It's fair to say heading into this season, not many would have predicted how it would start for the Oilers. Picked as preseason Stanley Cup favourites by ESPN they instead began with a shocking 2-9-1 record, which cost Jay Woodcroft his job.
Even after Kris Knoblauch arrived, the Oilers found themselves at 5-12-1, which was their fourth-worst start through 18 games in franchise history. This was then followed by an equally surprising eight-game winning sequence, which was one off the team's all-time longest.
The point is, this has been unexpected season to date for the Oilers. Along these line, here are three players who have been a pleasant surprise so far in 2023-24:
1) Sam Gagner
There was some understandable trepidation about the Oilers' decision to offer a PTO invitation to Sam Gagner during the summer. Declining production and advancing age had some wondering about the wisdom of such a move.
It didn't help that Gagner was recovering from surgery on both hips, thus limiting him to practice during training camp. Without seeing him in preseason action, it would be even tougher to determine what he could or couldn't offer.
At the end of the day though there was nothing to lose and everything to gain, with a minimal financial impact when the 34-year-old subsequently signed a contract with the Condors. He went on to have an immediate impact in Bakersfield.
In three games -- all of which the Condors won -- Gagner produced a goal, a team-high four assists and a +4 plus/minus rating. As a result, he was rewarded with a one-year, two-way contract with the Oilers, worth the league minimum $775,000 at the NHL level.
The Oilers' 2007 sixth overall draft pick proceeded to turn back the clock, as he scored two goals in his third debut for the team. And while the Oilers ultimately lost 4-3 to the Stars, he provided the necessary boost for a bottom-six sadly lacking in the points department up to that stage of the 2023-24 season.
Since then, Gagner has continued to provide invaluable veteran experience and leadership for a team which desperately needed it. He is without doubt part of the reason for the turnaround by the Oilers following their horrific start to this season.
Through 18 games, the London, Ontario native has four goals, five assists, nine total points and a +3 rating. Projected over the remainder of the season, these would all result in his most productive campaign since 2016-17.
In addition, Gagner's 60.9 Corsi For (CF) percentage and 61.3 Fenwick For (FF) percentage both project to be the third-best of his 17 seasons in the NHL. As a final note, consider that he's achieving all this despite his 10:56 average ice time, which is on course to be the lowest of his career.