Edmonton Oilers

Internal combustion: are the Edmonton Oilers primed for take off?

Another January with the Edmonton Oilers teetering on the edge of playoff contention has brought about a familiar feeling. All of a sudden national and international coverage are asking the same questions once more. Certainly even among the fanbase, there are those unconvinced, fuelling various concerns from the roster, the front office, and beyond that have some measure of validity. There is a consistency to these narrative shortcomings.

The season itself has been quite monotonous. 10, 20, or 40 games in the conversation, moreover the team’s record, has been hovering above even.

The concept of consistency is also at work in positive ways, and in a sense, might define both question and answer for the team. The Oilers have been improving their process, are returning to improved health, and have a favourable schedule in the second half of the season.

The scene league-wide

Yes, in a perfect world the Oilers might acquire a bunch of amazing players at the deadline that turn them into the greatest team of all time (The 2022–23 Boston Bruins? Couldn’t be. Unless…), but the world we seem to be in makes that future quite unlikely. So too it is for most of the contenders around the league, the NHL’s stagnant cap forcing teams to limbo for every dollar.

On top of that, the 2023 draft looms, with a deep and talented first round headlined by Connor Bedard, dubbed Bedsy. The combination makes for a strange landscape headed into the deadline. More and more across professional sports we see a trend towards aggressiveness in managerial and tactical decisions, even in the sport itself, with the CHL having an unprecedented trade deadline this week.

Despite the highly flammable circumstances, it might be more likely that the cap has the opposite effect. Players like Jakob Chychrun, who would be an amazing Oiler, to Mattias Ekholm, Ivan Provorov, or Vladislav Gavrikov might not be possible, or prudent, to acquire. Only time will tell if the Oilers pull off a deal of such magnitude. The cost is certainly part of the equation, as are the possibilities for how well it works out, where each of the decisions available might lead. Only one path can be taken.

The landscape of the Oilers team, though, the one in front of us, shows what might be the best addition of all, internal development. More than that, consistent internal development.

The Oilers have steadily started to control play at even strength more than not, the foremost area of concern during the team’s opening ten games.

The situation in net 

Jack Campbell, meanwhile, has most likely been second on the list. Coming off a strong performance against the San Jose Sharks, it might be easy to say some positive regression is due. Though it has been a rough start, the fact is that Campbell has not cost the Oilers very many points yet. Campbell allowed a lot of bad goals, but many of his worst performances came in games early in the season with the Oilers overmatched by opponents like the Carolina Hurricanes, games they were perhaps unworthy of winning regardless.

It should be enough to afford some negative regression from Stuart Skinner as well. Ideally, we want nothing more than for Skinner to continue his ascension to Olympic starting goalie, or at least All-Star game, in the near-ish future, but in reality goalies have ebbs and flows to their games. It is rare that a career year will be had every year, and should Skinner be somewhat less spectacular at some point going forward it should not be cause for too much concern.

In other words the tandem might come into effect down the stretch. Regardless of the specifics, once again the Oilers have had at least average goaltending from their modestly paid duo as a whole. If both Campbell and Skinner are playing well, the Oilers would have to feel great about the situation in net for the next four years. Keeping each other rested, giving the team a chance to win most nights, and having both able to contribute makes the entire team better. It is more than likely that both will be contributing in the spring, as teams will and have used multiple goalies in the playoffs more often as well.

The improvement of the blueline

On the blueline the Oilers are settled into their top two pairings. All three of Brett Kulak, Cody Ceci, and Tyson Barrie are having one of the best seasons of their careers, showing great chemistry with each other and Darnell Nurse. Nurse is not having his most celebrated year, naturally with the extension kicking in scrutiny was bound to be high. Yet he is still unquestionably the top option for the team. He is playing the 14th highest time on ice per game across the league, at 23:57 a game.

Nurse’s value per cap dollar might be suboptimal, but as a player on the ice, he is easily one of the team’s top contributors year in and year out. I think it’s a compliment to both Nurse and Chychrun that they are in similar realms of effectiveness. The hope, either way, is that the Oilers are able to afford a defenceman who is good enough to ease Nurse’s minutes. At their best, the quartet of Nurse–Ceci and Kulak–Barrie are supported by a third pair.

We saw last season that Evan Bouchard and Duncan Keith were able to do so, as in we have seen Bouchard do it before. Keep in mind Keith was not exactly carrying Bouchard in these minutes either. At the very least Keith, and veterans in general, are usually better at winning over a coaches trust, either through historic or current play. Bouchard has certainly been guilty of a few “young mistakes”, and there might well be some psychological aspect of player development in using minutes to enforce on ice performance, good or bad. Bouchard has shown a lot of skill and played quite well, but his minutes have been quite limited.

Enter Philip Broberg. Now paired together, a first-year and a second-year defenceman team up to win their coaches trust together. Perhaps it is not the quickest way to more icetime, but not being able to rely on a more experienced partner puts the onus on these young defencemen to grow up fast should they hope to see a regular shift.

Really this is exactly what we’ve seen play out, with Broberg and Bouchard slowly earning more and more minutes. It is only time that will show us if the pair can continue their upward trajectory, but here they are in the midst of doing it. Simply put, the best and most affordable option might be the one the team is deploying. Quite frankly if Broberg and Bouchard are able to push Kulak and Barrie for even strength minutes this season, the Oilers have a shot to beat anyone.

The forward group has some growing pains

Up front the good news comes with Evander Kane’s imminent return. In the meantime there have been some ups and downs. Jesse Puljujarvi, Kailer Yamamoto, and Ryan McLeod will almost certainly bring more in the second half, if only by availability. Klim Kostin and Mattias Janmark have solidified their importance to the group, if only as bottom six type role players, with Kostin shining, having a bit of upside as well as being on a cheap cap hit.

The biggest X-factor, besides health, comes with Dylan Holloway. After such a strong camp the Oilers could hardly be faulted for giving him an opening night spot. Quickly falling to scarce usage, it might have been worth sending Holloway back to the AHL Bakersfield Condors to play top six minutes and be a dominant offensive force. After all, with but a half season of AHL experience at under a point per game there was still some room to grow in that league.

With seven points in 40 games, Holloway was contributing little, on most nights with less than ten minutes of ice. With three points in his last five games, Holloway has done well in some blowout wins to earn between 10-15 minutes. If Holloway can keep building off this recent stretch, the Oilers will have that much more depth. Holloway has shown us that he has some ability, and has started to show some flashes of budding confidence.

Full health is rare and unsustainable, but at full health the forward group is beginning to become quite crowded. Crowded enough to be able to trade out a salary or two up front to support the roster elsewhere? A different conversation. Nevertheless Holloway’s recent signs of life can be a catalyst through their consistency.

In the long run 

Finally, the Oilers are likely to have some schedule-based consistency in their future, with nearly the entire last month of the season featuring seven combined games against Bedard-focused fans in Arizona, Anaheim, and San Jose, but some of the advantages of playing in the Pacific Division have yet to help the Oilers in a meaningful way.

They will still have to earn it, but all things considered the Oilers should be in line to come together down the stretch once again. Despite some frustrating losses, the Oilers have remained fairly consistent in terms of wins and losses throughout the season. Not falling victim to a long losing skid is a critical mark of sound teams. It would be nice to see some more success putting together winning streaks, but at the very least the internal progression within the team suggests that their best is yet to come, and that the opportunity to go on a run will present itself, giving the team some strong momentum down the stretch.

Photo by Curtis Comeau/Icon Sportswire

Gregory Babinski

twitter: @axiomsofice

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