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Reason for Optimism

Many Oiler fans are underwhelmed and disappointed with the work of management since the end of the disappointing 2017/18 regular season as they were hoping for more prominent moves by Peter Chiarelli that would result in a material and tangible improvement in the team’s roster construction. Of course, all Oiler fans would have loved if management was able to make acquisitions that provide a marked and immediate improvement in the opening night roster. Unfortunately, as we all know, the Oilers are in the midst of a cap crunch and are without the cap space that would be required to acquire players that have a substantial cap hit and, any such acquisition, would require the disposition of players with, essentially, an equal cap hit. Further, the players the team and its fans would prefer to dispose of to open up such cap space, not only have no movement clauses and other trade protection, they are in most cases, coming off poor and/or injured seasons leading to the lowest trade value of their respective careers (i.e. Lucic and Sekera). This has led to a fairly quiet off-season with smaller calculated moves by management.

This article is not being written to discuss the success, or lack thereof, of the Oilers off-season, whether the 10th overall pick should have been traded for immediate help or if a piece of the core (or an impending member thereof such as Jesse Puljujarvi) should be added as a sweetener to Milan Lucic in order to raise his trade value and open up cap space for a big acquisition.

This blog is being written to provide some thoughts on why Oiler fans should be optimistic, or at least cautiously optimistic, regarding increased team performance in the 2018/19 season despite a fairly quiet and understated off-season.

I am not opining that this team is going to contend for the Cup this year or that there aren’t potentially significant holes in the roster however, I am of the opinion that, at the same time, there are many reasons to think the team could, and should, improve over last year and, actually, improve substantially.

1) Special Teams

It is well established that the special teams were bad last year, check that, they were absolutely atrocious. For certain parts of the season, the penalty kill was in line to set historic records for ineptitude at home and the power play struggled the entire year, finishing dead last in the league. Not only did the Oilers draw the least amount of penalties in the league but, when they were on the man advantage, they had the worst conversion rate in the entire NHL – dead last.

With that being said, does anyone truly think that Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, two of the top offensive centers in the world, will struggle so mightily on the power play two years in a row? Let’s not forget that those two had great chemistry on the power play in the 2016/17 season, a season in which the power play finished 5th overall in the league (and was the best in the league during the last third of the season).

A key part of the power play’s success in the 2016/17 season was Oscar Klefbom at the point as the power play really started to roll when Klefbom replaced Andrej Sekera on the 1st unit. As we all know, Klefbom played the entire 2017/18 season with an injured shoulder, right from game 1 of the season, and this undoubtedly affected his overall game and, in particular, his ability to shoot the puck. His shot was a weapon on the power play in 2016/17 and that weapon was lost this past season. As will be discussed in more detail below, from accounts, Klefbom is coming into the up and coming season with a surgically repaired shoulder that is healthier than its ever been during his time as an Oiler and a bounce-back in power play effectiveness should be expected.

Potentially the biggest factor as regards an improvement in the power play is the hiring of Manny Viverios to the coaching staff. Viverios is known as an excellent coach of offense and the power play with the ability to come up with innovative systems that lead to success. Last year, Viverios coached the Swift Current Broncos to the top power play in the Western Hockey League. He has spoken publicly about the ability to adapt on the power play - if something isn’t working, it needs to be changed. This should be music to the ears of most Oiler fans who criticize Coach McLellan for his inability to adapt, not only within a game but over stretches of games. Further, Viverios has spoken about incorporating the thoughts of the players, within the overall structure. I look forward to McDavid and Viverios, two brilliant offensive minds, discussing and implementing power play strategy.

Further, the Oilers drew the least amount of penalties in the entire league last year which sounds insane given McDavid and his speed. On that note, McDavid only drew 27 penalties this past season, an egregious number considering the abuse he takes nightly. McDavid drew 39 penalties during the 2016/17 season and I believe, as he gains experience in the league, the referees will start to call the infractions committed against him more consistently. I would expect more power play opportunities for the team this coming year.

Lastly, history shows that a team’s success, or lack thereof, on the power play one year, is not necessarily predictive of similar success, or failure, the following year. There are countless examples of teams who show marked improvement in the power play from one year to the next. The Oilers going from the 5th ranked power play to the 31st with the same coaching staff and personnel is an example that shows the wild swing in power play efficiency teams often see from year to year. Last year’s poor power play does not predict a repeat performance for the 2018/19 season.

