A couple of weeks ago I started looking at the key things the Oilers needed to do this season in order to make the playoffs. This endeavor came as a result of comments made by Taylor Hall where he said that he feels the playoffs were a realistic goal for this year's version of the Oilers. Personally, the phrase "snowball's chance in hell" comes to mind when I think about the Oilers chances of making the playoffs this season but I can't deny that it could happen. And to be totally truthful I really want it to happen.
Obviously the Oilers will need to be much improved over last season in order to make the playoffs, and to date, I've identified three things I see as key to achieving that goal: playing better against the Northwest Division, more starts for Devan Dubnyk and less for Nikolai Khabibulin, and scoring first. Combined, those factors could be worth six to eight more wins this season over last, likely not enough to make the playoffs but certainly an improvement. But if you've watched the Oilers closely over the last couple of years you know the same as I do that the most important factor in the Oilers making the playoffs will be to stay healthy.
Of course injuries will happen over the course of an 82 game season. Hockey is a physically demanding game and injuries are part of the game and there is nothing anyone can do about that. But over the last few seasons the Oilers have had more than their fair share of injuries. The last five seasons have been the most injury-filled based on man games lost in the Oilers 32 years in the NHL with an average of 334 games per season. Looking at those numbers you certainly aren't alone if you think that the Oilers are due for a break, so to speak, when it come to injuries.
Because injuries happen to every team there isn't much the Oilers can do as a team to avoid injuries but there is a lot they can do to limit their impact. By being better at injury diagnosis and treatment, things the team has struggled with recently, they can limit the amount of time players spend away from the ice. For a team with almost no depth - that has chosen to ignore depth options - any injury is going to have a significant impact on the team's on-ice fortunes, so getting players healthy and back into the lineup will be of critical importance.
When it comes to injuries the Oilers could also use a little bit of luck. While injuries may happen to every team that doesn't mean they have to happen to your best players each and every year. If the Oilers could catch a break and get mostly healthy seasons (you know you're an Oiler fan when you default to "mostly healthy" as a goal) out of Ales Hemsky and Ryan Whitney, their best forward and defenseman, the Oilers will absolutely be an improved team this season over last.
The table below shows the Oilers with and without you numbers for Hemsky and Whitney over the last two seasons. Whitney's numbers are from the day he was acquired on.
|GP||W||L||O||PTS %||GF/GP||GA/GP||G DIFF|
Looking at the numbers it's clear that the Oilers are a better team - 0.3 goals per game better - when Whitney plays but with Hemsky the numbers tell a slightly different story. I'm a firm believer in Hemsky, and like Derek, I believe he's a premier player in the NHL, but if that's true then why are the WOWY numbers what they are? The most likely reason is the Khabibulin factor. Khabibulin has started in 55.1% of the games Hemsky has played in over the last two years; by comparison, in the games Hemsky has missed Khabibulin has been the starter just 27.3% of the time. More than anything Hemsky has likely been the victim of bad goaltending.
Making the playoffs and staying healthy are tied together for this Oilers team. For this to happen the Oilers medical staff will need to be better, but the Oilers will still need a little bit of luck too. One of the few "knows" in the NHL is that good teams have good players; Hemsky and Whitney are good players and they need to be in the lineup more often than not if the Oilers are going to have any chance at making the playoffs.