Before I start, let me make one thing clear: There are a number of advanced numbers and ratios and rates that suggest that the Edmonton Oilers’ hot start is unsustainable and they won’t continue winning at a rate that they have been.
However, there are also a number of advanced numbers and ratios and rates that suggest that the Edmonton Oilers are also quite improved from last season and won’t be the basement-dwelling team that I expected from a team that iced a lineup with no defensemen or goaltending.
What’s happened thus far is that the goaltending has been more than competent and is bordering on “rock solid” territory. The defense has been adequate, and the team is pretty close to par as far as shot differential with the score-tied, meaning, they’re alright.
They’ve also seen the resurgence of their former star Ryan Smyth, traded away at the 2007 trading deadline ere four consecutive postseasons passed by without the Oilers in the tree. David Staples of the Cult of Hockey wrote about how the Smyth, Shawn Horcoff and Ryan Jones line has been consistently coming out ahead playing tough minutes. Ryan Smyth has five goals and five assists to start the season, and he’s scoring points where we expect him to. When anybody sees Ryan Smyth, does anybody think of him as an Islander, Avalanche* or King?
*-(What is acceptable to call one solitary member of the Colorado Avalanche or Minnesota Wild? At least with Lightning players we can call them Bolts.)
Dave Lozo at NHL.com opined on Monday that Smyth “has had a steadying effect on the young corps of the Oilers”? The analysis out of Edmonton doesn’t suggest that the Edmonton media is getting carried away from Smyth’s return, but it’s a storyline that may shape up if the success continues. (I don’t mind stories that suggest that Edmonton may be jolting Smyth, although Smyth’s 1062 PDO means we can’t read too much into his early season production)
As with Smyth and Edmonton, I can’t help but draw parallels with Trevor Linden and the Vancouver Canucks. I grew up in Vancouver fan and for the longest time they were a terrible hockey club, missing the playoffs three straight years between 1997 and 2000. In ’98 the Canucks made the decision to trade away Linden at the deadline. Linden struggled to find a home in Long Island, Montreal, and then Washington, while the Mark Messier era in Vancouver wasn’t sunshine and roses either. In 2002, perhaps caving to a little bit of public nostalgia with the team at a 6-11-1 record, then-General Manager Brian Burke shipped off a couple of draft picks to the Capitals for Linden.
In Linden’s return to a Canuck sweater, the Canucks defeated the Minnesota Wild 5-0 on the road. He wasn’t on the ice for any goals and didn’t record a shot, but the fancy narrative wasn’t lost on media members when it came time to analyze why the Canucks made the playoffs that season:
“Trevor’s return certainly wasnt like a reunion for the other players. But the rest of us [media and team staff] all understood the significance of his return” Canuck radio guy John Shorthouse said in a 2005 interview. Jason Faris, the author of a commemorative coffee-table book Around The NHL with Jim Robson wrote “That win [in Minnesota] was the start of a four-game unbeaten streak and the Canucks eventually rose from five games below .500 to finish the season 12 games over. Linden’s presence during that resurgence was no coincidence.”
It’s remarkable how we forget history. While the Canucks had been 6-11-1 at the time, I have no doubt that percentages played a part in the early-season demise. They were much like the New Jersey Devils of 2011, who had a slow first half steamrolled through the 2002 calendar to make a playoff bit. It wasn’t until January that the Canucks really got going (even with Linden, the Canucks were still under .500 until January 25 and were 6 games back after a loss on December 22nd). The nostalgia of having Linden return to the lineup is also remembered in favour of forgetting the Canucks were a playoff team the previous season, despite a late-season broken leg to the team’s best player Markus Naslund.
So, yes, Linden’s return to Vancouver, while cool, was coincidental to the team’s run. He played no major part in the team’s brief flirtation of success for the next three years, and scored 59 goals in 438 games in his second stint. Frankly, Smyth is well on his way to eclipsing that month, and if he continues to play with a 1062 PDO, could hit that by next March.
But with the 2011-12 Edmonton Oilers, I think we can safely say that their goaltending has been unpredictably amazing. Nikolai Khabibulin’s resurgence is not as interesting as a story as Smyth, but if he isn’t playing well above his career average, the Oilers are probably below a .500 hockey club. Edmonton has some of the smartest hockey bloggers covering them, so I won’t expect nostalgic licensing assuming Smyth has ignited the team because in front of Khabibulin, they have a lot to go before they can prove that there’s a real difference between this year and last. I think that Smyth has stepped in and been an effective playing eating up some good minutes, but with most Oilers skaters, he’s seeing the benefit of percentages and I can’t help but think that this won’t last.
It would be so cool to see Ryan Smyth get another chance to win in Edmonton, however, and hopefully the now 35-year old’s (36 by season’s end) story ends on a much more appropriate note than Linden’s. If these Oilers complete the turnaround and make the dance, I hope ample credit is provided to all parties involved, and not just given to Smyth.
Also, I’m declaring open season on “The kids are alright” headlines or any variation of. You have been warned.