NEW YORK – This is not good.
In fact, it’s not far off being really, really bad.
That’s not being negative, it’s being able to count.
Going into the quarter of the season, the Edmonton Oilers are a .500 team, only 10-10 and mired in a cycle of slow starts and defensive slumps that give no indication that anything will change anytime soon.
And, as we all know, .500 teams miss the playoffs by about 15 points. If the Oilers are still in this rut a month from now, you can say goodbye to the playoffs.
“Obviously we need to be better,” said longtime veteran Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. “Three and seven in the last 10 games is not good enough. We’re a playoff team, but we have to start playing like that consistently. For a man, everyone has to step forward and find a way through this.
There is a lot they have to navigate their way through. Firstly, they are not good enough defensively, that part is not even up for discussion. In addition to the visual evidence – play after play of wide-open opponents celebrating around Edmonton’s net – there are striking statistical skid marks. The Oilers are 28th in the league in shots against per game, 29th in goals against per game, 31st in underplays, and 21st in penalty kill.
Those are not the base numbers of a team on the rise.
“I honestly think our defense has been better lately than it was at the beginning of the year, but obviously we have a long way to go, that’s pretty clear,” said captain Connor McDavid. “We have to be stingier in our own zone, tougher on our own net, all that sort of thing.”
Second, they are not ready when the puck falls. In nearly half of their games this year (eight of 20), they’ve trailed 1-0 within five shots. They also conceded six goals within the first two minutes of the second period.
In four of their last seven games, they trailed 11-1, 11-0, 12-2 and 8-1 on the shot clock.
Third, their bottom six have virtually no identity. They don’t score much. They don’t hit much. They do not create energy. Granted, it’s hard to find traction as a bottom six player on a team that runs so heavily on the top two lines, but their contributions weren’t good enough.
The Oilers have 66 goals this year. McDavid, Leon Drasiitl, Nugent-Hopkins, Zach Hyman and Evander Kane have 50. The defense has seven. The other 10 attackers together have nine goals.
So a team with the league’s top two scorers is currently 12th in the league in offense.
After how good the Oilers looked on the stretch and in the playoffs last year, the days of hand-to-mouth living looked over. Making the playoffs every year would be automatic anyway. This season can never be another 2018.
But here they are, teetering on the edge of a stunning setback.
“We’re working to find out who this year’s version of the Oilers is,” head coach Jay Woodcroft said. “While we’ve done some good things, we haven’t done enough good things long enough to put something together the way we’d like.”
Who the Oilers are is what their track record says they are – a team of .500. You can’t ignore their strength or schedule, which has been relentless, or that losing Kane for three months is a big hit, but what we’ve seen in the first 20 games wasn’t nearly good enough.
“I think sometimes the results are lagging,” says Woodcroft, who expects a breakthrough very soon. “We are not yet where we want to be, but we are also not far from where we want to be. That’s important to realize. This is a tight group, we know how to win.”
That’s what they’re counting on, that the increase they put in last season will come back and save the season.
“It’s a very resilient group,” says Darnell Nurse. “We went through a stretch last year (2-11-2) where the sky fell on us. Everyone let us down and we found a way to push ourselves into the playoffs.”
The difference between then and now is that the Oilers were first overall at 16-5 when they started that slide. They had 11 games worth of breathing room at the quarter mark. Today there is none. They are 10th in the Western Conference.
And last year they got their adrenaline injections by firing the coach and adding Kane, neither of which will happen any time soon.
They will have to fix this without the landscape-altering addition. And fast.
“It’s a quarter of the way through. We’re not sitting here in April going through a slump like this,” McDavid said. “Teams went on losing streaks and came back and won six or seven times in a row. We have to find ourselves, stand our ground and get back to it.”
On Twitter: @Rob_Tychkowski