NHL News

Why the Edmonton Oilers are different this season — or are they?

The Edmonton Oilers have your attention.

Superstar captain Connor McDavid has created a season’s worth of highlights in a span of a few weeks, starting the campaign with a 17-game points streak. Leon Draisaitl leads the league in points (35 in 17 games, for a 2.06 per-game average). Here’s the list of players in NHL history who have posted a single-season average above two points per game: Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux.

The two Oilers stars fuel a power play that’s been the best in the NHL for two straight seasons and only recently dipped under a 40% conversion rate (39.6%). With the man advantage, Edmonton is the greatest show on ice.

But what is really commanding attention is its place in the standings. The Oilers have the highest points percentage (.765) in the Western Conference, and the third-highest in the NHL behind the Carolina Hurricanes and the Florida Panthers.

McDavid and Draisaitl have dragged the Oilers to the playoffs three times, but the team has failed to seriously contend once there, including a first-round sweep last season. This iteration feels different — like a team that won’t just make a cameo appearance in the postseason but will challenge for a championship.

Have the Oilers leveled up? Here’s a look at the numbers, what the Oilers themselves are saying, and what the league is saying about them.

Watch the Oilers take on the Dallas Stars at 8:30 p.m. ET on Tuesday on ESPN+.

What the Oilers say

“It feels a little different this year.”

Coach Dave Tippett said that in October, when the Oilers were 5-0-0. Tippett was asked to compare this season’s perfect five-game start with the one Edmonton had in 2019-20.

That narrative — are the Oilers really a changed team? — hasn’t gone away. If anything, the overtures have continued to swell with every dazzling victory or disappointing defeat. And like everyone else, the Oilers have opinions about it.

“We’re more confident,” defenseman Tyson Barrie said. “We go into games and we feel like we’re going to win; it’s almost like we know we’re going to win. It’s a confident group. We made some great moves, got some good pieces, more depth and scoring throughout the lineup. I think we’re very comfortable with where we’re at.”

It’s impossible to say how that season two years ago might have played out for Edmonton had the COVID-19 pandemic not shuttered league operations in March 2020. When the regular season halted, the Oilers were 37-25-9, fifth in the Western Conference and second in the Pacific Division.

Last season was unlike any other, with a weird 56-game slate of six rotating opponents. As it was, Edmonton finished second in the North Division (35-19-2) and was swept by Winnipeg in the first round of the playoffs.

If anything, that flat finish exposed the Oilers’ lack of offensive depth. Edmonton was outscored 14-8, a side effect of relying too much on McDavid and Draisaitl to carry the load.

It’s an old story for the Oilers, which brings us back to the present 82-game schedule. Edmonton is off to a 13-4-0 start. Tippett previously identified where these Oilers diverge from previous years, much of which has held true for the first month of this season.

“We’ve found different ways to win,” he said. “Goaltending has been solid, the added depth we have is having an impact on our lineup. I like what we’re doing. It feels like we’ve had a good training camp, we’ve gone into the season ready to go, and able to find some wins.”

The Oilers have hit with some key offseason signings. Zach Hyman is fourth on the team in scoring, with eight goals and 14 points. Warren Foegele has been a boost for the bottom six, adding two goals and seven points. Duncan Keith and Cody Ceci offer a solid veteran presence on the blue line.

And of course there’s McDavid and Draisaitl near the top of the leaderboards in just about any statistic. There’s nothing different about that, though. What the Oilers say has changed is their collective mentality and commitment to becoming more than just a one- or two-line wonder.

“I can tell you we’ve come in with a different attitude and a different perspective,” said Zack Kassian. “We’re going to have different people step up each night. That’s how the league works, that’s what good teams do. We’re playing like a team right now. That’s what you want to see.”

Barrie may have summed up Edmonton’s mindset best in relaying a story about Draisaitl.

The Oilers were down 4-1 on Nov. 5, when Barrie said Draisaitl went skating past the New York Rangers’ bench and told them, “Hold on, it’s coming.”

Almost on cue, Edmonton launched a raucous comeback capped by McDavid scoring That Goal through all five Rangers to tie things up in the third. The Oilers won 6-5 in overtime.

