Few could have predicted a 2-8-1 start for the Edmonton Oilers. Heading into the 2023-24 season, Edmonton seemed poised to prove itself as a true Stanley Cup contender. But as the early-goings roll on, the Oilers continue to stumble. Anytime it seems like this team might turn it around, it suffers through a painful loss that sinks them further.
A 5-2 win over the Calgary Flames at the Heritage Classic seemed promising. Even the Oilers’ close loss to the Dallas Stars days later kept the waters relatively calm.
But then came a deflating 5-2 loss to the Nashville Predators, followed by an outright collapse to the Vancouver Canucks on Monday night. The Oilers started both games with pace, but quickly unraveled when things started to go badly.
Now, the Oilers sit ahead of just one team in the league-wide standings — not the division or conference, the entire league. The only team rocking a worse record or win percentage is the Sharks, a team that’s expected to stay far out of the playoff race for some time. And their playoff chances continue to dwindle.
There’s plenty of hockey to play and time for redemption, but something has to change for a team with so much pressure to win now. But what does a path forward look like?
Before looking ahead, we have to look back. How did the Oilers get to this point?
Edmonton finished the 2022-23 season with its most complete roster of the Connor McDavid era. It wasn’t perfect — some defensive issues reared their head in the playoffs, and there were some instabilities in net still. That contributed to Edmonton’s playoff elimination by the eventual champion Vegas Golden Knights. But all in all, it was still a year of progress after seasons of putting out a top-heavy team with little support around McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. And that gave the organization something to build on to make 2023-24 the Oilers year.
Going into the season, the Oilers looked like the team to beat offensively. At five-on-five, the team is creating a lot of shots and scoring chances but doesn’t have the results to show for it. Edmonton’s about 12 goals shy of expectations and that’s before accounting for finishing talent that it obviously has at the top of that lineup. That’s the second worst in the league, ahead of only the lowly San Jose Sharks. Usually, Edmonton can count on the power play to prop up any even strength gaps, but that’s not up to its usual standards either.
But that’s not what’s solely behind the Oilers’ trip down the standings through the first month of the season. Edmonton’s defensive and goaltending woes are dragging it down, and the Oilers aren’t outscoring their problems enough to mask it.
The 2022-23 Oilers weren’t perfect in their own zone, but the addition of Mattias Ekholm helped strengthen the blue line. Management didn’t make any major changes on defense, but the team’s strategy did change. Edmonton shifted from man-to-man coverage to zone defense — a system employed by a number of teams around the league, including the Stanley Cup-winning Golden Knights.
Now that the Oilers have put themselves in such a precarious position after their dismal start, the team has to find a way forward. That means identifying what exactly is the driving force behind the start, and fixing it.
The easy answer is goaltending. While the Oilers don’t allow many shots against, scoring chances do get past their defenders from time to time. And some of that this season is a result of the adjustment to a new system, which tends to be par for the course.
But the team can’t afford any mistakes when its goaltending is so unsteady. Neither netminder has been up to the task in Edmonton at five-on-five or while short-handed. Jack Campbell and Stuart Skinner have struggled mightily relative to their workloads, and only have one quality start each to start the season.
Campbell was waived on Tuesday, and it’s unlikely his hefty contract gets claimed. That will probably leave the Oilers with a crease of Skinner and Calvin Packard, so there are few internal solutions in Edmonton. That puts more emphasis on the team in front of the goal.
A lot of the conversation keeps coming back to the systematic changes, since the roster isn’t all that different from where the team left off last year when it seemingly had a solid supporting cast.
Whenever a team shifts tactics, there tends to be an adjustment period. And in the Oilers’ case, that adjustment period is strained by goaltending. The team really isn’t bleeding shots against right now, but quality chances are slipping by defenders who are indecisive on how to handle a play and hesitating. Or, there are outright lapses in coverage that can be a consequence of this system. And there isn’t steady goaltending to withstand those scoring chances against.
But since the blue line is so similar to where the Oilers left off and they’re struggling so much, it has to be asked if they’re built for this style of play.
The Oilers aren’t a stacked, versatile defense that can stand up to some of the best around the league. Their lack of depth is showing, and some of their best are showing questionable decision-making — especially when trying to accomplish what’s now being asked of them.
