Heading into this season, most people predicted Vancouver to run away with the Northwest Division and the Edmonton Oilers to finish near the bottom of the conference once again. It’s only November 8th, but Edmonton is sitting in first place in their division with 18 points (8-3-2). The last time an Oilers team won any division title was the 1987 Smythe Division. After losing to Minnesota in a shootout on October 20th, Edmonton rolled off six straight wins to close out October and open November.
So how did this turnaround happen?
Like Rome wasn’t built in a day, neither were the Oilers. Over the past half decade, the losing Oilers have stockpiled a roster of homegrown talent. Four of their last five draft picks have been in the top 10 and all four are on the roster. This draft’s #1 overall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins wasn’t a lock to make the opening night roster but has played well, earning a permanent spot on the roster. Taylor Hall is continuing where he left off last season when an injury derailed his Calder Trophy hopes. Another Oiler pick, Jordan Eberle (#22 in 2008), has been the team’s main playmaker, leading the club in assists with 8. Captain Shawn Horcoff, an Oiler draft choice himself in 1998, has been a steadying force on the young club.
Acquired from the Kings over the summer, Ryan Smyth looks like he’s found the fountain of youth. Tied for the team lead in goals (6) and points (12) with Nugent-Hopkins, Smyth seems to be a good influence on the young team. The team’s #6 overall draft pick in 1994 has spent all but four seasons in his career with Edmonton (1994-2007 previously).
Goaltending has been another key. Heading into the season, there were plenty of question marks surrounding the tandem of the 38 year old Nikolai Khabibulin and second year man Devan Dubnyk. Both goalies have been incredible, with the team allowing a league low 20 goals, which is a staggering 1.59 per game. Khabibulin himself is 6-0-2 with a 0.98 goals against average. He has two shutouts and has allowed no more than two goals in any game. He’s posted an insane .963 save percentage. As well as Khabibulin has played, Dubnyk hasn’t been shabby himself. Despite a 2-3 record, he’s been solid with a 2.19 GAA and a .930 save percentage. He struggled against Vancouver in a 4-2 loss in October but rebounded with two stellar outings after that game.
Goaltending benefits from good defense, and the Oilers’ defense has been playing better than expected. The team is 9th in shots allowed with 29.0 per game. Last season they allowed 31.7, 21st in the league. Ladislav Smid leads the league in blocked shots (48) and the team is 4th with 220. It hasn’t just been about defense from the blueline, as offseason signing Corey Potter has been a surprise with eight points in 11 games, six of which have been on the powerplay.
The team started a two week, six game road trip in Los Angeles (winning 3-0) Thursday. They’ll play two games at home before hitting the road again for a week long, four game trip. 10 road games (of 12) in a span of 23 days will surely show what kind of team this will be. Road trips can bond a team. Will the trips help the team continue its’ good play? Are the Oilers a legit playoff (and division) contender?