Nightmarish Season Continues for Oilers

Heading into training camp, the Edmonton Oilers had Stanley Cup aspirations. Many in the media picked Edmonton to win this year’s Stanley Cup, and various Oilers players such as captain Connor McDavid and sniper Leon Draisaitl referred to this season as “Stanley Cup or bust.”

Over the past few seasons, the Oilers have steadily improved their offensive depth with the acquisitions of such talents as Zach Hyman, Evander Kane, Warren Foegele, and Connor Brown, to name a few. On the blueline, Edmonton late last season got a big boost when, on February 28, 2023, General Manager Ken Holland pulled the trigger on a blockbuster trade with the Nashville Predators, which landed them 6 foot 5-inch, 225-pound veteran defenseman Mattias Ekholm. Ekholm brings not only toughness but is also a great shot blocker, and by excelling defensively, he is the perfect compliment for young Oilers offensive-minded defenseman Evan Bouchard.

Following the trade, Ekholm showed Oilers fans his offensive upside, scoring four goals and 14 points in 21 games. He shored up the defence and became one of the dressing room leaders. Bouchard, drafted 10th overall in the 2018 Entry Draft, continues to emerge offensively. While putting up numbers and quarterbacking the power play, this 24-year-old has been prone to costly defensive lapses.

The back end also features some more toughness in former 2013 first-round selection Darnell Nurse, who is still in his prime and provides that fearless in-your-face hockey while not hesitating to drop the gloves when necessary. Meanwhile, the best news for Oilers fans came this fall when goaltender Jack Campbell had a dominant training camp. Entering year two of a lucrative $25 million five-year contract, Campbell struggled in his first season out west, where he had a 3.41 GAA and a .888 save percentage in a season that saw him lose the starter’s job to rookie Stuart Skinner.

Oilers Nation was optimistic that the 31-year-old Michigan native would be able to successfully bounce back to his performance from two years ago when, in his last season with the Toronto Maple Leafs, he posted a career-high 31 wins with a 2.64 GAA and a .914 save percentage.

Another reason for the Oilers being looked upon as Stanley Cup contenders is their captain is arguably the greatest player in the league. McDavid and Draisaitl are even more determined following last spring’s heartbreaking Western Conference semi-final playoff loss to the Vegas Golden Knights.

To say that things this season haven’t gone according to script for the Oilers would be a complete understatement. Edmonton lost their season opener at Rogers Arena by an 8-1 score against the Vancouver Canucks. They followed that up by dropping their home opener by a 4-3 score at Rogers Place against those same Canucks, which led to Edmonton dropping six of their first seven regular-season games. This unexpected nightmare start saw Campbell struggle badly with a 1-4 record, a 4.50 GAA, and a .873 save percentage, which in early November resulted in him getting demoted to the AHL’s Bakersfield Condors.

Last season, Skinner was the feel-good story in the Oilers net as he went on to post a solid 29-14-5 record with a .275 GAA and .914 save percentage, which earned him a spot on the NHL All-Star team and a top-three finalist for the Calder Trophy. Unfortunately, Skinner has fallen victim to the sophomore jinx, which in 12 starts this year has seen him underachieve with a 4-7-0-1 record with a .865 save percentage.

Another big reason why the Oilers approached American Thanksgiving with a disappointing 5-12-1 record, eight points out of a playoff spot is that some of their forwards such as McDavid, Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Ryan McLeod, and Connor Brown have gotten off to slow starts. The Oilers have also struggled defensively, giving up a whopping 72 goals after 18 games. They have struggled on defensive coverage and committed lots of giveaways.

The slow start also cost Oilers head coach Jay Woodcroft and Assistant Dave Manson their jobs. Despite coming off a 4-1 win against the Seattle Kraken, it wasn’t enough to save Woodcroft or Manson. The next day, on November 12, they were fired by GM Ken Holland and replaced by Kris Knoblauch as the new head coach and Hall of Fame defenseman Paul Coffey as the new assistant coach.

Including their 6-3 loss on November 23 against the Carolina Hurricanes, the Oilers have gone 2-3 since the coaching move. McDavid, who led the league last season with 64 goals and 153 points, has so far scored six goals and only 16 points and is a -8 in 16 games this year. Naturally, it’s only a matter of time until this superstar goes on a roll and should be the least of Edmonton’s worries.

Draisaitl, who scored 52 goals last year and has eclipsed 50 or more goals three times, has scored only six goals so far this season. It’s only a matter of time until this dynamic goal scorer, like McDavid, gets on a hot streak and starts producing multi-goal games.

Nugent-Hopkins, who last season posted career highs of 37 goals and 104 points, has started this season with only three goals and 14 points, along with a -4 in 18 games. Two other depth scorers, Connor Brown and Ryan McLeod, have yet to score a goal this season.

Naturally, the Oilers need more than their big two, McDavid and Draisaitl, producing if they are to be successful. Players such as Brown and McLeod must start producing to take some of the enormous pressure off of McDavid. Brown is a two-time twenty-goal scorer, and McLeod scored eleven goals last year, so they are very capable of putting up numbers.

The lowest point of this season was arguably November 9 when the Oilers dropped a 3-2 decision against the last place San Jose Sharks at the SAP Center. Some might say it’s still early in the season, but truth be told, the Oilers can’t wait much longer to start making up ground if they are to make the playoffs.

If they do fail to make the playoffs, what’s the next move for the Oilers?

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