That wasn’t fun. The Oilers entered the season as Stanley Cup favorites in many people’s eyes, and finished the season in 23rd place with a dismal 78 points. They couldn’t get wins when it mattered, they had trouble scoring goals, and the special teams were an even more special kind of awful.
As many of you know, I love my analogies — This post will be littered with them. When I see things happen, I almost always relate it to just about everything else I’ve ever seen, heard, or read about. I find it helps me learn and analyze things. I’m sure lots of people do this, while others have more traditional — and likely better — ways to adapt to their surroundings and measure to scale. As for the season we just saw, one analogy really isn’t going to cut it. I’ll start with a big one, then slowly move onto smaller ones. Regardless of the ways in which you learn, there’s no sugar coating it, that season was a total disaster.
Let me tell you about a TV show called Billions. It’s a Showtime original, airs on Sundays and is one of the best shows on TV right now. What’s strange is how few people have watched it. It features actual actors, a huge budget, and a story worth telling. It’s not your typical cat and mouse in that there isn’t a protagonist and an antagonist, the two the main character actually meet both those criteria. The writing on that show is incredible, keeps you guessing and on your toes the entire time. So far, each season has had a major twist, and in the first season, the twist was so strong that even in hindsight, the foreshadowing is debatable. The only thing better than the writing, and acting, and budget, and characters, is the sound editing. Music selection and placement is an often overlooked part of cinematography, but it might be the most important part of setting the mood. Oftentimes, the music does more than the lighting or script possibly can. Even in scenes with no dialogue, the right sounds can tell you exactly how to feel. In the most recent episode, the episode ended with some bad news for one of the protagonists, and featured the late Leonard Cohen’s You Want it Darker. It was a perfect selection, and why I chose that song to be the title of this post. In short, Billions is a show you should really find time to watch. It’s a show that just does everything right, and nothing wrong. It’s the equivalent of the Oilers sending out a roster with Taylor Hall, Connor McDavid, Matt Barzal, Jordan Eberle, Leon Draisaitl, Jesse Puljujarvi, Kailer Yamamoto, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. After watching this season’s Edmonton Oilers take the opposite approach, I think it’s a great way to wipe away those awful feelings you now associate with sitting down in front of the TV. Plus, if we’re setting records like this, you can’t exactly give the excuse of wanting to be outside.
The season that was didn’t start in October. That’s when the first game was played, sure, but the seeds of everything that lead up to this point were planted in last year’s playoffs, they were fertilized in the off season. Exhibit A is Jordan Eberle. He had a terrible playoff run scoring just 2 assists in 13 games. Like Eberle or not, that simply isn’t good enough when points come at a premium, it was the first step towards this season. Over the summer, he was dealt for Ryan Strome, and It was a bad trade from the moment it happened. It’s not as though Ryan Strome is an awful player or anything, nor is it like Jordan Eberle is really that huge of a loss, it’s just how unnecessary it was to make that move. I get that there’s the Cap Space issue now, but that wasn’t the case this year, and especially not that offseason. Peter Chiarelli traded away 50ish points for 30ish points and cap space. Then he used that cap space in places he shouldn’t. That being said, although I didn’t find the trade at all necessary, and viewed it as actively making the team worse, I don’t think an Eberle or a Pouliot are the difference between last season’s 103 point team and this tire fire. I just don’t. If those players were still here, the results would have been pretty damn similar.
