The Edmonton Oilers are looking great so far. While it’s worth mentioning the last three weeks have been up and down, as a whole, this Oilers team looks much more complete than what we saw in 2018-19.
We are just over a month into the season and the Oilers are sitting on the top of the standings in the Pacific Division and are fifth in the entire league. In fact, they’re on pace for a record of 48-24-10. If this record were plugged into last season, that would have put them in second in the West and fourth overall. Not bad for a team that in reality ended last season in 14th out of 15 teams in the West.
The Oilers were one of the busiest teams in the offseason. Any time a team gets a new general manager and a new coach, it sends a message that they are serious about improving their lot in the league. So let’s explore what has made this team so new and improved.
New GM: Ken Holland
Ken Holland was hired on May 7, 2019 and he hit the floor running. As you can imagine, new GMs don’t kick back and say “I’m sure the guy that just got fired was doing great, so let’s see what his roster can do and I’ll just sit in his chair.” In fact, he cleared some guys off the roster shortly after he arrived in Edmonton, as he bought out Andrej Sekera’s contact, and then traded Milan Lucic with the Calgary Flames for James Neal.
Speaking of Neal, let’s talk about what Holland has brought to the table, not just what he removed from it. So far the Neal trade looks like a definite win for Edmonton. At the time of the trade, it just looked like Edmonton and Calgary were swapping bad deals. Neal has already eclipsed his goal total of seven with the Flames from last season with 11 just 17 games in 2019-20. His nickname is “Real Deal James Neal,” and so far, he’s living up to that.
The other big addition that Holland has made was with free-agent goalie Mike Smith. Last year, the Oilers saw the departure of their starter Cam Talbot as he was losing starts to Mikko Koskinen. Koskinen looked very capable last season, but Holland opted to shore up his net with the low-risk, high-reward Smith deal. One year, $2 million for the guy with the best save percentage in the history of playoffs? I’ll take it.
New Coach: Dave Tippett
One of the most encouraging signs of the Dave Tippett hire is his long history with Smith. Tippett coached Smith from 2011 to 2017 with the Arizona Coyotes. Ideally, this kind of note would be accompanied by a year they won a Stanley Cup. Unfortunately, the best this duo did was in their first season together with a surprisingly deep run to the Western Conference Final. They ultimately ran into a wall of Jonathan Quick and the eventual Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings.
Tippett provides reason for optimism outside of his history with Smith. In his 17-game sample size with the Oilers, they have only allowed more than three goals on three occasions. Last season? This happened 37 times! That’s almost half of their games! It’s hard to win if the offense is expected to rack up five or more goals.
Elite Talent: McDavid and Draisaitl
I was saving the best for last. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are worth the price of admission by themselves. But Oilers fans are lucky enough to have both of these blue-chip players. Anyone that can name at least three hockey players knows McDavid; he was highly touted before he was even drafted and already has two Art Ross Trophies on his shelf.
Let’s not forget about Draisaitl. He doesn’t have McDavid’s silky mitts or speed (no one does), but if you watch this guy long enough, you realize he has one of the highest hockey IQs in the game today. He might not have the notoriety or trophies that McDavid has, but he racked up 50 goals last season. Including Draisaitl, there are only seven active players who have done that in the NHL.
You might be thinking: okay, the future looks bright in Edmonton, but are they Cup contenders? In reality, that’s about the hardest thing to predict in the NHL. The reigning Stanley Cup champions were in last place roughly 10 months ago, so your guess is as good as mine.
The best any team can do is set themselves up to be competitive and to continue to be competitive with the right youth movement. Holland has a long track record of winning and has put a great coaching staff in place. Everything about this franchise suggests they could battle for a Cup any given year. It’s just a matter of the stars aligning and the team playing like a team.