Even the ever-modest McDavid would concede this was a nice play. But championships aren’t earned over brilliant goals scored in game No. 10. Those singular feats don’t hold much water for McDavid and Draisaitl anymore; they’ve won plenty of hardware in their careers, but only one playoff round.

“We’re all here to win,” Draisaitl said. “Individual stats, individual awards — I’ve been there, I’ve done that. I’m very proud of it, but that’s not why I’m here. That’s not why Connor’s here. That’s not why anybody’s here. We want to win. We want to keep the confidence, and win.”

Tippett says his team doesn’t talk much about its record. It’s all about their play. When Edmonton was slugging it out against Winnipeg on Nov. 18 for an eventual 2-1 shootout win, he appreciated the entirety of the team’s game.

“There was intensity, there was a willingness to compete hard,” Tippett remarked. “When we made a mistake, the goaltender [Stuart Skinner] cleaned up the mess for us. It’s a good step in the right direction.”

To be more multifaceted, Edmonton has to generate offense in more ways from more places. That takes pressure off its top-tier players to produce and creates the potential to surprise the opposition.

“We’re doing a better job of getting some sustained offense in the o-zone,” said Barrie. “The rush game is there, it’s going to be there when you see the players we have on this team. They’re going to make you pay in transition. But we’re just finding a way to create some more sustained offense, whether that’s D getting involved, moving the puck, walking the blue line or jumping into the o-zone. And maybe more of a shooting mentality, too.”

Think of the Oilers like an orchestra: When there’s trust in each individual to play their part in tune, that’s when the magic happens.

“We’ve found ways to win different games,” McDavid said. “We’ve found ways to win games where maybe we shouldn’t have won. I think that’s a credit to the different ways we can play. We’ve gotten great goaltending; that goes a long way. Special teams have been good. 5-on-5 we’ve been okay, but I find [we’re] getting better.”

It helps that the results have been there for Edmonton early on. Its record now is better than through 17 games two years ago (10-5-2) and the team has yet to lose consecutive games this season.

There’s a swagger to these Oilers, if they do say so themselves. Time will tell if that’s the difference-making quality they’ve been looking for.

“We have a lot of guys that have confidence right now,” said Draisaitl. “That is big in helping you win hockey games; a lot of [success] in his league is about confidence. We don’t want to lose that confidence anytime soon, so we’re using that to our advantage right now.”

“We have good vibes,” added Kassian. “With this group, I don’t think we ever feel like we’re out of a game. We feel like we can beat any team but we can come back in any game as well.”

What the stats say

After 17 games, the Oilers are the second-best offensive team (3.88 goals per game) and 17th-best defensive team (2.94 goals against per game) in the NHL.

The biggest advantage they have is on special teams. That’s not exactly breaking news when we’ve watched McDavid and Draisaitl ring up points as if opposing penalty kills are their personal pinball machines, but there are other layers to that dominance.

Through 17 games, Edmonton has scored 21 power-play goals and hasn’t given up a single shorthanded goal, by far the best differential in the NHL with the man advantage. After 17 games last season, it was 15 goals for and two goals given up, so the Oilers have improved here.

On the penalty kill, they have taken a leap forward, even though their PK was already pretty great, third-best in the NHL from 2019-20 through 2020-21 (83.6%).

Currently, the unit is killing 88.9% of the power plays it faces. Through 17 games last season, Edmonton had given up 13 power-play goals and scored twice shorthanded. Through 17 games this season, the Oilers have given up just six power-play goals and scored three shorthanded, tied with the Colorado Avalanche for the best goal differential on the penalty kill in the league.

The PK is improved despite a significant changeover in personnel. Gone from last season’s unit: defenseman Adam Larsson (Seattle), forward Josh Archibald (out with myocarditis), winger Jujhar Khaira (Chicago), defenseman Ethan Bear (Carolina) and forward Gaetan Haas (Switzerland). Added to this season’s unit: Defensemen Evan Bouchard, Ceci and Keith, and forwards Derek Ryan and Hyman.

“The Oilers have a big advantage with Tippett’s obsession over special teams,” said “Lowetide,” an Edmonton blogger turned daily radio host. “There are all kinds of stories around the Oilers and improvement, and I do think there have been some areas that look better. But the problem remains the problem.”

