“The Oilers have a BRUTAL schedule in the first 10 games to start the season. I’ll be happy if we go 5-5 in those games.”
Just about everyone
Well the nightmarish part of the schedule is over and don’t look now – the Oilers are 6-3-1.
Started from the bottom now we here pic.twitter.com/mn1VXr887x
— McOilers 12 (@McOilers) October 29, 2018
San Jose also won later last night but they’ve played 11 games so I’m not counting that right now, OK?
Now if you read my Game 1 summary I wasn’t happy with the system employed by Edmonton that game. In fact, for the next couple games I was highly critical of how coach McLellan’s team was attacking the opposition (I know, everyone thinks they know more than the coach but I maintain there were legitimate concerns). However, instead of complaining in a post after every game I left that to Twitter and a couple of podcasts. Plus, who has time for that? 🙂 I’ve always maintained this is a talented team capable of making the playoffs but were not being utilized properly. The dump and chase philosophy that Coach McLellan seems to love so much was just taking away so much of the offensive creativity of this team one couldn’t help but get frustrated. The Oilers dropped their first two games then squeaked by a lousy Rangers team (thanks to a couple of lucky posts) but were down once again 4-1 to Winnipeg in the 2nd period and the call for McLellan’s job was loud and clear.
Can you blame them? After all, this team struggled out of the gate last year and all the coaches around him got fired in the offseason. (Ftr, I was also one of those calling for his firing). Now, they were staring down a 1-3 start with some tough opponents still up on the horizon. The Oilers were playing awful for the first half of that game trying to execute the coach’s system with unsuccessful dump-in after unsuccessful dump-in. It looked like men versus boys out there as one Twitter peep put it with the Jets just dominating possession. But then, something slowly started to change. The Jets took their foot off the gas and the Oilers just started “playing” again.
The offensive gameplan for the first 10 periods of the season looked like a kid drew it up in a sandbox. The Oilers were so predictable, they were playing dump and chase 75% of the time and were getting beat to 75% of their dump-ins. They were not providing proper puck support on the defensive end and they were just ringing the puck around the boards in the offensive zone so they could get a weak shot on net from the point with no one in front. This happened time after time again. Meanwhile, their opponents were beating them to pucks, attacking their zone with speed, and constantly looking for high quality scoring chances in high danger areas. I know because I tracked every game on video. The Oilers had terrible gameplans and poor execution. But that 3rd period in Winnipeg changed the course of the season so far.
In that game versus Winnipeg, as mentioned the Oilers were down 4-1 in the 2nd but started to put together good shifts late in the period by just attacking the Jets with speed. They stopped playing dump and chase and opened up offensively, quite often carrying the puck into the zone and attacked Winnipeg’s defence. While they didn’t score, they finished strong and then came out flying in the 3rd. After scoring 17 seconds in, the Oilers continued to press the Jets who never really pushed back and were able to force it to Overtime where Darnell Nurse scored the goal of the year so far for Edmonton and give them a huge come from behind two points.
That momentum carried over to the following game vs. Boston where the Oilers were able to hang with a very talented Bruins squad, and ultimately managed to pull out another OT win thanks to Leon Draisaitl. It was a nice response to an earlier defeat to the Bruins, but what impressed me was how the Oilers mixed up their offensive strategy to throw off Boston. They changed up their lines and offensive approach by dumping the puck in less and attacking their defence more. The cycle game was still relatively ineffective but the puck support in our defensive zone was much better which led to better transitions. Todd McLellan’s history of making adjustments typically tells us it takes him forever to make any, but you could see some noticeable changes in that game that helped lead the Oilers to the win.
The next game was against Nashville where basically the Oilers ran into a hot goalie who had their number plain and simple. They hung with the Preds for the majority of the game but a costly decision to put Khaira and Strome out on the Top Powerplay to start ended up costing the team a goal and it was the game winner. Even in that game though, you could see adjustments were made. In particular, how the Oilers defended the slot to prevent one-timers on the Powerplay and Edmonton’s play in the neutral zone. We lost, but it wasn’t a bad loss and the Predators were the top team in the NHL so we moved on to the next game.
Pittsburgh was the next opponent. In that game, Edmonton was the better team in my estimation but Cam Talbot wasn’t his best and Sidney Crosby proved why he is a superstar in overtime by scoring the game winner. Edmonton got another point however and proved to themselves they could hang with the big boys with another strong effort. Leon Draisaitl, who has mainly struggled for the most part this season had his best game I thought. The Oilers were 3-3-1 after that game and everyone (including myself) thought even best case scenario 5-4-1 would be great but 4-4-2 would be fine too. Little did we know, Edmonton would rip off 3 straight to finish with 13 points in 10 games but that’s exactly what happened.
