Last year in the first round of the Scotia Bank North Division Playoffs, the Edmonton Oilers were slated to play against the Winnipeg Jets. Everyone and I mean almost every hockey pundit, picked the Oilers to advance, and why shouldn’t they? The Oilers have two of the top ten players in the league in Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid (the best player in the NHL). The Oilers were higher ranked in the North division than the Jets, they were receiving unreal goaltending from Mike Smith, and their offense was unstoppable. On the other hand, the Jets had decent offensive forwards, a horrific blue line, and a top-three goalie in Connor Hellebuyck. Despite these seemingly daunting disparities, I picked the Jets to beat the Oilers, and the Jets did just that, sweeping the Oilers in the first round. Why was I able to predict that the Oilers would lose despite all of the experts and signs saying it would go the other way? Everyone forgot about one simple fact: the Oilers are a fatally flawed team whose flaws are concealed by the performances of Draisaitl and McDavid.
The Oilers had an explosive start to the 2021-2022 season and were being called contenders after only the first month. Now winter has come and cooled the red hot Oilers down, revealing their true colors once again. They have a 2-11-2 record since December 3rd and haven’t looked like a so-called contender. So what is the problem with the Oilers? It comes down to construction. The Oilers are a poorly constructed team that lacks an effective blue line and scoring depth, causing them to rely too heavily on inconsistent goaltending and two players to eke out wins. The worst part is that General Manager Ken Holland has done little to fix it and actively made it worse when it comes to the blue line. The Oilers had an eventful off-season, even signing former Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Zach Hyman to add depth scoring and grit. However, while they managed to sign Hyman and make other off-season moves, they failed to fix multiple problem areas, including defense, goaltending, and reliable bottom six scoring.
The Oilers, in the McDavid-Draisaitl era specifically, have never been a defensively dominant team. Last season they lost Oscar Klefbom to injury and surgery, which hurt the blue line as he was one of the most valuable pieces in their defensive core. This off-season, they managed to re-sign another critical defensive piece in Darnell Nurse, which was a good signing. Nurse is a solid D-man. However, while they did have some adversity with the Klefbom injury and had a good move with re-signing Nurse, they made a few nonsensical defensive moves in the off-season.
The Oilers traded bright young defenseman Ethan Bear to the Carolina Hurricanes for forward Warren Foegele. Now the acquisition of Foegele is, on its own, a good thing. Foegele is a solid middle-six forward and, like Hyman, adds a lot of sandpaper to the lineup. But losing Bear was a steep cost. He was a cheap, talented, and young defenseman with a high ceiling for success. Players like Bear were the future of the Oilers’ blue line, and they traded him away. If they had been able to replace Bear with a similar or better player via trades or free agency, maybe this is an appropriate risk to bring in more scoring depth, but the Oilers failed to do that. Instead, they traded another young defenseman, Caleb Jones, for 38-year-old Duncan Keith on an outrageous contract.
Keith, in his heyday, won three Cups with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010, 2013, and 2015 and a Conn Smythe for his role in the 2015 cup win. He was brought in because of his experience in the playoffs and “veteran leadership”. However, it should be noted that Keith, along with all the other members of the 2010 Blackhawks team, was complacent in the cover-up of the sexual assault of Kyle Beach and allowed Beach to face abuse by fellow teammates in 2010 so rumors of his leadership are much exaggerated. Keith has been declining and looked like a defensive liability before he was traded to the Oilers. It was a stupid move by the Oilers to bring on not only the contract of Keith but also his complete defensive ineptitude, especially after losing Bear and another prospect in Jones. But this move could be buried, but they continued to fail to bolster the blue line
In isolation, the Tyson Barrie signing, like the Bear trade, doesn’t look too bad. Barrie, who was drafted by Colorado, signed a one year deal with the Oilers for the 2020-21 season coming off of a disappointing season with the Toronto Maple Leafs. In 2020-21, he finished the season with 48 points. Barrie is an offensive defenseman and a skilled powerplay quarterback, meaning that his style of play lends itself to putting up points but not necessarily shutting down the other team’s offense. On a team with McDavid and Draisaitl, Barrie was able to help generate goals and also increase his own personal points totals. So the Oilers decided to re-sign him this off-season, which, as stated prior, is not a bad move in isolation. Barrie gets a bit of a bad rap, especially from Leafs fans like myself, but he is very good at his role, scoring points and moving the puck. He was not what the Leafs needed at the time and definitely not what the Oilers needed. He is a luxury piece for them, a way to keep the powerplay in the top ten and help compliment the Oilers’ already existent style, which is offense hiding all other team problems. So while he is an asset to the Oilers, he doesn’t provide anything the Oilers lacked, including competent defense.
