After a pretty tough start to the November schedule, it appears that things for the Oilers are only getting worse. Injuries are piling up, mainly among the forward group, where the Oilers are missing a growing number of top nine options.
From a negative standpoint, the current lineup seems to be lacking in the scoring touch department, or at least in the depth thereof. Although this might be true, the more concerning issue that has plagued the team has been team defence; more simply, the Oilers have been getting out-possessed and out-chanced more often than not. A 3–7–0 stretch headed into last weekend had the Oilers sitting at 10–10–0 through 20 games, roughly Black Friday, and some claiming that the current state of the team was unacceptable.
The piling injuries do not help in any of these regards, no doubt. Yet, notoriously, adversity begets opportunity. The Oilers find themselves in the face of a crisis, needing better results, with an ever dwindling cast of characters at their disposal. Combined with the timing, aligned with the landmark of Black Friday, this moment represents a call to action for the Oilers. They are charged with finding a higher level within themselves, the forging of a new aspect to their identity, a coming of age along their hero’s journey as a team.
Naturally, any and all efforts lie first and foremost upon Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, a task they are uniquely equipped for, a task they always seem beyond capable of. However, these efforts alone won’t be enough, and the Oilers will have to find other ways, other strengths throughout the roster. Who will be the ones to step up behind the pair of MVPs? Will they? Can they?
The Oilers from last season seem to be missing in action
With the forward depth dwindling, the lineup has begun to resemble too closely that which the Oilers began last season with. More concerning, their elevated level of play seemed to have vanished. The crisp and focused varnish that adorned the Oilers turnaround last season was attributed as much to Jay Woodcroft and his coaching staff as much as roster additions and health, yet once more the Oilers are starting the season looking more like last season’s Dave Tippett-coached Oilers than anyone wants.
That said, for the time being, this trend seems to be heading upwards. The Oilers are looking more concise and starting to control the flow of play in more games. The penalty kill is evening out after a lacklustre start, holding up much better since games on November 5, where the Dallas Stars went 2–3 on the power play, and November 7, where the Washington Capitals went 4–5.
Though the injuries certainly present an issue in some respects, the team still has enough key players to continue this along this vector towards a higher level. The players should be all ears as well, with a sense of urgency galvanising anxiety into diligence.
The added layer is that many of the players that will be called upon are players that Woodcroft might well be familiar with. After all, the coach was the bench boss of the AHL Bakersfield Condors at this time last year. The head start on some trust should help all involved in delivering their best.
It is time to find out if the tactical precision the Oilers found last season was the new norm or but a fading mirage like the 2017 playoff run before it.
Many players have had the chance to be called up
Over time we’ve seen the reserves do well early into this season. The Oilers, like many cap teams around the league, were counting dollars, unable to carry a full 23 man roster. From the outset, the Oilers current roster was built with this type of injury situation in mind. With players and their salaries off the roster, the Oilers had room to call up some players that would have otherwise been on their roster as scratches to begin with.
Mattias Janmark is the prime example here. A bonafide bottom six NHLer with a rugged intensity that any coach would appreciate, Janmark’s starting in the AHL had more to do with cap constraints than his play. Of the call ups, he’s debuted with the most icetime by a good margin. In some sense, he bears a similar reliability as Warren Foegele, albeit congruently, and ultimately slightly, less decorated and compensated.
Janmark has shown good chemistry on a line with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jesse Puljujarvi. Nugent-Hopkins, much like a prime David Krejci, seems to do well with bigger, more physical wingers, like Zach Hyman for example, content to drive the middle ice. Quite frankly the Oilers need such unexpected production at the moment.
Meanwhile, other recent call ups, in James Hamblin and Tyler Benson, have played for Woodcroft before in the AHL. They each had some hopes of cracking the lineup out of training camp, but did not. They are both players who haven’t had much of a look in the NHL yet, and their coach being familiar with their strengths should help them find their way into positions to succeed. This is not exactly what we’ve seen, as neither has been able to earn much icetime in recent games.
Finally, up front, Klim Kostin gets a look after being acquired before the season. Kostin does have some draft pedigree, and now on his second NHL team a fresh start might be exactly what the forward needs. Although a top line level of offence might be unreasonable to expect, Kostin is at his best when he plays big, physical, fast, and straightforward, combined with some skill. He could add something to the forward group long term if he wants pats to a new best. Kostin has not quite lived up to such positive appraisals, his role waning into the press box before a strong showing against the Minnesota Wild.
Other players already on the roster are starting to step up
The Oilers have some good forward depth at full strength, meaning some players are in lesser roles than they might be capable of. Foremost, Warren Foegele has quickly reasserted himself as a strong third line winger. He might be capable of brief stints higher in the lineup, but he is no doubt overqualified for the fourth line duties he had been limited to at points this season.
To an extent, the fine and unique vintage of Derek Ryan might still have enough game for a third line role. The undersized centre has had an interesting career path, and is definitely smart enough to find a way to succeed in the bottom six. Like Foegele, Ryan has been a strong contributor to most flow of play metrics for many seasons.
With both Foegele and Ryan moving up in the lineup, the Oilers can call on a pair of reliable role players, Devin Shore and Brad Malone, to fill in behind. Both are veterans who won’t gain high praise for their on ice contributions most nights, in fact in a perfect world they might not be needed to suit up for the Oilers this year.
Things might never go according to plan, but having options to dress in limited roles is essential in these lean times. Both Shore and Malone might find themselves taking defensive zone draws or getting some minutes on the penalty kill, despite rarely, if ever, seeing more than ten minutes of icetime.