After handling the Washington Capitals 4-1, Coach McLellan finally decided to give $2.5 Mill backup Mikko Koskinen a start in what seemed an extremely difficult spot – at Nashville. The Preds have owned the Oilers over the last few years and were leading the NHL in points. Plus, Koskinen hadn’t played a game in a month. None of that seemed to matter though as the Oilers gave a tremendous effort and were finally able to solve Jusse Saros (who seemed to have their number) by beating he and the Preds 5-3. Edmonton then followed that up with another 2-1 overtime victory in Chicago in back to back games finishing a horrid schedule at top of the Pacific at the time. It was a ridiculously tough schedule and the results were absolutely astonishing considering the fact the Oilers started 0-2 and looked pretty damn useless for the majority of 4 games. So what happened?
Courtesy of NHL.com
For one, the team made adjustments. As someone who records and breaks down every game on video, you could see the offensive gameplan was tinkered with & the lines were juggled. Kailer Yamamoto was NOT working with Leon Draisaitl. Milan Lucic was NOT working with Leon Draisaitl. Matt Benning was NOT working on the 2nd pair with Darnell Nurse. The Oilers forwards waiting for the puck at the blueline while the defence wrung it around the boards was NOT working. The constant dump and chase only to not get there was NOT working. The philosophy of just keep cycling the puck until you get it back to the point for a weak shot on net with no one in front was NOT working. And lastly, the compete level and overall execution while not terrible, was not good enough to get it done.
Now, if this was last year then the odds of all that being adjusted in a short period of time would have highly unlikely. However, while Coach McLellan deserves some credit for doing it much more quickly this time, you do have to wonder how much the assistant coaches played a part in that. There’s no question the penalty kill has made adjustments and that is specifically because of Assistant coach Trent Yawney. They are technically ranked 20th right now but have given up a 5 on 3 goal and a 6 on 4 goal both on the road where they’re 27th in the league (68.2%). At home, they are 5th right now on the PK at 90.9%. The powerplay, which despite having 5 lefties and their point man Oscar Klefbom having zero goals, is still a respectable 11th in the NHL thanks mainly to Connor McDavid who is tied for the most PP points in the league with 8. Not sure if McLellan, Gulutzan or Viveiros is to thank there or if it is a combination of all three but it’s been relatively successful so far though it remains to be seen if this all-lefties PP setup is sustainable long-term.
Secondly, the team’s overall effort has dramatically spiked since the first half of that Winnipeg game and secondary guys have upped their intensity. Drake Caggiula has been a sparkplug for this team when in the lineup. Milan Lucic is playing fast, finishing his checks and making good decisions. Kailer Yamamoto has played much better since being removed from Draisaitl’s line. Tobias Rieder has been fantastic lately at both ends of the ice while sporting a 5 points in 3 games streak entering last night’s game. Kris Russell has come in and solidified that second pair, and Alex Chiasson has scored some big goals for this team. This all while Leon Draisaitl, by his own admission needs to find his game and get better after a slow start where he has only scored 6 goals and 11 points in 10 games. LOL.
Alex Chiasson scores. (Codie McLachlan/CP)
Lastly, the team now has confidence. It was such a disappointing season last year where the Oilers just couldn’t seem to dig themselves out of an early hole, and were playing catch up pretty much all season. This year, they had that big comeback against Winnipeg and it just seemed to springboard them through the rest of the trip. It was a daunting task to remain competitive in light of such a tough schedule but in hindsight it might have been the best thing for this team as it forced them to up their intensity & “play up” to their opponents high level. The challenge now moving forward will be to not “play down’ to their perceived lesser opponents and maintain consistency throughout the season – something that has plagued them over the last few years.
The good news is, the worst part of the schedule appears to be over and the Pacific division is completely up for grabs. The Oilers have done a tremendous job over these first 10 games to bank as many points as they could and set themselves up for a successful season. Surely, there will still be plenty of ups and downs throughout the course of the year but to not start in that hole like last season should do wonders for this team’s confidence. But it’s not always how you start it’s how you finish and that finish line is still a long ways away. So far so good I say, if the Oilers can bring that type of intensity and effort that they have over these last few games then the sky’s the limit for this team. They have the best player in the league and a lot of talented players around him, there’s no reason why they can’t get at least 3rd in the Pacific and a trip back to the playoffs. Go Oilers go!
To comment please do so via Twitter @TheOilKnight.