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Oilers out of playoff hunt thanks to poor defense, instability

Presence of McDavid, young talent on way offer hope for future

by Tim Campbell @TimNHL / Staff Writer

The Edmonton Oilers failed to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the second straight season and for the 12th time in the past 13 seasons.

The Oilers (34-36-9) were eliminated from playoff contention in a 3-1 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights at T-Mobile Arena on Monday.

Here is a look at what happened in the 2018-19 season for Edmonton and why things could be better next season:


The Skinny

Potential UFAs: Alex Chiasson, F; Brad Malone, F; Alexander Petrovic, D; Kevin Gravel, D; Anthony Stolarz, G.

Potential RFAs: Jesse Puljujarvi, F; Jujhar Khaira, F; Tobias Rieder, F; Ty Rattie, F; Joseph Gambardella, F. 

Potential 2019 NHL Draft picks: 6


What went wrong

Leaky defense: The Oilers allowed 66 goals in their first 20 games (3.30 per game) and were 9-10-1 when coach Todd McLellan was fired on Nov. 20. Through those first 20 games, Edmonton's defensive start was fifth-worst in the NHL in terms of goals against.

The Oilers recovered briefly under new coach Ken Hitchcock but never really got a foothold on consistent defending. Their goaltending was inconsistent; Mikko Koskinen is 24-20-6 with a 2.90 goals-against average and .907 save percentage and Cam Talbot was 10-15-3 with a 3.36 GAA and .893 save percentage before he was traded to the Philadelphia Flyers for goalie Anthony Stolarz on Feb. 16. Edmonton is allowing 3.30 goals per game, seventh-worst in the NHL; under water by 39 goals (222 scored, 261 allowed) is not a formula for success.

Instability: The poor start cost McLellan his job and the upheaval continued when general manager Peter Chiarelli was fired on Jan. 22. With change came uncertainty about the future; Hitchcock was deemed a replacement for the rest of the season and assistant general manager Keith Gretzky, who took over most of Chiarelli's duties, is also in a placeholder role until a more thorough search can be conducted to lead Edmonton's hockey department.

Lack of depth scoring: Edmonton's top forwards had career-best seasons. Center Connor McDavid has 115 points (41 goals, NHL career-best 74 assists) in 75 games and is second in the League in scoring behind Tampa Bay Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov (125 points; 39 goals, 86 assists). Center Leon Draisaitl has 102 points (NHL career-bests of 47 goals, 55 assists) in 79 games. Center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has 65 points (NHL career-best 28 goals, 37 assists) in 79 games and forward Alex Chiasson had an NHL career-best 36 points (21 goals, 15 assists) in 70 games.

That quartet combined for 137 of Edmonton's 222 goals (61.7 percent) in 79 games. But beyond them, secondary scoring was sparse; the issue was particularly acute at the halfway point of the the season on Jan. 5, when after Chiasson's 16 goals at the time, the Oilers did not have another roster forward with more than three goals.


Reasons for optimism

New leadership on the way: CEO Bob Nicholson has begun what he promised would be an exhaustive search for a new general manager, and the person hired will decide who will be the next Oilers coach. Nicholson has also promised the organization's new hockey leaders will be focused on doing a better job of developing their own draft picks, an essential priority if the Oilers are move past their broader struggles since reaching the Stanley Cup Final in 2006, a seven-game loss to the Carolina Hurricanes.

McDavid the cornerstone: Whoever the new general manager will be and whatever his plan, improvement will seem much more plausible with McDavid's simple presence. The 22-year-old captain has improved his point total in each of his four NHL seasons and continues to be dominant player who best combines his speed with his playmaking.

Video: EDM@VGK: McDavid ties career high with 41st goal

McDavid won the 2016-17 Hart Trophy as the NHL most valuable player, is a two-time Ted Lindsay Award winner as most outstanding player voted by the NHLPA and a two-time defending Art Ross Trophy winner as NHL scoring leader. He is putting the finishing touches on his best season yet, one goal from an NHL career-high 42.

Youth on the rise: Edmonton's American Hockey League affiliate in Bakersfield has had a fine season, having clinched the Pacific Division title with a 39-18-3 record. Its prospects have been blooming under coach Jay Woodcroft, including forward Kailer Yamamoto, the No. 22 pick of the 2017 NHL Draft; forward Tyler Benson, a second-round pick (No. 32) in the 2016 draft; defenseman Caleb Jones, a fourth-round pick (No. 117) in the 2015 draft and defenseman Ethan Bear, a fifth-round pick (No. 124) in the 2015 draft. There's also defenseman Evan Bouchard, the No. 10 pick in the 2018 draft, who is having an impact season for London of the Ontario Hockey League (53 points; 16 goals, 37 assists in 45 games). 

Their progress leads to hope the Oilers system can offer help in the near future.

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