How soon is too soon to panic? How many games into the season before we reevaluate our priorities? How much grace does an NHL team deserve given the overwhelming nature of an 82 game schedule in a contact sport, as well as the inherent raised degree of randomness that dictates wins and losses in the NHL?
These are questions that are being asked all around the league, particularly with teams falling short of expectations. Contenders such as Tampa Bay, Minnesota, and Toronto, have gotten off to unflattering starts, as have playoff hopefuls New Jersey and Vancouver. The smoke clouds of despair are growing, despite being but a handful of games into the 2022–23 season, and it can be hard to decipher if there are any fires igniting behind them.
Inevitably, several teams will author seasons below their potential, several fan bases might be right to see the premonitions of doom. Are Oilers fans among those who should be in that group, or is this slow start to the season merely a small inconvenience as the Oilers build towards a long and successful season? Let’s look over a few of the burning issues amidst the Oilers less than ideal results over the first stretch of the season and see if there’s any fire behind the smoke.
Nurse is not the sole issue on the blueline
In the tight confines of the hard salary cap, a player’s cap hit can have effect on public perception of their value as a whole. As such, with Darnell Nurse’s new eight year $9,250,000 cap hit kicking in, so too will come a new level of scrutiny in the eyes of many.
Sure, signing an extension after a career year might’ve earned Nurse a bit more than he might’ve otherwise, and the Oilers could have been more aggressive in giving Nurse term out of his rookie deal. At this point the deal is set in stone, let bygones be bygone so to speak.
The truth of the matter is that Nurse is undoubtedly the Oilers’, a team with aspirations of contention, best defenceman. As much as we get hopeful for the future of the Oilers defence prospects, it seems he will own that mantle for a while.
Nurse suffered a hip injury at the end of the last regular season, eventually playing through what would eventually require offseason surgery. Hip issues can still be tricky for all NHL players and in some ways it is perhaps lucky that Nurse is able to be back for the start of the regular season. Nurse should be given some leeway because of this, ultimately we’ll hope to see him healthy and improving in that area.
The length of his contract might be concerning to some, but Nurse is an integral part of this team, likely their third best player. The team as a whole has been poor defensively, and few have escaped unscathed, Nurse included. This is more of a team issue than an individual one.
Can Bouchard still exceed our expectations?
The reason why it was a bold prediction to think that Evan Bouchard would contend for the Oilers top defenceman is because there is still quite a gap between him and Nurse. The truth is that development is not linear or even always achieved in full; it is asking quite a lot for Bouchard to exceed expectations as much as he did last year once again.
Although it might influence opinions on how valuable Tyson Barrie’s contributions are at this point, it is not troubling that Bouchard’s current play still leaves more to be desired. There have definitely been some awkward skating moments, as well as his share of lapses, but Bouchard is still a promising young player.
Given his size and skillset, there will always be a fraction of fans that will be disappointed that Bouchard is not as physically or defensively wired as his stature might suggest. Even Dougie Hamilton, a lofty comparable, has always had doubters for this very reason.
Bouchard has shown some signs of defensive viability, although he will need to keep proving himself in this area to ascend to a bigger role.
Some might argue that having Bouchard and Barrie on the same blueline is impossible to win with, but with the right partners and usage, the duo gives the Oilers an intriguingly skilled blueline to leverage their talent up front.
Campbell had a rocky start
Speaking of poor team defence, it’s been a tough start to Jack Campbell’s Oilers tenure. Stuart Skinner has gained some early admiration for faring slightly better, but the truth is neither will be able to sustain success in the current conditions.
Although it’s fair to add on some extra worry given that Campbell’s track record as a starter is shorter than his five year deal with the Oilers, with better defence in front of him, he has what it takes to live up to his contract. Once again, some fans will not be able to shake the cap hit from their evaluations, but there should be a measure of caution in the expectations of Campbell.
