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Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Could the Oilers Finally Play for the Cup Again?

     The Oilers were a powerhouse in the league between 1980 and 1992. In this time frame they nearly always made a deep run into the playoffs and won five Stanley Cups.  However, since then they have struggled.  Between the 1992-93 season and the 2005-06 seasons, they failed to even make it into the playoffs six times. Of the seven years that they did make it in, they only managed to make it to the final round once. The last time they played for the Stanley Cup was that 2005-06 season where they fell to the Carolina Hurricanes in game 7. In the last decade from the 2006-07 season through last season (2016-17) they only made it into the playoffs one time. That was, of course, last season where they lost to the Anaheim Ducks in game 7 of the second round. In the last three years, the Oilers have made a number of changes, the two most notable being on the administrative side of things: the hiring of Head Coach Todd McLellan and General manager Peter Chiarelli.
   
     Todd McLellan took over a team in the 2015-16 that had not won more than 30 games in a season since 2012. They had been winning between 24 and 29 games a season most years, and once as few as 19.  His first year coaching, McLellan brought the Oilers up to 31 wins. Last season, he coached his team to an amazing comeback of 47 wins, more than any season since 1986-87. McLellan also got the Oilers back to the playoffs for the first time in 10 years last season! The Oilers have seen improvement each year so far while he has led them, and they show no signs of stopping that trend this year. So this might really be the year that we see the Oilers advance to the finals again.

     One of the most important changes that the Oilers have made in recent years to try to become a more competitive force in the league again, was to hire Peter Chiarelli as General Manager in April of 2015. Chiarelli had been the GM for the Boston Bruins previously from the 2006-07 season through the 2014-15 season. In his nine seasons with the Bruins, they only failed to make the playoffs twice, in his first and last seasons with their organization. The Bruins also played for the cup twice in that time, winning one and losing one. The 2011 Stanley Cup win is the only time the Bruins have won the cup since 1972. Since Chiarelli took over the GM position for the Oilers, there have been several instances where it has been said that he is trying to rebuild the Oilers into what the Bruins were during the best part of his tenure there, coining the phrase the Bruin-ization of the Oilers. Chiarelli's philosophy and the style of play that he likes to cultivate are key factors in bringing the Stanley Cup back to Edmonton.

    Chiarelli's philosophy is that a championship team needs to have both size and skill, so these were the factors he was looking for with his players for the 2015-16 season. This Bruin-ization began by getting some players on the roster who could play a harder, more physical game, and not just on defense. This meant getting some bigger guys on the ice. In 2015, Chiarelli added Mark Letestu (C), Andrej Sekera (D), Adam Cracknell(RW), Griffin Reinhart (D), Adam Clendening (D), Lauri Korpikoski (LW), Zack Kassian (RW), Adam Pardy (D), Eric Gryba (D), and Partick Maroon (LW).  All of these guys are between 190 and 230 pounds, giving the Oilers a core of players whose size allows them to more easily play a harder more physical game. Not all of these guys ended up fitting in with the Oilers team or Chiarelli's and McLellan's vision for the team. Four were traded or put on waivers. One was drafted in the expansion draft by the Vegas Golden Knights. Most of those who remain of Chiarelli's 2015 acquisitions are still well-known to Oilers fans, and many other NHL fans, today as some of the more important players for the team. It is hard to watch an Oilers game without hearing the names of Mark Letestu, Zack Kassian, Andrej Sekera, and of course Patrick Maroon. Eric Gryba is a solid defenseman who performs well, and at less than $1 million a year is a steal for the Oilers, even if he is not a superstar name. Another key thing that all of these remaining players recruited by Chiarelli have in common is that they are no longer rookies. They have a few years of NHL experience under their belt, but are still young enough that they are not seeing any decline in their level of play due to age or persistent injury. They help to provide not only strength and size but also serve as a solid base of talent, able to support and help develop younger players.

