Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Edmonton Oilers, Number 1 in the Western Conference - How much of a factor is Milan Lucic?

     As of today the Edmonton Oilers are ranked number 1 in the both the Pacific Division and the Western Conference with a record of  7-2-0!  Their closest competitors in their conference right now are the San Jose Sharks at 6-3-0 and the Minnesota Wild at 6-2-1.  In the league only one team is ahead of them, the Montreal Canadians with a record of 8-0-1.  For the Eastern conference the other teams that are close are the Pittsburgh Penguins with a record of  6-2-1 and the New York Rangers at 6-3-0.  It is less than a month into the season, so of course things can change, but for the last ten years the Oilers have finished in the bottom of the Pacific division, and have never really been in strong contention to even make the playoffs.  The last time the Edmonton Oilers participated in the playoffs was at the end of the 2005-06 season where they made it to the final round.  They fell to the Carolina Hurricanes in that series 3 games to 4.  Could this be the year that the Oilers return to the playoffs, or even make another strong run for the Cup?
     When we hear Oilers and success, or winning games in the same sentence most people think of Connor McDavid, as well they should.  McDavid is without a doubt the number one super star on the team.  In the first 12 games that he played in the 2015-16 season he scored 5 goals and looked to be just what the Oilers needed to revive their playoff hopes.  Unfortunately he suffered a fractured clavicle on November 3rd of 2015 and was out for 4 months. Since his return form injury last March he scored 11 more goals to finish the 2015-16 season with 16 goals and 32 assists.  So far in this season he has already racked up 5 goals and 7 assists in just 9 games.  McDavid was in fact named the NHL's 1st Star of the Month for October.  As much of a star as McDavid is, and as much as he deserves all the accolades and attention he is getting, he is just one player on the ice and as we saw last season he can not turn the team around all by himself.
     Goalie Cam Talbot can also not be left of the discussion when we talk about the Oilers success.  This season Talbot has played in all 9 of the teams games.  He has made some great saves and has lead his team to their current position on top of the Western Conference.  Not only has he had 7 wins and only 2 losses so far this season, his team has the 2nd best win loss record in the NHL this season as well. So far in October he has defended 280 shots and allowed only 18 goals and had 2 shutouts this gives him a save percentage of 0.936 so far on the season.  His career save percentage is at a very respectable 0.925.  Having a super star offence and a physically strong defense are both important, but if you don't have a netminder that can make the saves under pressure and perform well when you need him, you are still not going to be a successful team.
     McDavid was not the only new addition that the Oilers made to their team last season.  They also acquired head coach Todd McLellan from the Sharks in an attempt to turn the team around and get them back in playoff position.  McLellan did well for the Oilers, but key injuries kept the Oilers in the bottom of their division come the end of the 2015-16 season once again.  This season not only is Captain Connor McDavid healthy and back on the ice, but the team also acquired defenseman Milan Lucic from the Los Angeles Kings over the summer.
     Lucic was signed to a 7 year 42 million dollar contract with the Oilers.  Connor McDavid was thrilled to have the burly defensman added to the roster, and was excited to have a teammate who was not afraid to get in the faces of players who crossed him or his teammates.  McDavid stated that gaining the tough defenseman would give them a more physical presence on the ice and a player who can provide a measure of protection among other things.  Lucic started out the opening game of the season doing just that.  He got into his first fight in an Oilers uniform about half way through the first period of the opening game.   Lucic dropped the gloves with defensman Deryk Englleand of the Calgary Flames in defense of his young captain.  While this is the only fight Lucic has gotten into so far this season, it certainly sent the statement that if you mess with his teammates he will throw down with you.  This I believe is something that the Oilers defense has lacked in the last several seasons.
     While Lucic is known as a brawler and a tough guy in the league, fighting is certainly not the only thing that Lucic brings to the team.  He has already had 4 goals and 3 assists in his 9 games in an Oilers uniform.  Lucic is playing in his 10th season with the NHL this year and never in his career  has he scored fewer than 7 goals.  His career high was 30 goals in his 2010-11 season with Boston where he also had 32 assists.  While he has not been able to repeat that 30 goal season again, his performance has not declined dramatically.  Just last season with the Kings he had 20 goals 35 assists for a total of 55 points and finished the season at a +26 rating.  So while having a successful season is indeed a team effort, and having a star like Connor McDavid on your offensive line is a major factor, McDavid is not the only reason that the team succeeds.  I think just as important to their success this season has been the addition to the team of Milan Lucic.
      Beyond the stats on paper however, I think the Lucic has brought a sense of confidence and protection to all of the guys he is on the ice with.  This has allowed the offence to be more successful and caused the rest of the defense to step up their game as well.  In essence just the sense of safety and physicality that Lucic has brought to the team has improved the overall performance of many of his teammates.  If the Oilers can continue playing, as a team, as well as they have been so far in this first month of the 2016-17 season I believe that they will be a strong presence in the playoffs, and perhaps even in contention for the cup.

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