The problem is at even strength, where the Oilers are very much the same team. After 17 games last season, the Oilers had scored 38 goals and given up 41 at even strength; this season, they have scored 37 and given up 39. The Oilers are a slightly better possession team at 5-on-5 (51.3% Corsi rate) and a slightly worse team in expected goals share (48.8%, down from 49.7% last season overall). Their shooting (8.58) and save percentages (.912) are slightly down from last season, too.

Their top six is as good as it gets. McDavid’s line with Jesse Puljujarvi and Hyman has an expected goals share of 58.7%. Draisaitl’s line with Kailer Yamamoto and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins scores well above expectation, with 1.87 expected goals per 60 minutes but an average of 4.0 goals per 60 minutes as a unit. When Draisaitl moves up to play with McDavid, the Hyman- Yamamoto-Nugent-Hopkins troika has an expected goals share of 70%.

However, there’s a significant gap between the top lines and what the bottom six is contributing, despite the additions of players such as Ryan, Foegele and rookie Ryan McLeod.

The goaltending has, as always, been an adventure. Mike Smith played three games with a .920 save percentage before going on injured reserve. Half of Mikko Koskinen‘s 10 starts have been quality starts, including some where his effort has been better than the final count — see his 35-save performance in a 5-4 win over the St. Louis Blues. He’s been better than last season, but remains a sub-replacement-level goalie, per Evolving Hockey. More intriguing is the 23-year-old Skinner, who has been percolating in the AHL for three seasons. He has 3.4 goals saved above average in five games.

What the rest of the league says

Last season, Winnipeg Jets coach Paul Maurice saw the Oilers at their best in the regular season, going 2-7 against them in the all-Canadian North Division. Then he watched his team humble them in the playoffs, sweeping Edmonton in the first round despite nine combined points in four games for McDavid and Draisaitl.

The Jets handed the Oilers one of their only losses this season, beating them 5-2 in Winnipeg, and lost a shootout in Edmonton that broke a 1-1 stalemate — the only game this season in which the Oilers scored fewer than two goals after 60 minutes.

“It was a hell of a game. Shootouts are fun when you win, and I’m not going to spend a lot of time thinking about them when you don’t,” Maurice said.

Maurice has said a key to defending the Oilers is to know where they like to funnel their offense. “One of the ways Edmonton scores an awful lot of its goals is through the seam going dot-to-dot,” he said.

Another key is patience when facing McDavid and Draisaitl. “If you give them room, it opens everything else up. You can’t overplay it. Their assists tell you that they’ll find the other guys,” he said.

The narrative around Edmonton always comes back to its superstars.

“Leon and Connor got even better,” said one NHL veteran. “They’ve found ways to adapt even more to the way they’re defended. Off the rush is where all the highlights are, but it’s the stuff inside the zone that’s been the most beneficial.”

One player who faced the Oilers recently acknowledged that “structurally, maybe they’re a bit tighter … so they can recover from mistakes faster,” but added: “those two guys are the focal point so what’s changed there?”

Those who watch the Oilers closely have seen a shift.

One longtime analyst said there was a different demeanor in training camp from the leadership group: “It was like, ‘No more BS; it’s time to put your big boy pants on.'”

Another agreed there’s more conviction from the Oilers, which the team may have lacked in seasons past: “They know they are supposed to be good, and they want to prove it. … I do think there’s added swagger and confidence.”

The addition of Hyman via free agency has been a boost, according to one NHL defenseman. “Hyman is a very, very good complement for McDavid. You need guys that can get the puck in the corner, and he seems to be clicking really well,” he said.

Of course, all the regular-season success the Oilers can manifest will be forgotten if they can’t win in the playoffs. That’s where it can’t just be the Connor and Leon show, especially if Tippett decides to load up with them on the same line in crunch time, like last postseason.

“You dedicate your game plan to shut those guys down and then force everyone else to beat you,” said one NHL veteran. “I think that team is so much better when they’re spread out. Because you can try not to even score on your shift against [McDavid and Draisaitl] and completely focus on shutting them down.”

Ask around enough about Edmonton and a theme emerges about a team that can be its own worst enemy.

“They adjust their game to the level of their opponent,” one Western scout said. “Not all the time, but it still happens. That won’t work long-term. But the way they recover from those mishaps more often now, it seems like they know it.”

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