What Went Wrong is our annual series where we look at the teams that failed to make the playoffs. Over the coming weeks, we’ll go through them team-by-team, discuss how their season went and then highlight the players that either significantly underperformed in 2018-19 or that they’ll need more from going forward.
Today we’re going to focus on the Edmonton Oilers after they missed the playoffs for the 12th time in 13 seasons.
Things didn’t start badly for Edmonton though. They were 8-4-1 through Nov. 3. Goaltender Cam Talbot was uninspired through that stretch with a 5-4-1 record, 2.81 GAA, and .904 save percentage in 10 starts, but Mikko Koskinen got off to a strong start with a 3-0-0 record, 2.02 GAA, and.935 save percentage in three starts.
Offensively, the Oilers’ problems were apparent even during their strong start, but they were less pronounced. Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins were by far their best players as would be the case for most of the season, but the issue was masked somewhat by Alex Chiasson and Drake Caggiula’s hot starts. Chiasson had six goals in eight games while Caggiula had five goals in nine games through Nov. 3.
From there Edmonton went on a 2-7-1 stretch, bounced back with an 8-1-1 run, but then fell again with six straight losses. Through Dec. 31st they were 18-18-3, so Edmonton clearly had problems, but all hope wasn’t lost. Coach Todd McLellan was shown the door early in the campaign and to this point, Ken Hitchcock had a solid 9-8-2 record with the squad. The illusion that he could fix the Oilers’ problems was already diminishing, but there was at least that faint belief that Edmonton could squeak into the playoffs somehow.
After all, McDavid and Draisaitl were playing their hearts out. McDavid had 21 goals and 58 points in 38 games through Dec. 31 while Draisaitl had 21 goals and 49 points in 39 contests. Nugent-Hopkins had 14 goals and 36 points in 39 games, but the Oilers supporting cast looked thin beyond him. Alex Chiasson had 16 goals and 20 points in 31 games, which was good for fourth place in Edmonton’s scoring race and no other forward had even 15 points.
Meanwhile, years of poor trades and questionable signings had put GM Peter Chiarelli on the hot seat. Still, it was believed that if the Oilers managed to make the playoffs, Chiarelli’s job would be saved. He made a pair of trades on Dec. 30th in the hope that he could shore up the Oilers’ defense. In one he sent fan favorite Drake Caggiula along with Jason Garrison to Chicago in exchange for Brandon Manning and Robin Norell. Manning ended up doing next to nothing in Edmonton and ultimately spent time in the AHL. Edmonton also sent Chris Wideman and a 2019 third-round pick to Florida in exchange for Alex Petrovic. Petrovic only ended up playing in nine games with the Oilers the rest of the way. In other words, the two trades accomplished basically nothing for Edmonton.
Through Jan. 16, Edmonton had a 23-21-3 record before they suffered a collapse they wouldn’t recover from. They dropped to 24-29-6 by Feb. 19 and finished with a 35-38-9 record. Along the way, Chiarelli was finally shown the door on Jan. 22 and was replaced by Keith Gretzky on an interim basis. Gretzky made two trades during his tenure, both noteworthy, but neither major. He dealt Talbot, who was on an expiring contract, in exchange for Anthony Stolarz, who only started in two games with Edmonton. He also dealt Ryan Spooner in exchange for Sam Gagner. That trade has some promise for the Oilers as Gagner might be a decent secondary scorer for the Oilers going forward, which is something Edmonton desperately needs.
Over the summer, Edmonton hired Ken Holland to serve as the new general manager and Dave Tippett took over as the bench boss. Those are two people with a wealth of experience and there’s some reason to hope that it might mark a turning point from the Chiarelli era, but it’s too early to really say. Unless Holland has a good summer, there’s not much reason to be hopeful in Edmonton in the short-term.
Mikko Koskinen – One of Chiarelli’s final acts was to sign Koskinen to a three-year, $13.5 million contract…so he’s needs to play like a starter going forward. At times, Koskinen seemed up to that task in 2018-19, but he was inconsistent and finished with a 25-21-6 record, 2.93 GAA, and .906 save percentage in 55 contests. He should probably be viewed as a below average starter, but there is an outside chance that he’ll do better next season now that he’s fully adjusted from the KHL to NHL.
Milan Lucic – If you want to talk about bad contracts, Milan Lucic’s seven-year, $42 million deal stands out as one of the worst in the NHL. In 2018-19, the Oilers accepted the fact that Lucic is strictly a bottom-six forward at this point, giving him just an average of 13:14 minutes of ice time. He finished with six goals, 20 points, and 91 penalty minutes in 79 games. He does still provide Edmonton with a physical presence, so it’s not as if he doesn’t have a role, he’s just not worth his salary. Unfortunately for Edmonton, that’s unlikely to improve in 2019-20.
Andrej Sekera – When the Oilers made the playoffs in 2016-17, Andrej Sekera was a huge part of it. He had eight goals and 35 points in 80 contests while averaging 21:29 minutes per contests. He’s been limited to just 60 games over the last two seasons though, which has left a major hole in Edmonton’s defense. If he manages to stay healthy in 2019-20, that would go a long way towards making the Oilers competitive again.
Jesse Puljujarvi – As mentioned above, one of Edmonton’s biggest issues is a near complete lack of secondary scoring. Jesse Puljujarvi could be part of the solution long term, but he certainly wasn’t that last season. He was limited to a mere four goals and nine points in 46 contests. He hasn’t developed as hoped, but he’s also still just 21-years-old so it’s too early to give up hope. The 2019-20 will be a big test for him. If he doesn’t take a step forward next season then he might start to be regarded as something of a bust.