Changing notes, the penalty kill was also a massive issue for the Oilers last year and, for a large portion of the year, it was last in the national hockey league (and ended up finishing 25th overall at a meager efficiency of 76.7%). We all know about the weird home/road split as, for the season, the penalty kill was actually tops in the NHL on the road at 86.7% but dead last at home at 65.8%, yes, 65.8%. To show how horrid this was, the second worst home PK had a success rate of 73%

With that said, a valid argument can be made that the penalty kill has already been “fixed”. From February 1 through the end of the season, a sample size of two months, the PK was tops in the entire league (home and road combined). This uptick in the success of the PK loosely coincides with (a) McLellan taking over the PK from Jimmy Johnson and (b) some important personnel changes (Letestu and Caggulia were essentially replaced on the PK with Strome and Khaira). In addition, although the team has lost Iiro Pakarinan as a penalty killer, it has added Kyle Brodziak and Tobias Rieder who are each experienced penalty killers and, in the case of Brodziak, an upper echelon penalty killer.

2) Goaltending

It can’t rationally be denied that Cam Talbot had a bad season last year, even Cam himself has admitted that and taken responsibility for poor performance. One of the main reasons for the massive drop in team success year over year was the performance of Cam Talbot. Cam followed up a season where he placed 4th in voting for the Vezina trophy with a season where he was a lower echelon starting goalie, at best.

In 2016/17, Talbot had a .927 save percentage at even strength (tied for 12th overall) which fell to .915 this past season (tied for 28th overall). His save percentage on the penalty kill fell from .877 (17th overall) to .848 (33rd overall). That is a substantial drop off in play.

To make matters worse, in my opinion, the overall drop in save percentage doesn’t even tell the entire story of ineptitude and one needs to rely on the eye test for the entire picture. Talbot was highly prone to giving up weak goals this past season and weak goals at bad times (early in games, often on the first shot, when the team had momentum and was pressing for a tying goal, etc.). Further, Talbot simply wasn’t able to come up with the big save the team needed more than a handful of times throughout the season. One big save in a game can mean two points in the standings.

Given a team simply cannot win with sub-par goaltending, it goes without saying that a bounce-back season from Talbot is a key to the up and coming season.

While there are no assurances that Talbot will “bounce back” this coming season, his career history shows that this past season was the clear outlier. Statistically, this past season was the worst of Talbot’s NHL career and it wasn’t even close.

Not only does the typical “regression to the mean” lead to the reasonable prediction of a better season from Talbot, the presumed overall health of the defensive group should also help Tablot rebound. The top 4 of the Oilers defense group was extremely banged up last year. I will get into the health of the defensive group in more detail below, however, a healthier top 4 will give up less high danger scoring chances, be better in coverage, more efficient at transitioning the puck out of the defensive zone and will simply be a big help to Talbot overall.

Given Talbot’s career history and the presumed health of the top end of the defense, I think it’s highly reasonable to think that Talbot will be materially better next season. I don’t “expect” him to have a “Vezina quality” season (although you never know, he’s done it very recently), but I do expect him to provide at least league average starting tending, generally give the team a chance to win and, of course, steal the odd game here or there. Let’s not forget, although still inconsistent and prone to weak goals, Talbot did perform much better in the 2nd half of last season and, in particular, the last third of the season.

I’ve been very critical about the contract that Chiarelli gave to Mikko Koskinen, however, what’s done is done and Koskinen will be the backup goalie next season. Contract aside, I don’t mind the bet on the player. He has consistently been one of the top goalies in the KHL and very good for Finland internationally. Of course, there is no guarantee that KHL success will translate to the NHL and he is a bit of a wild-card but I am still hopeful he can come in and provide upper echelon back-up tending. If he fails, subject to not being lost on waivers, Al Montoya will be chomping at the bit for a recall and Montoya is a much more established option than the team went into last season with. He has provided very solid back-up tending in the past.

3) Health of the Defense

For the 2016/17 season, a valid argument can be made for each of Andrej Sekera, Oscar Klefbom and Adam Larsson being the Oilers’ “best d-man”. Each of the three played a massive role in the team’s success in both the regular season and the playoffs. The team essentially ran a 1A pairing (Klefbom/Larsson) and a 1B pairing (Sekera/Russell), each of which played significant minutes against the top competition.

All three of these players struggled this past season, to varying degrees, with injury.

We all know that Sekera tore his ACL on a hit by Ryan Getzlaf in the second round of the playoffs, had major off-season knee surgery, didn’t return to the lineup until late December and, when he did return, was was a shadow of his normal self.

It really does surprise me that so many Oiler fans are ready to just give up on “Reggie” due to his knee and his poor play this past season and, in many cases, give him away for no return but cap space and, in some cases, even buy him out. It was well known that, while a professional athlete may be able to come back from this surgery after a 6-8 month recovery period, it generally takes at least 12-18 months post-surgery for full recovery. This is not just physical recovery but mental recovery – the player’s ability to trust the knee and play the game with confidence in the knee. It was absolutely no surprise, at least to this writer, that Reggie struggled mightily upon his return, in fact, it was 100% expected.

