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Oilers need to find wins against tough competition

Sam Gagner Oilers Sam Gagner, Oilers celebrate - The Canadian Press

To say the Edmonton Oilers have turned their season around would be a dramatic understatement.

After a disconcerting start to the regular season, one which included the termination of then-head coach Jay Woodcroft in the middle of November, the Oilers have caught fire.

The offensive breakout we anticipated from Edmonton’s big guns arrived right on time, but more importantly, the performance of the team’s goaltending tandem rebounded in a dramatic way.

The Oilers only need Stuart Skinner and Calvin Pickard to simply not cost them games. Since December, the duo is stopping over 91 per cent of shots faced. Put adequate goaltending behind Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, and the Oilers are going to win far more often than not.

The offensive breakout and goaltending rebound has driven a surge in Edmonton’s points pace. After a blistering December, the Oilers are now on pace for 91 points over the full year – right near the historical playoff cutline:

One of the interesting components of Edmonton’s turnaround is how they are doing it. The beauty of the NHL’s regular-season schedule is you see pockets of difficulty and pockets of opportunity. Few teams look great against stiff competition; few teams look great on lengthy road trips. Part of making it to the playoff dance is being able to survive the tougher parts of the schedule, and making hay when the schedule turns in your favour.

I bring this up because Edmonton’s splits over the course of the season are fascinating. The Oilers – a team with enough offensive firepower to dispose of even the greatest defensive teams – have seen dramatically different results depending on the calibre of their opponent, and those results are markedly different than those of their peers.

Against weaker competition, the Oilers look every bit the part of the Stanley Cup contender we anticipated at the start of the year. When they have stepped up in competition, the results have faltered.

Let’s break out Edmonton’s season results by opponent quality. We have three buckets of opponents here:

- Elite teams, defined as the top 10 teams by way of goal differential, who on average are 25 goals better than their opponents on the year;

- Average teams, defined as the middle-twelve teams by way of goal differential, who on average are one goal better than their opponents on the year;

- Weak teams, defined as the bottom 10 teams by way of goal differential, who on average are 27 goals worse than their opponents on the year.

Compare Edmonton to their peers around the league, and notice how disparate the results are:

The Oilers have been game against most of their competition this year, but that’s distinctly not the case against difficult competition. If you compare a team like the Oilers to their division rival in Vegas, there’s a net 37-goal difference in how the two teams perform against the bucket of anticipated Stanley Cup contenders. That is a significant gap.

An early-season blowout against the Vancouver Canucks certainly doesn’t help the Oilers ledger against elite teams, but the Oilers have only outscored two top-tier teams – the Winnipeg Jets on Nov. 30, and the New York Rangers right before the Christmas holiday break – since the season began.

What’s notable about Edmonton’s lack of success against the tougher competition is that it isn’t solely tied to goaltending underperformance. Offensive production slips considerably when competition stiffens; against the rest of the league, the Oilers are a fundamentally different team:

Some of this may be the result of small samples, but Edmonton’s struggles against tougher competition have been well documented over the years.

The good news? If you have taken a peak at Edmonton’s upcoming schedule, it’s rife with minnows and mediocre clubs – the type of teams the Oilers typically steamroll, and the type of schedule you need to close some of the gaps within the division.

It is a tremendous opportunity for the Oilers to solidify themselves as a playoff team and, if all goes well, reintroduce themselves as a contender for the Pacific Division crown.

But this is still an organization with Stanley Cup aspirations, and if they continue to struggle against tougher foes, reservations about this team’s ceiling will remain.

Data via Natural Stat Trick,, Evolving Hockey, Hockey Reference