With some energy and attention to detail a fourth line can go a ways in shaping a team’s identity. Moreover, even providing the coach enough confidence to rest the stars an extra shift or two, as McDavid, Draisaitl, and Darnell Nurse have seen their minutes balloon to unsustainable levels.
The young stars are finally able to prove they deserve a spot in the lineup
Much more volatile than some of the fairly steadfast options mentioned above are the potential of what Dylan Holloway and Philip Broberg have to offer.
Holloway had a long injury lay-off, extending into the start of last season. He looked quite strong in the AHL to finish the year, and had a good training camp as well. Since then his icetime and impact have been quite limited. Some might argue he is better served in the AHL at this point, understandable given his usage, play, and the fact that essentially he has only played half a season of hockey in the past two years. Perhaps a regular shift will help him grow his confidence, but to this point he has yet to stake claim to a regular spot when the lineup is at full health. Quite frankly it would not be accurate to say that Holloway has nothing left to prove or gain in the AHL either.
It isn’t an indictment of Holloway’s long term top six viability to have him in the AHL for most of this season. With so many veterans pulling even with or even passing him on the current depth chart, it seems likely that will be the case when some of the injured forwards start returning. That is, unless he can begin to separate himself within the current lineup.
Broberg, on the other hand, has spent several seasons in the AHL as a top option. Injured to start the season, a recent AHL conditioning stint showed that the defenceman has graduated from the league. Putting up 12 shots in his three games, going on end-to-end rushes, pulling off spinning no-look passes, Broberg was assertive and bold.
A refined, mistake free defender he is not, as we saw a coverage mistake in his first NHL game of the season, followed by some tough looks against Chicago in his second. However, Broberg is fully capable of providing the Oilers with a higher level of play than either Ryan Murray or Markus Niemelainen at this point.
The Oilers’ blueline is constantly evolving
While the forwards are ravaged with injuries, the defence is virtually as healthy as can be. Broberg represents a longer term youth movement, the prospects of him and Evan Bouchard elevating a group that many consider to be over extended and over compensated.
Essentially a year behind Bouchard, the pair of highly skilled defencemen are the key to unlocking the full extent of the Oilers current window. With Bouchard firmly in a regular spot, pushing for top minutes, Broberg pushing into a regular spot of his own behind him is perhaps the most critical development of the franchise.
Based on their play so far this season, fans should still be optimistic about the future of the team as a whole. If, at some point, Bouchard and Broberg can push into regular top four contributors, the Oilers will find themselves as stable contenders for years to come. If they are able to push Nurse for the title as the team’s best defenceman, or at least lighten his burden, the Oilers will have what it takes to take on even the likes of the reigning Cup champion Colorado Avalanche.
Each passing month it seems we are getting closer to such a reality, though still a ways away. Both will have blunders, especially when paired together, but are continuing to look more and more in control of play from a long term perspective. Perhaps they will need to rely on each other, proving they can handle more minutes, even together, to prove to the coaching staff that they deserve bigger roles, or even more favourable partners.
Perhaps it hasn’t happened as quickly as the most optimistic of appraisals, but the high picks the Oilers earned with embarrassing seasons while McDavid and Draisaitl were on the roster are trending in the right direction. The embarrassment of being near .500 a quarter way through the season is nothing compared to the failures of those years past. Making good on such an unexpectedly high draft pick, in the top ten, was absolutely critical.
It’s a bit unfair to judge a given selection on, if any player selected afterwards was more successful. At this point both Bouchard and Broberg are well on schedule to have long and impactful NHL careers, meaning both picks look to have passing grades.
With McDavid and Draisaitl, a blueline that features three unquestionably strong top four defencemen – Nurse, Bouchard, and Broberg – has enough talent to uplift the rest of the roster.
The Oilers have many options to fill the roles of those injured
Despite the injuries, the Oilers are equipped, and in fact already en route, to a higher level of play. Even if they merely manage to keep pace with the peloton of the Western Conference Wild Card race through the coming weeks, in this depleted state, there are key indicators that will show if the Oilers are the true contenders that fans were expecting, or at least hoping for.
- Woodcroft magic. Controlling the flow of play, detail-oriented checking, and reasonable penalty killing. Help the goalies look good. Even without a miraculous comeback against the Florida Panthers on Monday, the Oilers outplayed the Panthers in earnest.
- At least one of the forward call ups challenges for a regular spot. Yes, veterans like Foegele, Janmark, and Ryan would do well to thrive in bigger roles. More positive would be even one of Benson, Hamblin, Kostin, or Holloway earning regular top nine minutes.
- Broberg and Bouchard earning more minutes. They will make mistakes, and quite frankly that should not be the primary metric used to judge them. It won’t be a straight line either, so a bad stretch shouldn’t be the be all end all. The Oilers should want both players to be comfortable trying to assert themselves to their highest levels. Strong or improving underlying stats, increased minutes, or bigger roles on special teams, any positive signs from the duo is great news for Oil Country.
In all, the Oilers have the means to lift themselves from the playoff muck. Any significant changes might be difficult or even impossible to make, despite the Oilers still possessing valuable draft capital.
Perhaps the path ahead might yet see darker days, unfortunately, but for now, as the bells of adversity ring, we should expect the Oilers to find their fortitude in the coming months. Yes, some additional padding in the form of standings points would be welcome, but the Cup isn’t handed out in December (this year, at least).
Photo by Bailey Hillesheim/Icon Sportswire