|Minnesota's Matt Cullen snipes home the game-tying marker on Thursday evening at the Xcel Energy Center. |
If the Edmonton Oilers want to make the jump into a playoff spot following back-to-back seasons in last place, they'll need roughly 18 more wins and 35 more points than they had a year ago (97 points was last year's playoff cut). Expectations will certainly vary depending on who you talk to, but I'll argue that it's simply not reasonable to expect them to make the jump in one season.
Can they? Of course they could, but I'd suggest that a more appropriate goal would be to see them pick up 10-12 more wins and move up to the pack that sticks around in playoff contention until about March, before settling into 11-12-13 in the Western Conference.
In either case, we're talking about a significant move up from a 25 win and 62 point season. And, in order for that significant move to happen, there are a three key things that have to go right for the team: STAY HEALTHY
In their two last place seasons the Oilers lost a combined 811 man games due to injury (530 in 09-10 & 281 in 10-11). That works out, on average, to five regular players missing from the lineup for every game in the last two seasons. To exasperate the statistic, with no disrespect intended to the depth role players on the team, the injury bug has routinely bitten the starring players on the team: Hemsky, Whitney, Hall, Gagner, Horcoff, Khabibulin etc.
This season is off to a bit of a shaky start from the health perspective with Ryan Whitney
, Sam Gagner
and Ben Eager
all unable to start the season and now some renewed concern over the shoulder of Ales Hemsky
. I don't doubt the team's ability to cope with key injuries over a short period of time, but there are very few teams in the league that can cope with significant injuries over a sustained duration of time, and the Oilers are no different.IMPROVE ON SPECIAL TEAMS
Last season the Oilers powerplay was 27th in the league at 15.2% and the penalty kill was 29th at 77.0%. If the team could find a way even to get to the middle of the pack on both of these units, it would result in approximately a +40 in their goal differential. I think the powerplay unit is probably still a work in progress but I believe big strides can be taken immediately on the penalty kill.
With the addition of Eric Belanger
in conjunction with the presence of Shawn Horcoff
, the team has two excellent faceoff men to anchor their top units. Ryan Jones
and Ryan Smyth
are veteran forwards who can kill, while Anton Lander
and Lennart Petrell
are a couple of very capable new faces.
On either unit, the coaching staff will take a big chunk of the responsibility for drawing up systems that put their players in a position to succeed. Special teams involve creating fairly regimented systems and putting in time advance scouting what the opposition does in hopes of exploiting weaknesses. Aside from the talent on the ice, it'll be the talent and hard work off the ice of the coaching staff that helps make a difference in these areas this season.WIN THE CLOSE GAMES
This one is actually two-fold because the team also needs to do a better job of playing in close games to start with. Last year, nobody won fewer one-goal games than the Oilers, who won just 9 of the 31 that they played in. The bad news continues when you point out that only Minnesota (30) played in fewer one-goal games to start with, meaning that the Oilers lost 35 games by two or more goals.
I suppose it stands to reason that a younger team would struggle to execute cleanly for entire games, protect leads and that sort of thing, but as Tom Renney has said heading into this year, there's no house money left to play with. The team got a lot of slack last year from every from the fans to the coaching staff, but the evaluation of this year's team will be significantly more results oriented. Consider the phrase "moral victory" stricken from the vocabulary. On a more consistent basis, the team will need to find the poise necessary to compete in, and win, the close games.