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Crash and burn? Can Edmonton Oilers avoid the disaster that followed their last great season?


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It’s a great time to be a fan of the Edmonton Oilers.

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Two superstars, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, lead a team packed with solid veterans, from Darnell Nurse and Cody Ceci on defence, to Zach Hyman and Evander Kane up front, to Jack Campbell in net.

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Not only that, the squad also has some excellent young talent bubbling up in Evan Bouchard, Philip Broberg, Kailer Yamamato, Stuart Skinner, Dylan Holloway, Ryan McLeod and Jesse Puljujarvi.

It almost always puts me in a sunny mood to think of the coming season.

Almost always.

There’s just this one thing: I can’t get the painful collapse of 2017-18 out of my head.

The last time Oilers fans felt this good is 2016-17 when McDavid and Draisaitl led a promising Oilers squad to an outstanding regular season of 103 standing points, thus ending the Decade of Darkness, then pushed the team to playoff victory over a veteran San Jose Sharks squad and a near upset of a veteran Anaheim Ducks team.

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McDavid was just 19 that year, Draisaitl just 20, but their success and the rise of the team didn’t seem like a mirage, not with those two aces plus a cast of able veterans including goalie Cam Talbot, d-men Andrej Sekera, Oscar Klefbom and Adam Larsson and forwards Jordan Eberle, Milan Lucic, Patrick Maroon and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.

And it wasn’t just in Edmonton that optimism abounded for the Oilers. with hockey insider Frank Seravalli predicting Edmonton would win the Stanley Cup in 2017-18: “Lord Stanley is coming home. The Oilers will end Canada’s Stanley Cup drought after 25 long years. Connor McDavid matched Sidney Crosby by winning the Hart and Art Ross in his sophomore season. Along with Leon Draisaitl, his version of Evgeni Malkin, McDavid will one-up Crosby by capturing the Cup in his third season – after Crosby fell short in Game 6 against the Red Wings.”

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But instead of making the playoffs and challenging for the Cup, the 2017-18 Oilers collapsed, winning just 36 games, losing 46, and finishing with 78 points in the standings. They went from scoring 3.0 goals a game and letting in just 2.5, to scoring 2.8 and letting in 3.2.

Ouch!

The Oilers followed up with another rancid season in 2018-19, which cost both head coach Todd McLellan and GM Peter Chiarelli their jobs.

From those inspiring 2016-17 Oilers, only McDavid, Draisaitl, Nugent-Hopkins, Darnell Nurse and Jesse Puljujarvi remain on the team.

Here’s what went so wrong, as well as the odds of that same kind of thing repeating:

1. The goaltending collapsed. At age 29, goalie Cam Talbot had been Edmonton’s best player in the 2017 playoffs, after a stellar regular season where he had a .919 save percentage and 42 wins in 73 games. That’s right, Talbot played 73 games, along with 13 more in the playoffs. Some folks warned about his overuse, and perhaps there was something to that line of thinking. Talbot was never again the same for the Oilers, with a .908 save percentage in 67 games in 2017-18, followed up with an .893 save percentage in 31 games in 2018-19. This saw him get traded to Philadelphia for a minor league goalie.

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Odds of this failure repeating in 2022-23? 20/80. As with Talbot, the Oilers are again relying on a good goalie in Jack Campbell in the prime of his career, just 30-year-old. But unlike Talbot, Jack Campbell didn’t play 86 games last year with Toronto, he played just 56. Teams, including Edmonton, appear far more aware of the enormous wear and tear that comes with riding one goalie. Of course, any goalie can have a crappy season, but between Campbell and Stuart Skinner, it’s likely Edmonton will get reliable netminding in 2022-23.

2. The power play collapsed. Edmonton’s power play went from the fifth best in 2016-17 to worst in the NHL in 2017-18. Veteran Mark Letestu went from scoring 11 power play goals to three, Milan Lucic from 12 to three, and Leon Draisaitl from 10 to six. Edmonton’s power play has been strong three straight years now, with Draisaitl scoring 24 goals last year and McDavid, 10. But such is the depth of the scoring on this team, with Evander Kane, Zach Hyman, and Jesse Puljujarvi all capable in front of the net, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Kailer Yamamoto solid on the wings, and Tyson Barrie and Evan Bouchard strong at the point, it’s likely Edmonton’s power play will continue to be one of the NHL’s best with a man advantage.