But that is part of the reason why this change was made in the first place. The coaches may have felt that their depth was getting exposed, and a more concerted effort to defend would strengthen the team as a whole. Plus, with zone defense, there’s more priority on protecting the slot area, which should provide the goaltenders with the support they need. On the flip side, withstanding that instead of playing a more aggressive style to get the puck out of the zone and up to the forwards to do their damage may stop the team from maximizing a roster with so much offensive potential.
A team shouldn’t have to revamp its roster entirely to match a system when there’s a change. Sure, there could be roster adjustments — and if the team had some more cap flexibility that would be a greater possibility. Or, there needs to be some systematic flexibility to fit a lineup if it isn’t a perfect fit.
The fact is that this isn’t some unique system in hockey, it’s a pretty common one that numerous teams around the league are adopting without as much commotion.
So are the coaches not instructing what’s needed of the players well enough?
When Dave Tippett and Jim Playfair were dismissed in 2022, Jay Woodcroft and assistant Dave Manson were promoted from Bakersfield. The Oilers’ new-look coaching staff made adjustments in all three zones, and seemed to adequately implement those changes.
But now it’s entirely possible there’s a disconnect between what the coaches expect of their team tactically, and how they’re working to implement it. If that’s the case, then it looks like they may have bit off more than they could chew since it was the coach’s decision to change strategy.
So do the Oilers completely change course now and go back to last year’s strategies, or maybe look elsewhere for a new voice behind the bench?
Changing systems isn’t like flipping a switch. Giving up now would probably only cause more confusion among a team that is making the wrong reads and decisions on plays that prove costly. The onus is on the coaches to make adjustments on the fly and to find a way to communicate that with the players.
If that can’t happen, then it could obviously force a coaching change. The Oilers wouldn’t be the first team to make a change behind the bench after a streak of bad goaltending. But considering the breakdowns in front of the crease, there could be reasoning here.
Management could think that’s the push the team needs to reach its potential. The 2018-19 Blues could serve as a blueprint of sorts. The Blues suffered through a 7-9-3 start under Mike Yeo before Craig Berube took over. St. Louis stood last in the Central Division and second to last in the league before the coaching change. Under Berube, the team cleaned up its play on both ends of the ice at five-on-five. And there was more reliable goaltending with the emergence of rookie Jordan Binnington to support the team in front of the crease. That team ended the year with a championship.
The 2015-16 Penguins are another example of a team changing its coach and winning the Stanley Cup the same year. Although, when Mike Johnston was replaced with Mike Sullivan, the Penguins had a better win percentage than the Penguins currently do.
Sometimes a coaching change is the spark a team needs. Management may want to do that before too much time is wasted in the season, so a new staff has more than enough time to reconfigure tactics, and make necessary tweaks around the personnel available. Maybe Thursday’s game against the Sharks could be a decider on that. But who is available and ready to maximize a team facing so much pressure to contend?
The same risk that presented itself last postseason and this past offseason is that there still isn’t steady goaltending that’ll buy the team time to adjust to whatever further changes come.
And that’s where the blame falls on management in all of this, as well. Ken Holland composed this roster, and didn’t make any changes knowing that the coaches were going to shift defensive coverage. The salary cap isn’t an excuse for not making additions to supplement the supporting cast since management put the team in its financial situation. It makes the situation all the more complicated, because there’s so much blame to go around and a ticking clock to fix it.
The start to the season isn’t just a disaster because the Oilers aren’t what the hockey world expected them to be. Any momentum gained over these last few years to become a more complete team around two of the best players in the world seems to have evaporated. Elite talent just keeps wasting away prime years in Edmonton as a result.
The Oilers can’t eliminate themselves from playoff contention in October and November alone. But the deeper of a hole they dig themselves into, the harder it’ll be to emerge. There’s too much riding on this season to let it go to waste. The pressure is on for the Oilers to find a way out of the mess they’ve created for themselves to start the year.
— Data via Evolving-Hockey, HockeyViz, HockeyStatCards, AllThreeZones, and NaturalStatTrick. This story relies on shot-based metrics; here is a primer on these numbers.
(Photo of Vincent Desharnais and Stuart Skinner: Darryl Dyck / The Canadian Press via AP)