A brief reprieve, the Edmonton Oilers sit fourth in the Pacific at 9–7–0 with a rare four days between games. We are fast approaching the stabilisation of the standings, the early playoff landscape just about ready to be checked in on in earnest. For the curious, the Oilers find themselves in the West’s first wildcard spot, a start disappointingly middling for a team with greater aspirations.
The early unevenness, well characterised by the team’s penchant for slow starts to games, less than diligent play, and poor penalty killing has some across Oil Country counting cap dollars, piling up like a sense of dread. Despite how grim the prospect of future seasons might be through the lens of an underwhelming present, it is most important for appraisers and onlookers alike to do so with a grounded eye, as much perspective as one can.
After all, the sport itself is one rife with chaos, the strange bounces of frozen rubber on ice, the flow state that quality of play exists in, ebbing and flowing, breathing really. From shift to shift, game to game, year to year, rarely are the vectors of development or decline straightforward, consistent, or one directional.
In the heat of the moment, it might seem simple or obvious to cast judgement upon a given situation. Even when doing so from the most well reasoned analysis or observation, the NHL, hockey itself really, has other plans.
What trends, concerning or promising, continue for the Oilers might be impossible to decipher, the only guarantee is that there will be more twists and turns on the road ahead.
New money struggles are a symptom of poor defence
The most lamented amidst the team’s slow start is the $14M+ tied up in extensions to Darnell Nurse and Jack Campbell. Nurse still operates as the Oilers lead defenceman, while Campbell’s struggles have been more pronounced and have seen him cede the starting position to Stuart Skinner, at least for the time being.
Really both situations are, at least partly, symptoms of the Oilers overall defensive performance, an area that has been unbecoming of a team with contending aspirations.
The ongoing goalie dilemma
There might be some reasonable excuses for each player. Campbell is not an elite goalie, will not be contending for a Vezina trophy, but has shown the ability to provide above average results behind a strong defensive team. Without such structure in front of him, it is quite unlikely Campbell will have much success at all. At this point his confidence might as well be snowballing, cascading into worse play in a cycle that needs to be broken. Skinner has been better, but not to a point that their respective records differ greatly.
The luxury of having a legitimate tandem is that they can speed each other’s valley with syncopated peaks of their own. This is ideal, that Skinner’s strong play is buying Campbell some time to get back into his groove. Over his career Campbell has seen more than his share of highs and lows, so there should be some hope he can right the ship.
Skinner might well continue to cement himself as one of the league’s top young starters, ultimately the Oilers best case scenario, but he will still be best supported with a running mate who can ease his workload. Since the beginning of the season we have known that the duo should split the net fairly evenly. Yes, Campbell has been much worse than his contract, but for the time being, the duo is still efficient on the basis of combined cap hit. Additionally, there are far worse things for a contending team than having more than enough options at the sports most mysterious, important, and helpless position.
Defence still needs the biggest improvement
Meanwhile, Nurse is coming off of a hip injury that he played through over the last season’s playoff run. Such injuries can take months to heal, cutting into training time, even lingering, hindering a players effectiveness months after they are healthy enough to return to play. On top of this, Nurse’s workload has not relented either. Still playing top minutes against top competition, with a less than ideal partner (sorry Cody Ceci), Nurse is not exactly well supported in his current usage.
With a new contract that is objectively a bit rich given the current cap ceiling, it’s quite likely that expectations of Nurse are the highest they have ever been. In all it is a combination that is seeing a lot more criticism headed Nurse’s direction, despite his immense importance to the team.
Whether or not there are systematic issues, there has not been an adequate level of defensive execution, lacking in the details that Coach Jay Woodcroft was once lauded for. Perhaps adjustments to structure or player combinations can aid the needed turnaround, more drastic would be any roster changes. There are still a few avenues worth exploring before a major shakeup, although the trade-for-Chychrun crowd has seen their stance age well.
Despite some tough looks from all the Oilers defencemen, there is still an adequate level of intrigue to the group as a whole. Perhaps Evan Bouchard is ready to play on Nurse’s right side. Ceci has exceeded all expectations by working with Nurse as well as he has, and slotting him lower in the lineup might work best for player and team. It might be ambitious to think a Kulak-Ceci pairing might be a strong shutdown second pair, but at the very least Ceci is the ideal partner for Philip Broberg, should he make his way into NHL action in the near future.
Meanwhile, Bouchard has posted promising xG numbers but is still working his way up the lineup. Given his pedigree and skillset, it’s easy to get lost projecting Bouchard upwards in a straight line. He might always be prone to less physicality than his size suggests, as well as his share of risk heavy decisions, but the upside is certainly there. Time will tell how high Bouchard will climb, but it’s natural for that process to unfold at its own pace.
Players are underwhelming compared to their contracts
The theme of contracts that might seem burdensome is continued with Tyson Barrie. Despite his faults, Barrie is still a contributor on the back end, really insulating any growing pains from Bouchard. The theme is continued once more with Warren Foegele playing well of late.
The reality of how gruelling an 82 game schedule is, on top of how chaotic hockey is in general, means it’s impossible to play one’s best game every shift, every game, every month.
All players will ebb and flow, like Foegele who burst out from a long streak barren of productivity. He might not last a whole year at this elevated impact, but the advantage of depth allows a team to deploy its personnel effectively within their own rhythms. This is the nature of teamwork, after all.
There is still hope for the Oilers playoff contention
The Oilers have weathered a storm of sorts, merely the early legs of it, yet they still have the potential to play much better than they have.
With the gruesome injury to Evander Kane there will be room for others to step up, or perhaps for the team to find new solutions and strengths within the lineup. Even upon his return, it might take Kane a while to regain some of his skills to their best.
There are some hopes for the collective opportunities held by Dylan Holloway, Klim Kostin, and Mattias Janmark but the Oilers path forward needs to be through stronger defensive play as a team. Simply put, the Oilers will not be much more than a wildcard team unless they can improve the quality of their team defence.
Photo by Curtis Comeau/Icon Sportswire