Signing Cody Ceci was the straw that broke the camel’s back when it came to the Oilers D-core. Ceci came off a horrific stint with the Leafs, played a good year with the Penguins, and the Oilers decided to sign him to a four-year deal. That decision gave the Oilers the right side depth of Barrie and Ceci. Now those two names together might seem familiar, and if it is, that is because that was the right side depth the Leafs had in the 2019-2020 season. In 2019-2020, the Leafs were one of the worst defensive teams in the league. That team lost to a 42-year-old emergency backup goalie/Zamboni driver, yet Ken Holland looked at the right side of that blue line and said, “I want some of that.” The Ceci signing was the final nail in the coffin for the Oiler D-core.
The Oilers need at least one shut-down pair, especially if their top forwards, Draisaitl and McDavid, refuse to increase the defensive aspects of their games. Management failed to provide that. Instead, they traded away future blueliners in Bear and Jones, replacing them with the corpse of Duncan Keith. They signed the Leafs former failing right side in Ceci and Barrie to long-term, big-money contracts instead of finding that shut down d-man needed. In the playoffs, offense dries up and if you can’t outscore your problems that D core becomes a glaring issue. It especially becomes an issue when you do not have strong, consistent goaltending to fall back on.
The Oilers starting goaltender, Mike Smith, is 39 years old and was just re-signed for two more years. Smith is a decent goalie capable of incredible hot streaks. Last season was a hot season for Smith, posting a .923 save percentage. He has failed to replicate that success this year, only averaging a .898 save percentage. Which makes sense, goaltenders are fairly hard to predict, and when you have age as a factor, it makes them even more unpredictable. Smith is a decent goaltender capable of being great, but he isn’t the kind of goalie who, season after season, can be the brick wall that protects your team from falling apart. Mikko Koskinen is younger and has a .895 save percentage on the year (also not great) and is also not that guy. The best goaltender the Oilers have had this season was Stuart Skinner, who posted a .907 save percentage before he was put on Covid protocol. The only way the Oilers can have a defense core as depleted as they do and win is if they have game-breaking goaltending. Some teams can pull that off, last year’s Winnipeg Jets for example, or the 2016-17 Maple Leafs, but it isn’t the most sustainable strategy.
Last year, Smith performed exceptionally well, and people were looking at the Oilers as a contender. But in the playoffs, Smith was outdueled by Hellebuyck. This off-season, Holland could have addressed goaltending and give the Oilers a bonafide starter. 2020-21 Vezina winning goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, as well as Darcy Kuemper, Philip Grubauer, Linus Ullmark, and Vitek Vanecek, were all skilled goalies that Holland could have acquired. Instead, he invested in Ceci and Barrie, who, as stated earlier, are not the shut-down defenseman that can bail out a goaltender when they need it.
After their 4-1 loss to the New York Rangers, Head Coach Dave Tippet tried to blame Koskinen’s performance for their loss, but the Oilers lost the next game with Smith in net 4-2 too. Adding a talented goaltender like Fleury might bail the Oilers out and get them back on track. Holland might make that step and try to save himself and Tippet from being fired before the trade deadline. However, even though I love Fleury both as a goalie and as a person, he is 37, on a large contract, and has shown that he isn’t always as solid behind a weak blue line. Fleury may help, but it is like patching a hole in your expensive yacht with duct tape sure, maybe it will hold for a while, but it isn’t a permanent solution.
