Wednesday December 9th, 2015

If Edmonton Oilers general manager Peter Chiarelli had decided not to make a move out of desperation this season, that’s one thing. But now he has another motive to upgrade his young and promising team.


Chiarelli has arrived at one of those pivotal moments where patience might not be the only course of action. In fact, it might be the least prudent option.

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Edmonton carries a three-game winning streak into Wednesday night’s home meeting with the San Jose Sharks at Rexall Place. All told, the Oilers are on a 4-1-1 tear. Modest by most standards but in the squishy Pacific Division that stretch has been like a FastPass to respectability.

The Vancouver Canucksthe team that is currently holding down the third spot and the Pacific’s third guaranteed playoff berth, have just one win to show for their past six games. They have 28 points in 29 outings, putting them on pace to finish with just 79. That would be the fewest of any team to make the cut in the loser-point era and the lowest total overall since the 1998-99 Oilers punched their ticket with just 78.

Worst playoff qualifiers of shootout era (2005-06 to present)
2009-10 Flyers 88 Lost Stanley Cup Final, 4-2, to Chicago
2009-10 Bruins 91 Lost second round, 4-3, to Philadelphia
2007-08 Predators 91 Lost first round, 4-2, to Detroit
2013-14 Stars 91 Lost first round, 4-2, to Anaheim
2011-12 Senators 92 Lost second round, 4-2, to Pittsburgh
2011-12 Capitals 92 Lost first round, 4-3, to New York Rangers
2008-09 Blue Jackets 92 Lost first round, 4-0, to Vancouver
2008-09 Blues 92 Lost first round, 4-0, to Detroit
2006-07 Islanders 92 Lost first round, 4-1, to Buffalo
2005-06 Lightning 92 Lost first round, 4-1, to Ottawa

And that has put Chiarelli in an interesting spot. His Oilers sit just four points behind the Canucks, with one game in hand. Even at this juncture of the season that’s a tantalizing gap. One that can be bridged over a good weekend. And for a team that hasn’t sniffed the playoffs in a decade, that might be too tempting to ignore.

That’s why it’s time to step up and make a change that could keep the Oilers in the hunt.

Look at what this group’s accomplished. Their defense, though better than it has been in years, is among the worst in the league. Their forward corps lacks depth and experience. And they’ve been hammered by injuries, losing Connor McDavid, Jordan Eberle, Nail Yakupov and Benoit Pouliot for long stretches. In fact, they've lost 108 man-games to injury so far, second-most in the NHL. Only Buffalo, with 124, has lost more.

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But the Oilers have stayed close to the playoff pace. And there’s reason for hope. Anders Nilsson has turned into 6' 5" brick wall in front of Edmonton’s net, stopping 174 of the past 183 shots he’s faced (a sizzling .951 save percentage). He’s also held the opposition to two goals or fewer in seven of his past eight starts. That level will be tough to maintain, but it looks like he could be the answer between the pipes.

Young players are delivering on their promise. Center Leon Draisaitl has exceeded all expectations since his recall from the AHL, chipping in 20 points in just 18 games. Unsung rookie Brandon Davidson has spent time on all three D pairs and has been, arguably, their most consistent and most effective blueliner this season.

And sick bay won’t be overflowing for long. Eberle already is back in the lineup, and has two goals over the past two games, including a game-winner against Dallas in OT. The returns of McDavid (broken collarbone) and Yakupov (ankle) aren’t that far off.

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​The Oilers are close ... but still not quite close enough. Especially knowing that they’re not alone in pursuing that final spot.

The Arizona Coyotes, the team directly behind the Canucks, are in freefall. Tuesday’s 4–1 loss to the Blues was their fifth straight, erasing their strong start and dropping them a point off the pace, but they’ll draw back into the race before long.

The Calgary Flames are also within four points of the Canucks, and they have two games in hand. Like the Oilers, they’ve won three straight and, after a pair of dramatic finishes against the Stars and Bruins, they look like they’ve regained some of the swagger that defined their magical 2014-15 season.

The real measure, though, might be the Anaheim Ducks. The team that everyone assumed would be in the Stanley Cup contender mix looks much improved after getting off to a miserable start. The Ducks have pulled within a single point of the Canucks by winning three of four, allowing just three goals in the process thanks to some spectacular goaltending from the recently recalled John Gibson. And word is they’re looking to upgrade their top-six forwards by moving a young defenseman, possibly Cam Fowler. And when they get rolling, the bar is likely to be raised from 79 points to somewhere in the mid-to-high 80s.

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That would require something along the lines of 63 points over Edmonton's final 54 games to keep pace. That’s probably out of the reach of this team as constructed. And with two games against the Rangers along with roadies in Boston and Chicago making up their next four, that total might look even more wishful by this time next week.

But if they can squeeze a few points out of that stretch the Oilers have a fairly easy schedule the rest of the way. And a strong second half push, especially once they get healthy, isn’t out of the question.

That’s why Chiarelli needs to think short term and pay the price to improve his team now. Nobody is saying it will be easy. But with an opportunity like this he can’t afford to stand pat.

The numbers game

• Patrick Kane, the first pick in the 2007 NHL Draft is now the first member of his class to reach 600 career points. ​

• At 21-5-2 (44 points), the NHL-leading Stars are off to the best start in the franchise’s 48-year history and have yet to suffer consecutive losses this season.​

• With 621 wins, Capitals coach Barry Trotz now ranks 10th on the league's all-time victories list for bench bosses.​

Hot links

• The Sports Illustrated Social 100: Best teams, players to follow, more.

• Relocation has been pushed to the backburner for a pair of troubled franchises.

• Yet another tottering franchise has found a partner to help it build a new arena.

NHL ends executive compensation policy with rash move

• Two years removed from the game, former All-Star Todd Bertuzzi has finally gained perspective on what he once had.

• A former NHL netminder offers his take on the best goalie masks of all-time.

• The Chinese Hockey League handed down a suspension this week “that should serve as a blueprint for the weak-kneed NHL.

•​ Rookie defenseman Noah Hanifin is 18 years old. Made sense for the Hurricanes to find him a roommate.

• The NHL looked to the world of televised entertainment for its latest executive hire.

• Finally, this classic James Duthie gem reveals where all the good coaches come from. Vintage insanity from the TSN boys.

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