In the weeks leading up to the start of the season I’ve taken the time to come up with a few things that will have to happen in order for the Oilers to return to the post season for the first time since 2006. Making the playoffs is a stated goal of Taylor Hall’s and I assume of the franchise as well, despite a numbers of moves, or in some cases a lack of moves, which make me question just how committed to that goal they really are.
The idea of these posts was to provide a bit of a blue print that would take the team from last in the Western Conference to eighth or better. To date I’ve looked at four things: being better against the Northwest Division, a change in the Oilers number one goalie, getting off to better starts, and staying healthy (we’re not even finished with the preseason yet and the Oilers are struggling on this front). As I see it, the final piece of the puzzle will be for Hall, Jordan Eberle, and Magnus Paajarvi to avoid any kind of sophomore slump.
Last season the Oilers struggled to score goals. In the end the Oilers managed to score just 191 goals, a total good for a 27th place tie with the Panthers; only the Senators and Devils scored less. That the Oilers had issues scoring goals last season wasn’t all that surprising considering the opening night roster included three rookies among the team’s forwards, all of whom were given prominent roles and relied heavily on. It’s likely that any team that chooses to rely heavily on rookies to provide offense is going to struggle, and the Oilers were no different.
Fast forward to this season, replace Dustin Penner with Ryan Smyth, add in Eric Belanger, and this year’s forwards look a lot like last year’s forwards just one year older. Knowing that the offense struggled last season, it’s not completely unforeseeable that they could struggle this season as well. But struggling offensively won’t be good for the Oilers playoff chances. If they’re going to make the playoffs they’re going to need to score more and for that to happen they’re going to need full seasons from their best offensive players and they’re going to need last season’s rookies to produce more offense.
How much improvement should be expected from Hall, Eberle, and Paajarvi though? Is it reasonable to expect all three of them to score more this season than they did last year? To get an idea of how much, or even if, any improvement should be expected I used hockey-reference.com to find some similar players. The list below include all the players since the 2000/01 season who played their rookie season at 20 years old or younger and scored between 0.4 and 0.7 points per game in their rookie season. I’ve limited the list to include on those players that played 25 or more games in both their first and second seasons in the NHL.
|Player||Rookie Season||Sophmore Season||DIFF||PTS|
|James van Riemsdyk||78||35||0.45||75||40||0.53||0.08||7|
Interestingly no team has more players on that list than the Oilers who have four. Of the 36 players on the list 15 of them, including three of the four Oilers, scored at a lower per game rate in their second season in the NHL than they did as a rookie. With top ten picks like Mueller and Staal near the bottom of the list it certainly appears that sophomore slumps can happen to any player, not just those considered to be something less than a top prospect.
It's easy to say that each of the Oiler rookies from last season will be better this year because they're a year older and wiser, but considering that two out of five players with similar first year production saw a decline in their sophomore season it’s not unlikely that one of Hall, Eberle, or Paajarvi suffers a similar decline this season. Having made the decision to again depend heavily on very yong hockey players the Oilers are taking a big risk because, for a team that doesn’t score much to begin with any decline in production would be very detrimental to the goal of making the playoffs. Avoiding any sophomore slumps will be critical for the Oilers this year.