Who would’ve thought in mid-November that Edmonton would be in this position? The Oilers were in the basement of the standings, recreating their yearly first-overall pick phase in the early 2010s. They had only 3 wins in the first month a half of the 2023/2024 season and are now 26-6 since their coaching change. I’m usually on the more optimistic side of the Oilers fan base, but you’d have to be more positive than me to think this team at that time could absolutely pull off what they’ve been doing. Even if you spot one or two elephants in the room, who on Earth has time to nitpick a 16 game winning streak?
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Throughout the last few seasons in the McDavid era, the Oilers have always been a second-half-of-the-season kind of team. They always have a phase where they look either ordinary or awful and then look like an elite team down the stretch. This year, they entered that phase way earlier than normal and it drove everybody mental. But that all seems like a distant memory now. It feels like an entire calendar year rather than just a couple of months. But there’s still lots of hockey left. The biggest prize has not been won yet. A lot of things need to keep going right if they badly want it. Where does Edmonton go from here? The keys to the second half are…
McDrai: I said a moment ago that the Oilers are historically a second-half team. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are historically second-half players. Their point production this season has been borderline average by their standards as superstars, even while taking McDavid’s early season injury into account. I don’t expect 97 to repeat a 150+ point season, but he may re-enter the Art Ross trophy race out of nowhere, and 29 should be right behind him. However, there’s no longer a need for them to go supernova like in years past. It’s all because of the next key.
Scoring without McDrai: After their 3-1 win against Calgary last month, I brought up the stat showing that the Oilers are 10-62-10 lifetime when neither McDavid or Draisaitl get a single point. Of course, the vast majority of those losses date way back to before the roster around them started improving. The two man team narrative surrounding Edmonton has not been true for the last two years now, but this year especially is even more proof of it now. McDavid was mostly averaging one point a game during the 16-game winning streak, and the team was still scoring 3 or 4 goals a game. Imagine the offense when the key listed above comes true.
Defense: Not just Kris Knoblauch, but Oilers legend Paul Coffey has done wonders behind the bench. Just like with many Oilers fans, I was a bit skeptical of this hire. That’s because the franchise has a history of nepotism, where they over-romanticized old alumni by putting them in key positions in the organization. I, for one, am thrilled that we were all proven wrong. They’ve allowed 30 shots only 4 times during the 16 game winning streak. These haven’t been the same Oilers who were famous just for offense. Most of the wins were close in this streak were close ones. They’ve learned how to play postseason hockey in the regular season. But their defensemen occasionally feel confident enough to pinch for a scoring chance. Where did this sudden confidence in offensive instincts come from?
Goaltending: I just highlighted the improvements on defense, but your goalie is always your best defender. The Oilers used to make too many key mistakes at the wrong times, and whoever was in net for them couldn’t make timely saves. In their last 14 games, the Oilers have not allowed more than 2 goals. Stuart Skinner could very much put himself in the Vezina conversation if he keeps this up. Calvin Pickard has humbly accepted his role as the interim back-up. While most fans would still look for a 1B option at the trade deadline, you can’t deny Pickard’s slight impact on the turnaround when given his chance.
Special Teams: If I remember correctly, Edmonton’s penalty kill was ranked 30th in the league at the time of the coaching change. Now, it’s ranked 5th. Even if my estimate from a sentence ago is slightly wrong, this improvement has been the most overwhelming of them all. They started the year being just average on the powerplay, which is funny considering how historic it was last season. Most teams have just studied it hard and learned how to shut it down. The Oilers were scoring a lot of goals without the PP, being in the middle of the pack overall in even-strength goals for 116. Their PP is now 4th in the league and has also started to turn itself around. If this continues, all opposing teams may want to watch how they play for the remainder of the season.