Jordan Eberle, Connor McDavid and Benoit Pouliot. (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)
With Connor McDavid back and a hot goaltender, are the Oilers suddenly positioned for a late-season playoff push?
Hey you. Commenter who calls everything clickbait. Relax. I said RELAX. The Edmonton Oilers in the playoffs? It's not the most harebrained question in the world. The Oilers have a mountain to climb in the Western Conference, though it's more bunny hill than K2. Edmonton sits eight points back of the Anaheim Ducks for the last Pacific Division playoff position, and the Ducks have three games in hand. The Oilers' more realistic target is the Nashville Predators, who lead them by nine points in the final West wild-card spot but at least have no games in hand.
Hockeyviz.com gives the Oil a five percent chance at qualifying for the big dance.
TSN's Frank Seravalli, who woke up this morning with the same thoughts on the brain as I had, estimates Edmonton has to go 21-5-4 for the rest of the season and points out the miraculous Ottawa Senators closed last season 23-4-4 to get in. So maybe the Oilers have to scale more than a bunny hill after all. Still, seeing what they've accomplished since Mr. Connor McDavid returned from a broken clavicle, it's suddenly worth asking if they're primed to make a run. Edmonton dismantled the lowly Columbus Blue Jackets and Ottawa Senators by a combined score of 11-3 this week, with McDavid racking up five points in that span. Sure, it was just Columbus and Ottawa, but those two teams looked like they didn't belong in the same building as Edmonton. The Oilers continue their road trip with, guess what, another team as sturdy as a wet paper bag right now: the discombobulated Montreal Canadiens. The Oilers play 16 of their final 30 games at home in 2015-16. They play 16 of their final 30 games against teams currently out of playoff spots, too, with most of the other games versus teams they're chasing for the lower seeds.
The Oilers have improved to 7-8-0 under McDavid but, let's remember, his first four games were defeats, and he had one point over that span. Since then, the Oil and McDavid have gone 7-4-0 and 4-1-0 in their past five.
Per war-on-ice.com, McDavid's score-adjusted Corsi For percentage is 52.3 over that 11-game sample. The top forward number for the year among Oilers is Leon Draisaitl's 52.2. The Oilers have won both games since McDavid returned and, not coincidentally, he's meshed beautifully with right winger Jordan Eberle in the first two games in franchise history with both those players healthy and in the lineup. Keeping Taylor Hall and Leon Draisaitl together on the first line gives the Oilers two separate deadly duos in the top six. That doesn't even include the injured Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and really illuminates why he's such an ideal trading chip, whether something happens in the next month or on draft day. I spoke with Eberle when he first returned from injury in November, and he pointed out the Oilers were losing closer than ever, that they were on the cusp of a turnaround. When I spoke with Taylor Hall last week, he brought up the exact same thing. And, wouldn't ya know it, the two best buddies are onto something. Edmonton has lost 10 one-goal affairs in regulation this season, tied for the most of any NHL squad. That means 38.6 percent of Edmonton's 26 regulation defeats have come in one-goal games. Last year, it dropped 12 one-goal affairs in regulation over the full season, good for 27.2 percent of their 44 regulation defeats. So even when they lose this season, they're indeed losing closer on average. They've become a tougher out under new coach Todd McLellan. Lastly, the hallmark of the Sens' wild run last year was goaltending, and there's a reason Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli decided to extend Cam Talbot's contract mid-season. Talbot went 3-8-3 with an .889 save percentage in October and November. Since then: 8-7-2 with a .936 SP. He's been elite for more than two full months now, supporting the theory that he
wasn't merely propped up by the Rangers' defensemen before Edmonton acquired him. So the pieces are in place, maybe not for a miracle crusade to the post-season, but at the very least for improved play over the rest of 2015-16. Perhaps Edmonton won't end up hoarding ping-pong balls for another draft lottery after all.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin