As 2022 comes to a close the Edmonton Oilers have settled into a familiar place, in the thick of a developing playoff race. The jump towards becoming a perennial contender has continued to be elusive and tenuous. Were we to resolve our way there, how would we go about it?
The hope remains, with game breaking talent in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, the Oilers always have a puncher’s chance at victory. Their contributions are foremost, and define the present for the Oilers as a whole.
Recent conversations about teams’ respective “big four” forward groups have only underscored how both Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Zach Hyman have authored vintage starts to the season. While Hyman continues to deliver on his end of the bargain, it has been perhaps the best level of play we have seen from RNH.
To finding the right mix up front
Nugent-Hopkins is doing so at centre, offering the Oilers extreme flexibility at the top of the lineup. With some injuries, though, that flexibility might work against him, recently on a line with Matthias Janmark and Klim Kostin. Essentially, at the hands of any decisions to play McDavid and Draisaitl together, RNH’s spot in the lineup is often unsettled.
Jesse Puljujarvi’s lack of scoring touch can be frustrating, but in truth he is a fantastic option on McDavid’s wing. In general, there’s no reason to stray far from this combination for too long. Kailer Yamamoto seems to be taking on more and more penalty killing duties, easing the pressure on his 5v5 icetime. Yamamoto and Puljujarvi are clearly huge parts of this Oilers team, as such putting them in positions to succeed is important to them.
Despite often playing with McDavid and Draisaitl, both Puljujarvi and Yamamoto’s offensive production can often underwhelm. Players, fans, and coaches alike should accept that both contribute a lot beyond that.
There’s been some solid performances over an injury riddled forward group, but with more and more of the Oilers depth returning, the expectation should begin to rise.
To health and more goals
Even when Evander Kane does return, it might take a while for his scoring touch to return. Ilya Mikheyev suffered a similar skate to the wrist injury. It took almost a full season before Mikheyev’s goal scoring rates returned, just in time for unrestricted free agency the following summer.
Kane provided a much needed scoring touch to the lineup, a role that will need to be filled by committee, even upon his return sometime down the stretch.
To defensive strides
With Darnell Nurse understandably not at his best, the Oilers already borderline blueline has had its issues. Even a resurgent season for Tyson Barrie hasn’t been enough to quell the need on the back end.
The Oilers have three defencemen who are fantastic offensively –Nurse, Barrie, and Evan Bouchard – and all three require a quality defensive presence to be at their most effective. Cody Ceci and Brett Kulak are fine options, if not slightly overextended, but to be a true contender, the Oilers need all three pairs to be capable of at least second pair type minutes, sharing the load as a whole to account for individuals.
While trade targets like Jakob Chychrun and Vladislav Gavrikov would certainly raise the quality of the blueline, their services might not be affordable. The most crucial attribute to target in such an acquisition would be an aptitude for penalty killing, and perhaps even the ability to do so on the right side.
To trust the youth
As both Chychrun and Gavrikov are left shots, neither unquestionably fulfill this requirement. The Oilers do have some in-house options, led by the ascending Philip Broberg. The simplest, and perhaps most ideal solution would be for Bouchard and Broberg to to fully assert themselves as well rounded top four defenders.
Bouchard has seen some tough moments that marr his application to the role. Otherwise, Bouchard’s overall level of play has been quite good, faring quite well in xGA, for example. Broberg is a year or two behind Bouchard, but likely has more traditional defensive attributes. Broberg, now injured, has shown signs of being ready for more icetime than he’s received.
In some ways, it can be difficult to take the leap of faith in trusting young players until it is a necessity. Mistakes will be made, as is true for any player, and without much room for error in the standings, the Oilers might be averse to giving either a true, extended audition in a bigger role. It might be impossible for either to prove they are capable of more until they are entrusted with such.
To trust the tandem
Jack Campbell’s start has been suspect, and Stuart Skinner’s ascension has been legitimate, but currently the Oilers have been turning to Skinner at too high of a rate. Campbell has struggled, even visibly, looking unsettled in net, yet his win-loss record has not been that bad.
Yes, wins and losses are team stats, but it should be noted that some of Campbell’s raw stats have been overinflated by shellings in lopsided losses, anecdotally allowing some weak goals late in games which the team was already well behind. Despite his level of play, Campbell has not cost the Oilers standings points.
After a long while without much action it is time to get Campbell rolling again with at least 35-45% of the team’s starts, for both his sake and Skinner’s.
To make a move
Close to the cap and with more than a few contracts that are less than ideal, the one thing the Oilers do have working for them in negotiations is a wealth of value in futures. With all their important draft assets and a well stocked pipeline of prospects, the Oilers have the means to swing for a big move, but even one or two more targeted acquisitions might be most sensible.
Take for example last season’s move to bring in Brett Kulak. Though not as big of a reputation as names like Ben Chiarot, Kulak was affordable as a trade asset and as a long term option, perhaps even a better player and fit than whatever bigger names were on the trade block.
As the Oilers are acquiring role players, in large part, because of their elite top end talent, trusting the pro scouts on identifying lesser known options is likely the most prudent avenue for the Oilers.
To a new year
In the back half of last season we saw an elevated level of play from the Oilers, an organised effort that saw them race up the standings, a platform for their playoff successes. Though each iteration of a team is different, and identities must be forged, earned, each season anew, there is reason to believe that the team’s level of play can increase heading into the spring.
To some extent the 5v5 defence has improved with the season, less so the penalty kill, but both are key markers for the viability of any contender. Even approaching league average in these areas will see the Oilers comfortably in a playoff spot.
Even without reaching the Conference Final again, the Oilers can procure a raised profile headed into next season. A strong back half of the season, as well as a divisional playoff berth, will be crucial. If the Oilers are able to win a round and prove last season was more than a mirage like their 2017 run, it will go a long way towards convincing the world of their legitimacy as perennial contenders.
This extended success is exactly how the Oilers can extend their window, giving McDavid and Draisaitl no reason to think about leaving for other teams when they hit unrestricted free agency. Outside of winning a Cup, ensuring such is the foremost objective for the franchise.
Photo by Curtis Comeau/Icon Sportswire