When the Oilers finally stepped out onto the ice, everything looked roses. The Oilers beat the Flames 3-0, and looked very good doing so in their first game. Leaping off the couch in excitement for this game would be the highlight of the year. By the time you sat back down, it was too late to prevent the tacks from sticking through the cushion. Everything that could have gone wrong, did. By the time November rolled around, the stupid stat about teams out by four or more points don’t make the playoffs was in full swing. I still maintain that people who use that stat as evidence that it’s hard to make up the ground have their cause an effect backwards, and that being that far out that early is more evidence that a team is bad than it is that a good team couldn’t make up the difference. But even if you agree with the interpretation of that stat, there were also no shortage of people in the comment section with an I told you so tone. This is what happens in a season like this right after a season like last: Extreme hyperbole. No one should have been dismissed and called not a fan for pointing out the flaws in this team, nor should the more optimistic be dismissed and ignored now. The pendulum is just going to keep swinging harder and harder the longer this goes. I still stand on the more optimistic side of this team, I’m not ignoring the flaws, I just think they’re a little bit overstated. This team has definitely pissed away its opportunity to be Billions in the NHL, but it’s still more than capable of being a Suits — Really high but short lived peak, with a slow fade over a number of years and occasional glimpse of what it was. There are a ton of reasons to think next year will go better. Seriously, a ton.
I said at the start of the year, that if McDavid, Oscar Klefbom, or Cam Talbot got injured, we’d be bottom five team. In reality, I was wrong. Oscar Klefbom was hurt all year, and Cam Talbot played in a manner where he may as well have been injured and we were still better than I thought would be the results of losing just one of those guys. Oscar Klefbom just had successful surgery to remove scar tissue and bone fragments in his shoulder, surely that is going to make him a far better player now that he doesn’t have to negotiate with his pain tolerance. Cam Talbot’s career numbers suggest that this year was an outlier, I sure hope that’s the case, and Connor McDavid should bounce back from his down year.
You read that correctly, Connor McDavid had a down year. I’m sure you’re laughing at that statement because I just said that the NHL’s leading scorer who put up a career-high 103 points had a down year, but it’s actually the case. Remember when he had strep throat, lost a bunch of weight, and didn’t seem to have his trademarked speed from November to January? Remember how god-awful the powerplay was this season, despite having more than enough scoring threats? If those things didn’t happen, are you really sure he wouldn’t have scored 130 points and dragged this team kicking and screaming into the playoffs by himself? I’m not. Next season he’ll be turning 22, this is right around the absolute peak of offensive players, as long as he doesn’t get injured, there’s reason to expect him to be even better than he was this year. It’s not out of the question that he’ll top this season’s point totals by a substantial margin, either.
The Special Teams are a huge reason for concern. Throughout the season, they just kept doing the same thing over and over until there was nothing left to do but change it up. The L formation was one of the dumbest systems I’d ever seen, and the powerplay was pure frustration. Our Penalty Kill definitely got guys out of the box faster than any other penalty kill in the league, but out powerplay was doing the opposite. If a guy took a penalty against the Oilers, you can rest assured that he would be sitting for the full two minutes, while our stationary powerplay would pass it around and refuse to shoot. Sunil pointed out that the penalty kill was addressed and did show improvement near the end of the year, but waiting that long to make a change is completely unacceptable. Which brings me to what I consider the biggest disaster of the season.
Todd McLellan and his stupid offensive system. A lot of people give McLellan a pass because he sat down at his chess board only to be missing a Rook, both his night and a few pawns, through no fault of his own. The reason those pieces are missing has been thoroughly and repeatedly beaten into the ground, so I’m not going to rehash that here. It happened, and now he’s missing some really important pieces. I however, will not be giving McLellan a pass on this season, not at all. See, even when you’re missing that much talent, having Connor McDavid on the roster is kind of like having three queens. Is it really that hard to win most of your games with an advantage like that? I’ve never been a fan of people pointing out what the don’t have when they’re sitting on the most valuable thing for which everyone else would trade their entire list of assets. It’s ridiculous. The roster does not excuse that powerplay, at all. There are plenty of viable options and systems to make that thing score. Haven’t we all seen enough of Jesse Puljujarvi sitting on the bench while Milan Lucic continues getting opportune minutes as a reward for scoring once in 4 months? Haven’t we seen enough of players passing to the point instead of driving to the net and trying to beat a defenseman every once in a while? Connor McDavid doesn’t play that system, and I think that’s one of the main reasons his line is the only one scoring any goals. I know you’re quick to point out the roster again, but no, Leon Draisaitl, Jesse Puljujarvi and even friggen Lucic are capable of scoring in this league. They just need to abandon that god awful scheme. The worst part about that system isn’t even the results, it’s that it’s boring as hell. You look at the shot clock and the corsi events and end up surprised, because although the Oilers consistently lead in those departments, no one has any recollection of any actual scoring chances. It’s awful and needs to go away.