Cam Talbot - New York Rangers
Talbot as a Ranger, 2014
By Lisa Gansky from New York, NY, USA (IMG_4330)
[CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
         Another change that is a throwback to his time with the Bruins is Chiarelli's hiring of goaltenders.  He likes to have one super start goalie who plays the vast majority of the season and comes with a high price tag. Then he spends peanuts, comparatively speaking, on 1 or 2 back up goaltenders who might only see 8 or 10 games between them all season. In 2015, Chiarelli acquired Cam Talbot from the New York Rangers. Last season Talbot played 73 regular season games, more than any other NHL goalie. Without looking it up, I doubt many NHL fans, perhaps not even many Oilers fans, could even tell you who Talbot's backup goalie is.  It is Laurent Brossoit by the way, he played only eight games last season, and just five the season before. Talbot is another huge key in getting the Oilers back to the Cup.  Last season, he was never once pulled from a game he started and he had 42 wins and 22 losses with a save percentage of .919 and goals against average of 2.39.  His staying healthy is obviously a key to the success of the Oilers organization, as all of his available backups are fairly young and inexperienced. The good news for the Oilers is that Talbot is a workhorse who is not prone to injury and performs consistently well even with the grueling schedule of games that every NHL team sees each year.

Milan Lucic - Boston Bruins
Lucic as a Bruin, 2014
By Lisa Gansky (Flickr: IMG_6630)
[CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
     The Bruin-ization continued last season when Milan Lucic was added to the roster ostensibly to add more weight and grit on the ice.  Lucic is best known for his very physical style of play for many years with the Boston Bruins. It was also understood that Lucic would provide added protection for young star Connor McDavid, who took a hard hit in the 2015-16 season causing a broken collar bone and forcing him to miss a significant part of that season. Lucic is known for his hair trigger temper and propensity for fighting. That said however he is not just a goon out there on the ice, he is a very talented winger. He is known for his protectiveness of the star centers he plays with, or really any of his team mates, but he also consistently scores more than 20 goals a season and has 25-30 assists a season as well. In short he epitomizes the type of player Chiarelli loves to sign. He is big, tough and plays a very physical game but he also has the speed and talent to contribute offensively. The final footnote in the story of the Bruin-ization of the Oilers came just about a week ago when Chiarelli signed former Bruin center Kris Kelly to a Professional Try Out contract. Kelly like a lot of Chairelli's player picks is a big guy at 6 foot tall and 190lbs. When he played under Chiarelli he was a 20 goal scorer for the Bruins, when he was healthy enough to play the whole season. His numbers have declined in the intervening years, but he was also seeing less ice time. Kelly's size and style of play should allow him to fit in well with the Oilers. It will be interesting to see how he does on a team that is now structured very much like the Bruins were when he played for them.
Connor McDavid 07042015
McDavid, 2015
By Connor Mah (Own work)
[CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
     Another major component of a Stanley Cup championship team is to have young talent with speed and the ability to put the puck in the net. Under GM Chiarelli and head coach McLellan, the Oilers have covered that also. The most obvious names that come to mind are of course Connor McDavid, and Leon Draisaitl. Both of these players were signed to long-term contracts under the current coaching and management team. McDavid was signed to an eight-year $100 million contract with a no-movement clause locking him in with the Oilers until at least 2025-26. Leon Draisaitl also signed an eight-year $68 million contract this summer with a modified no-trade, no-movement clause, making it likely that he will also be an Oiler through 2025-26. McDavid and Driasatl will center the top two lines for the Oilers this coming season.

     Draisiatl  scored 29 goals and made 48 assists last season. He is 21 years old, and while I would not say that he still needs developing as a player, he has certainly not yet reached the peak of his performance. So, we should expect to see his numbers continue to rise in the coming years. 

     McDavid, as most NHL fans know, was the youngest ever captain of an NHL team.  He is now 20 years old, and even at such a young age was the top scorer in the league last year with an astounding 100 points! I don't know how much more McDavid's numbers can improve, but I would expect to see his high performance sustained at the least, if not improved upon going forward into the 2017-18 season. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is also a notable mention of younger Oilers talent. Nugent-Hopkins is one of the few players who survived the change in management when Chairelli and McLellan took over in 2015, and for good reason. At 20 Nugent-Hopkins managed to stand out as a potentially excellent player on a team which everyone expected to lose most games, in his rookie year the Oilers only won 25 of 82 games. In that season he scored 18 goals and made 34 assists. He has continued to mature and improve as a player over the last 6 years and except in 2 seasons where he missed a significant number of games his numbers have gotten steadily better as well. While he is not the super star McDavid or Draisaitl are, Nugent-Hopkins, now 24, is also likely to continue to increase his scoring opportunities and makes his team a stronger and more successful one.

