Later today SB Nation will be unveiling their NHL 2015/16 season preview, and as part of that effort we've been asked to identify three of the biggest questions facing the Edmonton Oilers as they enter this season, a season with more optimism than we've seen in Edmonton in a long, long time. Let’s see if we can’t try to answer these questions.
1. How good will Connor McDavid be?
It’s unfair to say that the fate of the Oilers season is entirely in the hands of an 18 year old kid who’s never played a game in the NHL, but there is a little bit of truth in there as well. Where the Oilers find themselves at the end of the season, whether it be basking in the glory of a post season birth or just having played meaningful games in November and beyond, is going to depend in large part on just how good Connor McDavid will be in his rookie season.
There haven’t been many constants in Edmonton over the last nine seasons, aside from the losing of course, but the team’s lack of depth at nearly every position has been one of the few constants that the team’s fans have been "treated" to in recent years. Before the team is ever going to be able to take a significant step forward - we're not even talking playoffs here, just not last place hockey - the issue of depth, or the lack thereof, needs to be addressed.
Last season the team’s inability, or perhaps unwillingness, to address the lack of depth at centre led to Leon Draisaitl spending half the season doing his very best to play a role that he simply wasn’t ready for, and was one of the big reasons why the Oilers found themselves in a position to draft McDavid when the season ended. Four ping pong balls on an evening in April changed all of that. Now the Oilers have actual depth at centre and a forwards corps that looks damn near decent from top to bottom.
But still a lot hinges on Connor McDavid and how he handles the jump to the pro game. Should the team expect him to be a point per game player? Probably not, but he should be within shouting distance of a number like that, especially if Todd McLellan can get all the talent on the Oilers power play to find the back of the net a little more often. Scoring 70 to 75 points to go along with possession numbers that improve throughout the season as he adjusts to the speed of the pro game aren’t unrealistic expectations. And for a teenager that’s pretty damn good.
2. Is Cam Talbot the answer to the Oilers problems in net?
In each of the last two season the Oilers have been all but eliminated from the playoffs around the same time that kids in your neighbourhood head out to trick or treat. A big reason, probably the biggest reason for that has been lackluster goaltending. Devan Dubnyk in 2013/14 and Ben Scrivens in 2014/15 both provided the Oilers with goaltending that would at best be described as terrible. And at worst, well, this is a family site so we won't go down that road.
Was this because they're bad goalies? Was it because they were just having bad seasons? Or was it because even the very best goalies in the league would have looked average (or worse) behind the Oilers defence? The answer could be any of those three. It could also be a little of each. It doesn't really matter much though, the bottom line is that the goaltending simply wasn't good enough. And that's why Peter Chiarelli traded three draft picks to the New York Rangers for Cam Talbot, to try and find goaltending that doesn't end the season before it starts.
With Talbot having started only 53 games in the NHL it's fair to ask if this is just a repeat of Scrivens and Dubnyk, where a goalie with limited experience is handed the reins, only to fall on his face. That could happen because goalies are voodoo and really none of us know what makes them tick. In the case of Talbot though that's probably an unlikely outcome. Whether you want to look at the work of Woodguy or Nick Mercadante there are plenty of reasons to think that the Oilers have landed themselves a goalie on the rise and a player that will deliver many more good nights than bad. Don't just take my word for it though, allow Mr. Mercadante to tell you what he saw from Talbot in New York.
I don't think Talbot's performance this season was smoke and mirrors. He is a refined goaltender, showing all the markings of [Benoit] Allaire's instruction. Economy of movement, relying on line of sight, positioning, and freeing up his stance and arms to react, instead of tightly balling up his stance as he did a bit more when he was younger. He is a different goaltender than Lundqvist, who stays farther back in his net than anyone else can, and is a marvel in his reflexes and reaction. But Talbot plays a very clean, very repeatable style. He anticipates well, squares up to most shots he can track and see, and as a result controls his rebounds. He rarely beats himself. All reports of his temperament say that he is easy-going and unflappable. Those are all things that contribute to consistency of performance. Attributes of a solid starting goaltender.
3. With a new General Manager and a new coach, will the results finally match expectations?
The Oilers like to honour their ex-players. They're far from the only team in the league to do this. In Edmonton's case though, the slogan "once an Oiler, always an Oiler" also seems to come with some fine print guaranteeing a lifetime job somewhere in the team's management structure regardless of your qualifications. From the President of Hockey Operations down through the ranks to the scouts you could find ex-Oilers everywhere. If the team is winning this method of constructing an organization might not be a concern. But when was the last time the Oilers were winning?
In the wake of the McDavid miracle fans in Edmonton found themselves looking at a new and suddenly more beautiful world when Bob Nicholson, Peter Chiarelli, and Todd McLellan were brought in and lifetime appointees Kevin Lowe and Craig MacTavish were reassigned. It was the change that fans wanted but will the results be any different? The expectations are higher than they've been in years, probably higher than they've been at any point since training camp 2006 (how depressing is that?), will the new bosses be able to deliver results that come close to matching those expectations? So far I would say that the early results are encouraging.
With guaranteed contracts and the limitations of a salary cap it's nearly impossible for a General Manager to overhaul a team in a single offseason. I haven't loved everything that Chiarelli has done since taking the wheel but he's done more good than bad. Since taking over he's improved the goaltending and the coaching staff, I'm not sold on his tinkering with the forwards and I think he could have done a little more with the defence, but all in all I think the team is in a better place now that it was when he took over. And the biggest reason for that might be his hiring of Todd McLellan.
Look at any report or tweet from training camp and the difference between McLellan and Dallas Eakins last fall is immediately apparent. I don't believe that everything Eakins did was wrong, that's become the easy position to take since he was fired, but for whatever reason the team didn't seem to respond well to his style and systems. McLellan does things differently, there is no doubt about this; the tempo and pace of practices is higher now than it was before. Will the player respond to this? Will wins follow? Right now it's too early to tell, but I get the feeling that if things don't improve that people at every level will be held responsible, something that didn't always happen before, and that's a step in the right direction towards meeting expectations.