On the opening Hockey Night in Canada broadcast this season, there was a suggestion that Campbell should be in Vezina contention, which is quite frankly far-fetched. Instead, the expectation should be that Campbell provides stable, middle of the road results in stats such as GSAx (goals saved against expected) behind a high level of defensive executions.
From a bigger perspective, GM Ken Holland has done a decent job in giving the Oilers a tandem of similar quality to last year’s Smith-Koskinen duo with about $1M less of a cap hit. Although Smith was polarizing and mercurial, Edmonton sported similar levels of goaltending as other contenders with middle of the road goaltending such as Colorado and Toronto.
Of course the starters from both the Avalanche and the Leafs were UFAs linked to the Oilers this summer and the Oilers made their choice with Campbell. With Stuart Skinner approaching a similar level of play, any goaltending award focus should be on the Jennings Trophy rather than the Vezina Trophy.
No reason to question Woodcroft’s leadership yet
From both a narrative and statistical perspective, the Oilers dramatic turnaround last season was authored not only by a lineup bolstered with additions, but also through more team cohesion. There was a prepared and tactical precision to the Oilers on a nightly basis, a performance that we had grown expectant of.
Much of this, from a positive standpoint, was attributed to coach Jay Woodcroft; should it be focused on him from a negative standpoint as well? Especially given Woodcroft did not have much practice time taking over last season, it does seem a bit out of character. Naturally it is still quite early, and we should expect Woodcroft to right the ship in relatively short order.
The biggest areas have been the slow starts, spotting teams early leads, and a hesitancy in transitioning during breakouts. Punctuated by the scary hit Dylan Holloway took from Ilya Lyubushkin off a dangerous rim pass, paralysis from analysis is eating away the precious half-seconds the Oilers might have before the opponent’s pressure.
In all, it has led to the Oilers being out chanced over the first four games, giving up far more quality opportunities than any contending team can afford to.
Whether these are questions of preparedness, execution, or systematic shortcomings, the onus will be on Woodcroft and his staff to get the team more organized. We know that the Oilers are capable of much more than they’ve shown so far and before any big statements are made as to where the Oilers might need upgrading, we will need to see their efforts reach a more consistent level.
Will Broberg get any ice time with the Oilers?
After another offseason of hype Philip Broberg finds himself off the NHL roster once more. Although there might be some impatience growing with the 2019 eighth overall pick, as well as comparisons to players drafted after him, Broberg is still an extremely important prospect for the Oilers.
Broberg has the size, skating, and skill to be an impactful defenceman at the NHL level. The question to his being able to grow into that lies in his physically filling out, his processing, and decision-making on the ice. While he will continue to come into his body in his own time, the best thing for Broberg is to continue gaining experience in top minutes regardless of it being in the AHL or NHL.
Players develop at their own rates, defencemen more slowly than forwards. There really shouldn’t be much concern about Broberg’s NHL capabilities until he doesn’t make the team out of next year’s camp. Broberg has proven quite capable at the AHL level the past couple of seasons, and the Oilers are wise to keep him playing there, at least for the first portion of the season. A mid season call up, of a permanent variety, is still possible.
When Broberg does find himself in NHL action it would be nice to pair him with a strong and complimentary partner. It might be a bit much to ask Broberg to step in as the defensive conscience for either of the right handed Bouchard or Barrie as a rookie. Perhaps this is exactly what the Oilers’ coaches and management are trying to prepare Broberg for, as the Oilers crave Broberg’s defensive abilities more than his offensive ones. This line of thinking certainly offers an explanation to ensure Broberg’s preparedness.
Cody Ceci, on the other hand, has enough two way ability, with a slight defensive lean, that make him a fairly ideal candidate to support a young Broberg. As Nurse and Ceci have had a long and strong run as partners, some mixing and matching as the season progresses might open the door for Broberg’s ascension. Broberg does have a notable presence as a passer, more so in smart support passes that control the pace of the game than in daring, rink long, saucer passes for breakaways. Ceci would certainly benefit from Broberg as a puck moving option.
Photo by Curtis Comeau/Icon Sportswire