In the weeks leading up to the start of the season I looked at five things the Oilers would need to do better this season if they were going to make the playoffs. I did this because Taylor Hall had said that he felt the playoffs were a realistic goal for the Oilers this season. Personally I didn't think the Oilers had a snowball's chance in hell of making the playoffs. While I didn't agree with Hall, after watching five years of bad hockey I really wanted him to be right, and so became a list of things that would need to change for the Oilers to make the playoffs.
In all I came up with five key things the Oilers would need to improve upon if they were going to make the playoffs: being better against the Northwest Division, a change in the Oilers number one goalie, getting off to better starts, and staying healthy, and having Hall, Jordan Eberle, and Magnus Paajarvi avoid any kind of sophomore slumps. With a quarter of the season now in the books I felt now seemed like a good time to take at how the Oilers doing in these areas and who might be right: me or Hall.
Being Better Against The Northwest Division - After six wins against their divisional opponents all of last season it would, in many ways, be tough not to improve in this aspect. Conveniently the Oilers have played exactly one-quarter of their games against the Northwest Division at the one-quarter point of the season, posting a 2-2-2 record. If not for blown third period leads against the Flames and Wild in back-to-back games the Oilers record against the Northwest could be much better. If projected over a full season the Oilers would finish with 24 points in divisional games, a seven point improvement over last season which is exactly what I had hoped for. Interestingly the Avalanche who were the worst team in the league against the Northwest Division last season are 0-5-0 this season. And you thought the Oilers struggled in their division.
A Change In The Number One Goalie - Before the season started I said that "if Devan Dubnyk can improve on his numbers from last season even slightly and can prove capable of handling the role of the number one goalie, while Nikolai Khabibulin improves to just terrible from atrocious then perhaps the Oilers could squeeze another three or four wins out of their netminders." So far this season I don't think Dubnyk has proven capable of handling the role of the number one goalie yet but Khabibulin's resurgence has been remarkable. Not every night has been good but Khabibulin has been significantly better than last season and is a big reason why the Oilers have been as good as they've been through the season's first 20 games. I don't think Khabibulin will continue to play at the level we saw early in the season but hopefully he can continue to be improved over the train wreck we watched last season.
Getting Off To Better Starts - Last season the Oilers score the first goal of the hockey game only 32 times, a total better than only the Islanders. This season they've improved, scoring first 50% of the time through the first 20 games. The Oilers have also seen better results when scoring first this season posting a 0.700 winning percentage and a 0.800 points percentage, compared to 0.563 and 0.656 last season. I noticed before the season that of the 16 teams that scored first most often, 14 made the playoffs. The Oilers numbers to date compare very favourably to those teams which is certainly encouraging.
Staying Healthy - Injuries have been a recurring theme during the last five seasons as the team has averaged 334 man games lost to injury over that time and coincidentally has failed to make the playoffs in each season. Two players I felt that the Oilers needed to stay healthy more than anyone else were Ales Hemsky and Ryan Whitney; So far neither has stayed healthy with Hemsky missing 11 games with a shoulder injury and Whitney missing 15 games and counting recovering from ankle surgery and then a knee injury. Although the Oilers went 7-3-1 during Hemsky's absence, injuries to Cam Barker, Andy Sutton, and Corey Potter in addition to Whitney has turned the Oilers blue line into a MASH unit forcing the Oilers to recall Jeff Petry, Alex Plante, Colten Teubert, and Taylor Chorney from Oklahoma City for stints with the big club. Petry belonged in Edmonton all along in my opinion but none of that group has played more than 60 games in the NHL. They are a very inexperienced group and that inexperince will likely catch up to the Oilers very soon if they can't shake the injury bug.
Avoiding Sophomore Slumps - When I looked at players since 2000/01 that had a similar rookie season to those of Hall, Eberle, and Paajarvi I found that almost half scored less the following season. Through 20 games that hasn't been the case with two of the Oilers three sophomores. Hall and Eberle have increased on their points per game rates from last year - if Eberle's rate holds it would be fifth biggest increase since the 2000/01 season - while Paajarvi has fallen off the map with a single assist in 17 games and has been a healthy scratch three times. The Oilers have been able to remain competitive because they've been getting significant offensive contributions Ryan Smyth and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who both have 20 points this season, but the lack of secondary scoring is something that could hurt the Oilers going forward. Getting Paajarvi off his sophomore slump and back on track by using him in better situations would be a way to rectify the situation.
The Oilers have surprised just about everyone with their start to the season. They've won ten times and are above the Gary Bettman version of .500 but still find themselves outside of a playoff spot as it stands right now. At their current pace the Oilers will finish with 90 points, a number likely not high enough to make the playoffs but a 45% improvement over the Oilers point total in each of the last two seasons. As a team they've managed to do some very good things this season and have improved in a three of the areas I felt they needed to. If they can keep that up and shake the injury bug while getting some scoring out of Paajarvi there is a sliver of hope that Hall could be right about this team making the playoffs. I really want him to be right.