins versus Vancouver and a combined 10-8 record against the Flames, Wild, and Avalanche be that outrageous to aim for?
It must start against Minnesota and Calgary. The Oilers should be embarrassed about their combined 1-11 record against the two and they get a chance to right things in the first two weeks of the season -- they play twice against the Wild and once against the Flames. If Hall wants to back up his words, he has an early stage to do it. Toss in two against the Canucks and one more against the Avalanche and October is packed with divisional games and an early opportunity to address some grievances.
A lot of things will need to go right for the Oilers in order for them to be anywhere near the playoffs. Achieving a better divisional record is a good place to start.