This is the first of a five part series looking into the areas in which the Oilers improved in the 2016-17 NHL season, leading them to their first playoff appearance in eleven years.
I have begun using a few keynote phrases on twitter when I speak of the Edmonton Oilers over the past year, in particular when stating my beliefs about why the team is finally in good hands and the success we witnessed shouldn’t be short-term jubilation, such as 2005-06 turned out to be post-mortem. One such phrase I often use is “It’s not just take McDavid and add water”, and I have been hoping to properly expand on that for a while now (thanks to the Beer League Heroes for giving me such an outlet).
The Oilers improved by 33 points and 21 places in the overall standings this year. Impressive! In fact, there are few examples of equal or better improvement throughout NHL history. Here are some:
The Boston Bruins improved from 44 points in 70 games in 1966-67 to 84 points in 74 games in 1967-68. If you average those out over 82 game seasons it would be a 42 point improvement. Oh, by the way, 1966-67 was the rookie campaign of 1 Bobby Orr. In his second season, when the team made the huge improvement, he actually regressed from third in team scoring to 11th, even though he only went from 41 points to 31. They also added some kid by the name of Phil Esposito who chipped in a goal or two along the way.
The Buffalo Sabres had a major improvement from 1971-72 (51 points in 78 games) to 1972-73 (88 points in 78 games), an improvement of 39 points averaged out over 82 game seasons. There actually wasn’t a massive overhaul to credit the improvement to but they did bring in Tim Horton and Jim Schoenfeld to improve the defense. Oh right, they also brought in René Robert and created the “French Connection Line” which is still legendary to this day.
Unfortunately, this may have seemed like a 1 year wonder as they took a step back to 76 points in 78 games the next year. It was actually the calm before the storm. In 1974-75 they had their best season on record amassing 113 points in 80 games, a 36 point improvement over 82 games. They had 6 forwards score 70 points or more and none scored more than 100. Scoring by committee is essential for team success after all. This was their first of 2 trips to the Stanley Cup finals for their organization, the second coming in 1998-99 with a far less dramatic improvement points wise from the year before.
I added some anecdotes about these teams to show that typically a massive improvement in the standings isn’t simply the result of one thing. More often than not it is a combination of changes alongside the group of players coming together to right their ship.
More examples exist, such as the 2005-06 Carolina Hurricanes who, after the 2004-05 NHL lockout and their team being 36 points lower in 2003-04, stood in the way of the Oilers winning their sixth Stanley Cup.
One thing seems typical in all cases; the teams in their improvement year had better scoring depth and goals against were reduced from the previous seasons.
Front Office and Coaching Overhaul
Sometimes, someone can say something to you without realizing how profound of a statement it might turn out to be. We had already seen Bill Daly reveal us the golden ticket that would put #97 in an Oilers jersey for likely his whole career. When the news hit that Peter Chiarelli had been hired as General Manager and President of Hockey Operations for the Edmonton Oilers on April 24, 2015, a mere nine days after being hastily relieved of his duties by the Boston Bruins, a co-worker at the time said to me “So the Oilers decided to join the NHL”. I remember thinking,
“He’s right; if they get the right people in place then maybe, just maybe, this could take off lightning fast and the Oilers could rise from the ashes”.
Hockey can appear complex at times with line matching, trap defense, and other such progressions to the game mainly due to its evolution. In reality, however, the game is quite simple; a team scores more goals than its opponent and they win the game. So, bringing players in that increase the odds of that happening and instilling the proper systems and practice habits and you’re bound to make progress. The same with management and coaches; no one player is so dynamic and elite that they can rise to the top in a system filled with ineptitude and confusion.
Peter Chiarelli is a cold, calculated businessman; he is experienced, envisioning, and focused. His job is to make the Edmonton Oilers the best possible team they can be in the shortest amount of time as possible. He has made some errors in the past, but his ability to learn and grow from those errors, I believe, are going to help drive his success in Edmonton. In a way, he is the anti-Steve Tambellini in that he is focused on being three steps ahead on pending issues than taking the wait and see approach.
Adding Todd McLellan and his staff, also in my opinion, was the perfect fit for the Oilers. I recall many Oilers fans pining for the “prize of coaches” Mike Babcock, but I was sold on McLellan based on his philosophy on how to handle his centres and his familiarity with the Pacific Division having coached the San Jose Sharks previously. I often remark to myself how humble and down to earth Todd seems in interviews, and how he doesn’t allow himself or any of his players to appear above the team. His teamwork mentality has overtaken the team culture of the Edmonton Oilers, and that has already paid dividends. I expect the Oilers to not only achieve some lofty goals but to hit those goals, so quicker than what seems plausible and realistic.
When Chiarelli and McLellan arrived here three out of the five main pieces for the team’s foundation were already here in my opinion with the fourth on its way and the fifth a little more than a year away from being added. Consider what your views of Leon Draisaitl, Oscar Klefbom, and Darnell Nurse were two years ago compared to today. All three of these players have come miles, and if you believe a proper management and coaching staff didn’t have a hand in them progressing so effectively than I wonder what you think these guys do behind the scenes to earn their salaries.
There is more to building a powerhouse than what you can see from your living room couch, and if you doubt that a potential powerhouse is being constructed then I would love to hear your explanation of the 2016-17 season.
Come back tomorrow for Part 2 of this 5-part series! The focus, effective player attrition.
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