Koskinen fired back against Tippet’s comments, pointing out that he, as a goalie, cannot score goals. He is right, a goalie can only cover up defensive flaws, but there is nowhere to hide when an offense dries up. The Oilers’ reputation in the McDraisaitl era has been an offensive powerhouse. They will outscore you no matter how hard you try to resist, and you will be so busy trying to prevent them from scoring that you can’t even score yourself. That reputation is only true for McDavid and Draisaitl. Once you move beyond those two forwards, the offense dries up, and suddenly the Oilers can no longer outscore their problems.
Forward depth has always been an issue for the McDavid-era Oilers. You have the one-two punch of McDavid and Draisaitl, then nothing else. To the Oilers credit, their depth scoring has been improving. Kailer Yamamoto brought that last year but hasn’t replicated that performance this year. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, a former first overall pick, re-signed last season but hasn’t brought the depth scoring needed. For all his mistakes with the blue line and between the pipes, Holland did try to address forward depth in the off-season. He brought in Foegele, Derek Ryan, and Hyman while buying out James Neal. Even with these moves, the depth scoring has not increased.
When it comes to goals, let’s all be honest, those matter most when it comes to winning games; McDavid and Draisaitl have 19 and 26 goals, respectively, but the drop-off afterward is somewhat steep, with Hyman scoring 11. Hyman is a great player but was never the third-highest scorer in Toronto. . Hyman is a great play, but he alone can’t turn a team around. Bottom/Middle, six forwards in Yamamoto, Jesse Pulujarvi, Michael McLeod, Foegele, and Tyler Benson, haven’t been producing at the level they should be for the Oilers to have reliable depth goal scoring.
McDavid and Draisaitl have been criticized for the poor defensive play. They do not necessarily need to play more defensively since their principal gifts are their abilities in the opposing zone. However, if the Oilers plan to go forward with a blue line similar to the current one (which seems likely as Nurse, Barrie, and Ceci all have long-term deals), the onus falls on the forwards. The Leafs are another offensively dominant team who used to have a reputation for being horrific in their zone; then star forwards Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander all committed to playing a more two-way style. Now the Leafs defense is capable. Now granted the Leafs blue line is better, but when the d-core is weaker, the forwards, especially the best players and leaders, need to step up and start putting up better defensive stats. I do not agree with former Coach John Tortorella who suggested McDavid change his game. The Oilers need McDavid to outscore their problems, so it isn’t a must that McDavid up his defensive performance, but it is a potential temporary solution to the problems on the blue line and in net.
Now that the team has fallen off after starting so hot, everyone is searching for a person to blame. They figure that since the team played so well at the beginning of the year, it can’t be a construction problem, so naturally the onus falls on the coach, Tippet. Now Tippet hasn’t done himself a ton of favors: he shows blatant favoritism toward one goalie while blaming the other for their losses, refused to play Skinner for awhile after his great game against the Boston Bruins, plays McDavid and Draisaitl for arguably too long, gives Keith too much ice-time when other parts of the D-core fail and gives players who don’t generate much offense, like Devin Shore, more ice time than deserved. Those decisions have made some Oilers fans call for his termination. The Vancouver Canucks were an awful team to start the year despite having what looked like a decent team on paper. They fired their head coach Travis Green and hired Bruce Boudreau; since then it seems like the Canucks can’t lose. As tempting as it seems to make Tippet the scapegoat, he is not the problem. Tippet cannot change the team’s production, make a poorly constructed D-core play beyond their abilities, or increase the goaltender’s save percentage. Tippet has made some mistakes but don’t be distracted. The blame for this falls squarely on Holland’s shoulders.
The Oilers are a poorly constructed team that relies on the two of the best players in the world to outscore their problems, but when those players aren’t scoring at unprecedented levels, the truth of this team is revealed. The defense, goaltending, and even the forward group are broken and need to be fixed for the Oilers to contend for a Stanley Cup let alone make the playoffs. The Oilers are currently out of a playoff spot in the Western Conference. If the Oilers don’t fix something soon, they will miss the playoffs and waste another year of McDavid and Draisaitl’s talent.