nhl season preview

There's More to the Oilers than Connor McDavid

The Edmonton Oilers' rebuild is finally at a point where you can see light at the end of the tunnel.

by Liam McGuire
Oct 5 2015, 3:45pm

Photo by Darryl Dyck-The Canadian Press

(Editor's note: As part of our NHL coverage leading up to the start of the 2015-16 season, we are running previews on all seven Canadian teams. You can read previous installments here.)

The Edmonton Oilers underwent the most dramatic change in the NHL this offseason.

After another horrific season where Edmonton posted a paltry 62 points, it hit the jackpot of all jackpots—beating the odds, yet again, and landing the first overall pick for the fourth time in six years. Not even the Oilers could screw this up, as they scored Erie Otters megastar Connor McDavid. Suddenly a franchise with dismal prospects had a completely shifted outlook.

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With a new mindset, the Oilers gutted their management hierarchy, firing/reassigning a majority of their staff including president of hockey operations Kevin Lowe and coach/former general manager Craig MacTavish. The Oilers didn't mess around in replacing them. They gave former San Jose Sharks coach Todd McLellan the richest coaching contract (at the time) in NHL history, and brought in former Boston Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli to be GM and president just nine days after he was fired. Two positions which were previously unstable were filled quickly, with two of the best in the business.

Edmonton's roster, meanwhile, remains in decent shape, and for the first time since 2005-2006, it has a decent chance to qualify for the playoffs.

Growth and the addition of McDavid should help the Oilers find the back of the net more often after finishing 26th in the NHL in even-strength scoring last year. Edmonton's top six is pretty nasty. It's a young group, but it's already developing into something special.

The first line will probably consist of Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle. The trio all had rough seasons in 2014-15, but what's scary is they're still not done growing. Hall, 23, missed time with an ankle injury and only scored 38 points (in 53 games), but you can bet he's going to at least double that output provided he's healthy. Eberle, 25, has been extremely consistent in five seasons with the Oilers and is a lock for 25 goals when healthy. Edmonton, however, will have to get by without him to start the season, as a shoulder injury is expected to sideline him for four-to-six weeks. Nugent-Hopkins, 22, is an uber-talented playmaker who's ready to take the step toward stardom.

There's an intriguing mix of talent behind them. McDavid is going to be really good right away, but putting enormous expectations on the rookie isn't fair. If he hits 50-60 points, that's great. If he can do more, that's icing on the cake. Anton Lander, who ripped it up during the preseason, was a pleasant surprise in 2014-15, and should be a nice, young, depth piece as the third centre. Nail Yakupov is still figuring his game out, but for the amount of criticism he receives, he's tied with Alex Galchenyuk for the most goals from the 2012 draft class. The Oilers also improved their depth, which they lacked, by bringing in Lauri Korpikoski and Mark Letestu.

The Oilers' atrocious defence, which gave up 197 even-strength goals in 2014-15, was by far the worst in the league. There's nowhere to go but up for the group. The defensive unit received a mini-makeover, highlighted by the six-year, $33 million deal handed out to 29-year-old Andrej Sekera, who was the best free-agent defenceman on the market. He can be used in any situation and adds much-needed stability to the defensive corps. Edmonton dealt a first and second rounder for former fourth overall pick Griffin Reinhart, who should get a chance to play on the big squad right away this season. The Oilers will still depend on Justin Schultz, who's been dramatically overworked since joining the club, but he's likely to play much more sheltered minutes. While the group has plenty of room for improvement, it's much better than this time last year.

Edmonton took a big risk in 2014-15 by going with Ben Scrivens and Viktor Fasth between the pipes, a plan which failed miserably, as Oilers goalies posted a league-worst .901 even strength save percentage. The Oilers took another risk by bringing in former New York Rangers goalie Cam Talbot, who's had crazy impressive numbers in a small sample size. Talbot's posted a .933 even strength save percentage in 59 games since 2013—the fourth-best mark among goalies with a minimum of 2000 minutes.

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Behind Talbot is former New York Islanders goaltender Anders Nilsson. Nilsson earned a one-way deal with the Oilers after a successful season in the KHL. The third goalie (barring a trade) will be Scrivens, who had a tough season—posting a brutal .899 even strength save percentage—which is way off his career norm, but playing behind that Oilers defence has been no easy task.

There's plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the Oilers this season. The talent is mostly there, the right people are behind the scenes and the rebuild is finally at a point where you can see light at the end of the tunnel. McDavid, and a slew of other moves, has helped breathe life into this franchise. There's no guarantee the Oilers will make the playoffs, but for the first time in nearly a decade, there is a belief they can accomplish that goal eventually, and then some.