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Odds of this failure repeating in 2022-23? 20/80. Even the best power plays can have tough patches. This Edmonton power play was only mediocre for the Oilers for large stretches last year. But there’s enough depth and talent for this group to figure it out, I strongly suspect, with additional use of Bouchard and his nasty shot another probable difference maker.

3. The power forwards on the team collapsed. Edmonton’s 2016-17 team was pushed ahead by a number of big, tough wingers, namely Milan Lucic, 28, with 23 goals, Patrick Maroon, 28, with 27, Zack Kassian, 25, with seven, and Benoit Pouliot, 29, with eight. A year later, Maroon scored just 14 in 57 games before the Oilers traded him and Lucic dropped to 10 goals. Kassian again scored seven, while Pouliot was bought out in the summer of 2017, ending a disappointing run with the Oilers. The demise of Lucic was especially ruinous to the Oilers, as he was paid huge dollars and counted on to ride shotgun with McDavid but he could no longer keep up to that pace of play.

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Odds of this failure repeating in 2022-23? 30/70. Power forwards in the NHL can get old mighty fast. That could be bad news for the Oilers, given that Zach Hyman will be 30 this season and Evander Kane 31. Could what happened to Lucic and Maroon happen to them? It’s certainly possible given how difficult it is to maintain this style of rugged and fierce game. But odds are both Hyman and Kane will be able to bring peak or near peak production for a few more seasons.

4. Injuries hit hard. Andrej Sekera and Oscar Klefbom provided an outstanding one-two punch on left defence for the 2016-17 Oilers. Sekera played the best two-way defence the Oil had seen since Ryan Whitney and Sheldon Souray got hurt. Klefbom was fast developing into a true No. 1 d-man, a tower of power on the blueline. But a knee injury to Sekera and a shoulder injury to Klefbom in the 2017 playoffs against Anaheim set both players back, with Sekera playing mediocre hockey for just 36 games in 2017-18, while Klefbom played just 66 games, with his shoulder cutting down on his effectiveness, then driving him from the NHL in 2020.

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Odds of this failure repeating in 2022-23? 30/70. You never know when major injury will strike down a key player, but the good news is that injuries that greatly slowed Draisaitl and Nurse in the 2022 playoffs are reportedly fully on the mend. On defence, the Oil have OK depth with veterans Tyson Barrie, Cody Ceci and Brett Kulak all on hand and capable, backed up by promising young pros like Bouchard, Broberg and Dmitri Samorukov.

5. Young players failed to come through. A number of young players, such as Matt Benning, Drake Caggiula and Anton Slepyshev, appeared to take major steps up in the 2017 playoffs, but not one of them could maintain that momentum with the Oilers. Meanwhile, Puljujarvi could never find his game under Todd McLellan.

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Odds of this failure repeating in 2022-23? 20/80. There are young Oilers now being counted upon as well, but unlike Puljujarvi, high draft picks like Bouchard, Philip Broberg, and Dylan Holloway aren’t being rushed to the NHL, they’re taking one small step at a time. The jury is out on whether Ryan McLeod will have more staying power than Caggiula and Slepyshev, but at least McLeod won’t be needed to step up on a top line. There are plenty of candidates ahead of McLeod for that kind of role, which wasn’t the case for Caggiula and Slepyshev in 2017-18, not with Lucic and Maroon’s woes and Jordan Eberle traded out of town.

6. The Oilers failed to retain key players. Jordan Eberle had been Edmonton’s third leading scorer in 2016-17 with 51 points, but he displeased the team’s hockey bosses with a weak 2017 playoffs performances and was traded away.

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Odds of this failure repeating in 2022-23? 0. This summer Edmonton was able to retain key players like Evander Kane and Brett Kulak.

One other factor is that key players from that failed 2017-18 team are now all older and more experienced. The team’s leadership group of McDavid, Draisaitl, Nurse and Nugent-Hopkins have lived through that nightmare and will be much better prepared to lead their team when things get rough, as they always do for stretches in a season. Head coach Jay Woodcroft was also there in 2017-18 as Todd McLellan’s right-hand man. He will surely have learned from the mistakes of the past as well. On top of all that, there’s patient Ken Holland as the team’s hockey boss, a hockey executive who has seen it all by now in the NHL.

Overall, I would say the overall odds of the Oilers repeating the failure of 2022-23 are 5/95. You could expect this OIlers team to suddenly collapse like that 2017-18 one out of twenty seasons.

Note: Kurt Leavins’ 9 Things column will return next Sunday

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