This is the third 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.
Taylor Hall is a good left winger, one of the elite wingers in the game, full stop. I have hashed it out with both sides of the Hall-Larsson equation ad nauseum and I’m simply not interested in debating it any further. I was a huge fan of his right up until I heard that he was traded. I have a Taylor Hall jersey still tucked away. I even considered him a core member of the Oilers during the 2015-16 season. I don’t buy the rumors about him being a cancer in the dressing room because I didn’t see it with my own eyes. I’m not saying it’s impossible that there were rifts that involved him, I’m saying I prefer not to speak poorly of others, in particular when it’s not factual, so I choose not to do the same here. I will say this; Taylor Hall was a good soldier for the Edmonton Oilers and they failed to provide him with what is necessary to win hockey games.
On June 29, 2016, Peter Chiarelli pulled the trigger on a trade that may likely go down as one of the most divisive moves in NHL history. Sending a proven scorer away for an unknown and apparently reliable at best defenseman will do that, especially to a fan base like Edmonton has. The team was brutal for a complete decade and then you sacrifice arguably their most consistent offensive threat for the last 6 years? All I can say is the team better make a step in the right direction.
Did they ever?!
Balance is a term that the Oilers faithful had forgotten the meaning of as we have become programmed to accept our city and favourite team’s shortcomings. Can’t get Nylander? Eventually settle for Dustin Penner after Buffalo decides to hold onto Vanek. We bought the line that they would need to draft and develop their own stars and assumed that the Oilers had the wherewithal to do so. As mentioned in my previous blog regarding the start of the rebuild, the Oilers likely thought so as well.
Balance doesn’t necessarily equal winning; if it did there would be slightly more than 90 RHS defensemen and 90 LHS defensemen at any time with NHL contracts. It is, however, a goal that every team should aim to achieve. Despite the fairly obvious warts a Netminder from time to time will get on a hot streak so strong that a team can steal a few games, or even series, from some obviously formidable opponents.
The best hockey teams have good centre depth, solid defense, especially in their first two pairings, and a reliable goalie. The Oilers last season were still strong on the wing while being deficient on defense, therefore they continued to let in more goals than they scored, which led to losing more games than they won.
In the end, the trade was more about Adam Larsson than it was about Taylor Hall. It wasn’t about a lack of leadership or attitude. The Oilers traded their most valuable piece from a position that holds the least value in hockey for a player they felt could, at the least, help fill a massive hole on the right side of their defense. Adam Larsson, along with Kris Russell, was instrumental in helping the Oilers achieve roster balance.
With this sudden balance where the rink was hardly ever tilted against the Oilers’ favor came a dramatically improved goal differential. Better defense contributed to a 0.43 goals against per game decrease from the 2015-2016 season. “Well yeah, because they improved their defense, but they traded Taylor Hall so the goals for will decrease right?’ Absolutely wrong. The Oilers scored an additional 0.54 goals per game on average. If you combine the two together their goal differential improved by slightly less than a goal per game. That’s pretty astounding in today’s low scoring game.
Of course, Connor McDavid helped; as did Leon Draisaitl, Jordan Eberle, Milan Lucic, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Patrick Maroon, and the rest of the team. Patrick Maroon had a career year scoring 27 goals, and he was sixth on the team in points. McDavid and Draisaitl led the charge in terms of star values for points, but there were an additional 7 players including 2 defensemen who reached at least 30 points and 3 additional players who chipped in at least 20 goals. My opinion? The 2016-17 Oilers had the best balanced and the deepest roster of any Oilers team since 1989-90.
The organizational shift to procuring high-end college players to help fill in depth positions has also been a major boost to the turnaround in the success of the team. Players such as Matt Benning and Drake Caggiula made immediate impacts at the NHL level and did not appear out of place when the playoffs started. These players are reasonable cap hits while being a few years older and having some unique hockey experience to build on. The Oilers continue to pursue at least one big name college free agent in Spencer Foo, and being that he is an Edmonton native and the handling of Benning and Caggiula, can you really deny that Edmonton would be a front runner for him if there is a roster spot available?
In the end, the wins and losses and points in the standings are the most important, followed by goals for per game and goals against per game. If you want to know why the Oilers all of a sudden are a good team consider this, they improved in all five of those stats, in fact, they improved so significantly in all five that they improved from being below league average in all of them to above league average in all of them. Every member of the team contributed, both on the ice and likely in areas us as fans aren’t privy to. Scoring depth, defensive depth, and balance!
Tomorrow will see part four of this series published and it will focus on the goaltending and special teams from this passed season. If you missed the previous parts, you can click here for part one and here for part two.
Give Andrew Taylor and follow on Twitter @drewtaylor1978!