The handling of Jesse Puljujarvi needs its own paragraph. Fine, McLellan couldn’t keep the golden child in Kailer Yamamoto. As HNIC pointed out back in January, McLellan really wanted to keep him while the GM wanted him back in Spokane. I’d imagine Chiarelli said something along the lines of “A high-end winger?! If I thought we needed one of those, I wouldn’t have traded Hall and Eberle!! BACK TO SPOKANE!!”. Regardless of how that conversation happened, it was strange to see the guy who won the head-to-head in training camp sent down only to have the guy he beat come take his place. I guess that four months in age difference really is enough to make people ditch the don’t rush players narrative. The problem here though, is the Jesse wasn’t put in a position to succeed in any way, shape, or form, this year. McLellan was constantly micromanaging his offence to the point you could see confusion in the player as he crossed the blueline. He’d often skate out of dangerous areas and make a bad play in an attempt to adjust to a really bad system. I remember when Barry Trotz was introduced as head coach for the Capitals, when describing Ovechkin he said “I told him that when he has the puck he can do whatever he wants. When he doesn’t have the puck, I’ll give him guidance on how to get it again”. It was an excellent quote, and that is the kind of thing Puljujarvi needs. He doesn’t need McLellan breathing down his neck and dictating his every move. Let the offensive player score some goals and put him on the powerplay. Yamamoto is going to be on the roster next year, and I’d love if there players can thrive on their own lines 5v5 and the same powerplay unit. That only happens if the trash we saw out of McLellan involving young players changes, and fast. If it works out the way I want it to, we won’t be seeing Leon Draisaitl on McDavid’s wing anymore.
One thing that always comes up after a season like this is the sold-out tickets claim. The narrative is that as long as customers keep going to the games, Darryl Katz has no reason to improve the product because he’s raking it in anyway. I’m here to put that line of thinking to bed. I’m not going to give an entire Ecmonomics lesson here because that would make this post even longer than it already is, but I find this claim particularly insulting to anyone who would take 2 minutes to think about it. The arena is not where the free revenue comes from. The arena has a limited number of seats and is available only to people in the area. The free revenue in which any good owner would be interested, comes from merchandise, ad space, and TV deals. All of these go up significantly when the team is in the playoffs. I haven’t looked up the numbers, but I’m willing to bet non-arena revenue is greater than the ticket sales, and can increase exponentially, where as the arena seats have a hard ceiling dictated by how many people can physically fit. Remember in the playoffs last year where just about every car on the road had one of those $20 Oilers car flags? I saw one guy who had $15 of them. That’s $300 at almost no cost to Mr. Katz. Remember when the jerseys were sold out for 2 days after the first round and you couldn’t get one in the city? That was also one hell of a lot of easy revenue. That’s also only in Edmonton. The merchandise was being sold all over the world. Putting an Oilers logo on something last year was a licence to print money. Point being, it is significantly more profitable to NHL owners when their teams are good, so let’s stop citing that.
All in all, we’re back where we started. The season was awful, but I don’t think the team is anywhere close to this bad. Some minor changes need to be made, but nothing substantial, and for the love of god, no bad trades. Going into next season, I think the Oilers make the playoffs, and quite easily at that. We obviously won’t be going in with an Stanley Cup talk, but I don’t think a division title can be ruled out either. I’d like to see McLellan shown the door, but if not, I think we can win in spite. I’m still optimistic about this group, three queens is a pretty good position, even without Knights, Rook and a couple Pawns. Still though, I know there will be a lot more pessimistic pieces coming out throughout the off-season to match the demand. You want it darker, but I won’t kill the flame.