Oilers Playing Themselves Back into Contention

Everyone knows the story of the Edmonton Oilers over the last 20 years or so.

They are a team that in that time, hardly made the playoffs a few times, went to a Cup Final in 2006 when they lost to the Carolina Hurricanes in seven games, and got knocked out in the second round in seven games by the Anaheim Ducks in 2016-17.

Last season, they were a horror show. They were one of the league’s worst teams and made many people in hockey wonder whether or not their 2016-1 season was a fluke.

Earlier this season, it appeared that the team was headed in the same direction. They were not playing well, not scoring a lot of goals, and simply looked like a team who had no idea what they were doing.

Fast forward to now and things a much different. As of this writing, the Oilers are 14-12-2 and sit two points out of the second wild-card spot in the Western Conference.

One of the main reasons why this team has started to turn around is because of their new head coach Ken Hitchcock. The team’s former head coach, Todd Mclellan, was fired on November 20, and with good reason considering that he only made the playoffs once in his three-plus years with the club.

Under Hitchcock, the team is currently 5-2-1 and a lot of it his because of the style of play that Hitch has implemented since being named the club’s new bench boss. For starters, this team has played much better defensively.

Prior to Hitch heading behind the bench, the Oilers were a very loose hockey club under Mclellan. They tried to play a run and gun style and while they have a few guys that can create offense, it would be their defensive play that got them into trouble more often than not.

That has changed under Hitchcock. In an article written by St. Louis Post-Dispatch hockey scribe Jeff Gordon, Hitchcock spoke about how his team needed to learn new ways to win hockey games.

“If we expect to win hockey games we’re not going to do it on talent, we have to develop an atmosphere where we’re 100 percent locked in playing for each other and not with each other. There’s a big difference in those two words.”

This is exactly what the Oilers have done recently. They are playing well together by being responsible at both ends, by being physical when they need to be, and by learning how to grind out victories.

Another reason why the Oilers are playing well is due to their superstar and team captain Connor McDavid. McDavid leads his team with 36 points (14 goals and 22 assists) and is also a +2, which means that he is playing well at both ends of the ice.

Leon Draisaitl is also playing well for this hockey club. He currently has 30 points (13 goals and 17 assists) and is the team’s second main offensive contributor alongside McDavid.

After those two, the next offensive player that has started to play well is Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. He has 25 points (7 goals and 18 assists) and is showing that he can quietly go about his business doing what he needs to do in order to make a positive impact.

While the three players mentioned above are doing a solid enough job on offense to keep this team in the hunt, the rest of the team’s offense has been terrible. This team continues to struggle when it comes to getting secondary scoring so that is something that needs to change in a hurry if they want to thrust themselves back into the top eight in the conference.

When it comes to their goaltending, it is their back-up Mikko Koskinen who has helped this team get back into the playoff conversation. Koskinen, 30, is 8-3-1 with a 2.23 goals against average, a .925 save percentage and two shutouts.

His partner, Cam Talbot, has had a horrible start to the season. After being terrific in the 2016-17 season, Talbot’s game has fallen off in a big way.

Last season, Talbot went 31-31-3 with a 3.02 goals against average, a .908 save percentage and just one shutout after posting seven the season before. This season, he’s been a lot worse as he is currently 6-9-1 with a 3.19 goals against average and a .892 save percentage.

Despite some of this team’s deficiencies, they have played well enough to stay very much alive in their conference, which is really all that matters. With that said, Hitchcock is going to need to figure out a way to get more secondary scoring and much better goaltending out of Talbot if they want to be in the postseason dance come April.


Photo: Sportsnet.ca

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