    Having a deep bench is another key factor that sets a championship team apart. Prior to the Chiarelli/McClellan years, the Oilers lacked this depth. They had some very talented players, but they were a small team who could not stand up to the bigger rougher players they came up against. They also lacked strong player leadership and suffered from a serious lack of confidence in their abilities. Their defensive lines were not strong enough to be competitive in the league.  Five of the Oilers top 6 defensemen have been brought in since Chiarelli/McLellan took over, only Oscar Klefbom was not replaced when the new management came in.

This season we can expect to see the lines look something like this:

1st line LW Patrick Maroon, C Connor McDavid,  RW Ryan Strome
last season McDavid scored 30 goals, Maroon scored scored 27 and Strome scored 13
        Left D Oscar Klefbom, Right D Adam Larsson
last season Klefbom scored 12 goals, and Larsson scored 4 goals

2nd line LW Milan Lucic, C Leon Draisaitl, RW Drake Caggiula
last season Lucic scored 23 goals, Draisaitl scored 29 goals, and Caggiula scored 7 goals
        Left D Kris Russell, Right D Matt Benning
last season Russell scored 1 goal, and Matt Benning scored 3 goals

3rd Line LW Jussi Jokinen, C Ryan Nugent-Hopkins RW Jesse Puljujarvi
last season Jokinen scored 11 goals, Nugent-Hopkins scored 18 goals, and Puljujarvi scored 1 goal
        Left D Darnell Nurse, Right D Eric Gryba
last season Nurse scored 5 goals, and Gryba scored 2 goals

4th line LW Jujhar Kharia C Mark Letestu, RW Zack Kassian
last season Kharia scored 1 goal, Letestu scored 16 goals, and Kassian scored 7 goals

As you can see now under Chiarelli and McLellan all 4 lines are able to produce good scoring opportunities. As you would expect the top two lines made up more than half of the goals scored, but the fact that the Oilers are now able to put together 4 lines with strong centers and who all work well together is a game changer for the organization. This means that they can consistently put the puck in the net no matter which line is on the ice. Having a larger and more effective defensive line up helps keep them in the tough games by limiting their opponents scoring opportunities. Having a strong goalie in net gives the whole team the confidence to take more risks and try to make the big plays, since they know Talbot has his end of the ice covered if things go wrong. McDavid as captain, along with his alternate captains Lucic and Nugent-Hopkins, set the tone for the team and provide the kind of player support that the Oilers were previously lacking. All of these things combined give the Oilers as a team the confidence that they can be competitive and that they are good enough to make it to the finals again. This belief in themselves and their organization is just as necessary as good coaching and raw talent in getting the team back to raising the Stanley Cup at the end of the post-season.

   Talented prospects and a view to the future of the organization is another component of a successful hockey team. The Oilers have a long history of high draft picks due to their consistent low placement in the league over the last decade. They have not always made the most of those opportunities however. This seems to have changed under the Chiarelli/McLellan administration too. This year the Oilers got Kailor Yamamoto as 1st round draft pick. He played most recently with the WHL's Spokane Chiefs where he scored 42 goals and 99 points last season. The 6th highest in the entire WHL league!  In the 3rd round they acquired goaltender prospect Stuart Skinner who had a save percentage of .906 last season ans shows promise of developing into an excellent goalie. So those are definitely 2 names to watch for in the coming years. The Oilers trend of finishing in the bottom of the league has finally come to an end, and as such they have to make the best of any high draft picks they might get now.

     All in all it looks like the Oilers have the best chance they have had in decades of making it into the the finals this coming season. No there are no guarantees, they still have some very strong teams to make it past in their conference. They will have to make it past the Ducks who eliminated them last season in the Pacific division. They will also likely have to knock the Blackhawks out to win the Western Conference. If they do manage to make it past all their Western Conference competition they will have an undoubtedly tough series against who ever wins the Eastern Conference, before they would realize the goal of raising the Stanley Cup. What I will say is, that with the team they have now and the way they have been performing, not only does the idea of the Oilers winning the cup no longer make me laugh, I now see it as being distinctly possible.

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