We don’t know exactly how healthy Sekera will be this coming season, however, we do know that he will be materially healthier than when he played last season and almost undoubtedly will perform much better on the ice. Even just losing the knee brace alone will be a massive benefit to his game as Sekera himself has been express regarding how much his mobility was limited by the brace.

After an additional 6 months removed from the injury, a full summer to train, a full training camp and, of course, no brace, I look for a much improved Sekera. I would like to remind the readers that a healthy Sekera is an elite second pairing d-man and we may essentially be adding that elite 2nd pairing d-man into the lineup for free.

Oscar Klefbom had a fantastic 2016/17 season where he played all 82 games and co-anchored the 1A pairing with Adam Larsson, however, he was simply not the same player in 2017/18 and we know why. Klefbom played the entire season (until he was shut down) with an injured shoulder and this massively affected his game. It affected his ability to shoot the puck as well as battle in various situations. It changed the way he played the game leading to mistakes and a decrease in confidence that parlayed into poor decision making in all areas of the ice.

Klefbom was finally shut down in late March and had a procedure on his shoulder shortly thereafter. From accounts, the procedure was very successful and the shoulder is healthier now than at any previous time during his Oiler career. Klefbom was able to start training fully only 5 weeks after the procedure and looks to start the 2018/19 season healthier than he’s been in years.

Adam Larsson struggled in the first half of last season while playing with a wonky back and was finally shut down for about a month in early December. Not long after his return to the lineup, Larsson had to deal with the horrible tragedy of the sudden loss of his father and missed a large part of two months of the season dealing with this personal issue. Upon his return to the lineup for the stretch drive, a healthy Larsson was back to his normal self, being a solid defensive d-man that is an absolute horror for opposing forwards to play against. He was excellent down the stretch and massive for the gold-medal winning Team Sweden at the World Championships where he earned a tournament all-star award.

Of course, these three d-men won’t all have perfect health for the entire 2018/19 season but, from accounts, they are all coming into camp healthy (well, healthier in the case of Sekera) and I think we can reasonably expect them to be healthier as a group than they were this past season.

I don’t think the impact of these three players will have on the defensive group, the goaltending and the team as a whole can be under-stated.

4) Coaching

Yes, Todd McLellan is back to the dismay of many. McLellan had a tough season - even I was flabbergasted with many decisions throughout the year. With that said, he is an established NHL coach with a track record of success. I believe he is likely embarrassed (for lack of a better word) with his own performance last year and has stated that he needs to be better.

All incumbent assistant coaches were let go (or, in the case of Jay Woodcroft, “re-assigned” to head coach of the Condors) and McLellan has three new assistant coaches all with different skill sets. I think this is massive. McLellan had been working with Jay Woodcroft and Jimmy Johnson, as a team, for a very long time, and I think they became stale as a group. The influx of new voices and new ideas into the coaching staff should help modernize McLellan and I am confident the coaching staff will be able to adapt quicker to what is happening on the ice. Maybe, just maybe, McLellan can even be convinced to use line matching techniques to get McDavid away from top opposition on occasion.

Manny Viverios, from accounts, is an excellent offensive coach with innovative ideas and, this past season, he led the Swift Current Broncos to the best power play in the Western Hockey League and, of course, the WHL title and a berth in the Memorial Cup. Not to mention Viverios was named Western Hockey League coach of the year. Viverios is universally praised by his players – one only has to read the quotes from Oilers’ goaltending prospect Stuart Skinner to get a sense of what he’s meant to his players.

Like Viverios, Trent Yawney is another absolutely massive addition to the coaching staff. Yawney’s resume of developing young d-men is startling and dates all the way back to coaching Duncan Keith for Norfolk back in 2003/04. More recently, Yawney has been given praise for his work with many young d-men as an assistant coach with the Anaheim Ducks including Cam Fowler, Hampus Lindholm, Sami Vatanen, Brandon Montour and Josh Manson, just to name a few. With a defense as young as the Oilers, Larsson, Nurse, Klefbom and Benning are all under the age of 25 (plus the possibility of Bear and Bouchard on the roster), Yawney might just prove to be the best acquisition of the off-season.

Of course, not everything is going to come up roses for the Oilers. Not everything stated above is going to come to fruition, however, I think it’s reasonable to think that a good portion will.

The playoffs are far from a lock, however, this writer fully expects the 2018/19 Oilers to be in contention for a playoff spot at the trade deadline and wouldn’t be surprised if the Pacific Division title is within reach.