Since our last Oil Check, the Edmonton Oilers have put together what might be their best stretch of the season, going 5–1–1 after Thursday night’s win against the Tampa Bay Lightning. There have been a number of interesting developments, most of which are quite positive, and the mood among the fan base should be tracking positively, congruently.
Oilers improve on their 5v5
The Oilers have dug themselves out of their early hole in this regard, controlling possession and scoring chances more and more often. Given the star power that the Oilers boast, treading above 50% in such statistics will all but guarantee that the Oilers are a legitimate threat to any opponent.
When coach Jay Woodcroft was hired last season, the Oilers underwent a metamorphosis in this area, a huge reason for their rise to prominence, clinching of a playoff berth, and success in the postseason. Over the offseason, Oil Country was likely counting on a repeat performance of the team’s second half play, but the fall portion of the 2022–23 season did not live up to those expectations.
Regardless, now that the Oilers are finding their form once more the league should be on high alert. It may have taken about 40 games but the Oilers have reached a strong enough level of play in this respect to be counted as a legitimate contender.
Penalty kill no longer abysmal
The penalty kill has improved slightly from its dreadful start. If the Oilers are able to maintain an efficiency between 75-80% the rest of the season, they should be in fantastic shape. Anecdotally, the penalty kill seems to be much more sustainable, and is often a strong indicator for potential playoff success, perhaps more so than power play efficiency.
Some key additions to the unit have been Philip Broberg and Vincent Desharnais, both of whom have logged time on the PK. Desharnais, in particular, might prove to be a critical piece, as the Oilers were in desperate need of a right-handed PK option behind Cody Ceci.
Broberg gives the blueline some relief
Broberg has been a name worth monitoring since being selected by the Oilers eighth overall in 2019. He has all the tools of a top tier, two-way defender, capable of pushing Darnell Nurse for the Oilers best option on the blueline at some point. Although it has taken a few years, Broberg is right on pace, blossoming from top prospect to impactful player in recent weeks.
From a big picture perspective, this might be the most important story of the Oilers season so far. With a blueline that is over compensated, and over its head, Broberg tips the scales of play and value simply by being a capable top six option. Should he prove to be more than that, the Oilers might start venturing into conversations for a top tier blueline league-wide.
The fact that he has been earning trust and getting results with Evan Bouchard as a partner is huge as well. With both young players on their own, without a veteran partner to mask any defensive shortcomings, they are both proving to be trustworthy in their own right.
Broberg has recently been deployed more often, surpassing the icetime that the third pair LHD has gotten, whether it be Ryan Murray or Markus Niemelainen. It might not be a straight line from here to superstardom, but any consternation regarding if the Oilers should have drafted some other player should be quelled to a significant degree.
Along with Desharnais and his work on the penalty kill, Broberg might greatly alter the Oilers trade deadline approach if he hasn’t already.
Campbell on a hot win streak
With such positive happenings defensively, along the blueline, at 5v5, and on the penalty kill, no doubt the demand on the Oilers goaltending is lessened. Perhaps this easing of the burden, equipment changes, technical adjustments, or a mental reset have all played a part in Jack Campbell turning his season around. Even if Stuart Skinner is able to repeat his strong first half, the Oilers will need Campbell to be part of the solution in net.
All players have their ups and downs, a fact that becomes more obvious when the player in question is a goalie. Likely, and hopefully, Campbell had as bad a half season as possible to begin his Oilers’ tenure. Though his contract is hardly a bargain, it should not be unexpected that Campbell outperforms Skinner at certain points over the next four seasons that they are slated to share the net, perhaps even half the time.
As a tandem with two capable members, the pair is under contract quite affordably. Behind a strong defensive team they can bring the best out in each other—a much needed partnership in a league where two goalies is increasingly a rule not an exception.
Oilers with a productive forward group
Outside of Kailer Yamamoto moving to the injured reserve the Oilers have returned to health. Evander Kane has looked impactful early in his return. Klim Kostin has all but won the fan base over with his recent hot streak. Ryan McLeod is back up and running. Even Dylan Holloway is showing increased confidence. A lot is going right for the group that has been decimated at points this season.
It’s not all good news, as Jesse Puljujarvi found himself a healthy scratch on January 17. Considering his contract, the history between the team and player, confidence, and a contingent of Finnish hockey minds throwing fuel on the fire, it seems all but inevitable that Puljujarvi’s time with the Oilers is coming to an end.
Leading the team in fights and hits, as well as being one of the Oilers best defensive forwards, Puljujarvi brings a lot to the lineup, but perhaps not as much as his $3M cap hit. With the Oilers so close to the cap, his salary might be the only leeway the team has to make improvements.
It is hard not to think that a move might help all parties. Kostin is an in-house example of a phenomenon that exists across all sports, sometimes a change of scenery is exactly what a player needs. The chorus of voices that think Puljujarvi’s best lies elsewhere is growing, and perhaps the Oilers are inclined to agree with other positive developments across the forward group.
Oilers won’t face a worthy opponent for awhile
Though we just reached the second half of January, it won’t be until February 17 that the Oilers will face a team in a playoff position. This eight-game stretch will include games against some downright terrible opponents, many of which have all but committed to tanking already. These won’t be guaranteed victories but the Oilers should expect to have outstanding results across these games.
Surely a win streak might vault the Oilers up the standings, but some sustained success might help build the confidence of the group as well. The Oilers have had a hard time stringing together any long winning streaks this season, and such a run could help the team’s circumstances greatly improve in more ways than one.
Skinner and Draisaitl join McDavid in Florida
Connor McDavid was named to the initial Pacific Division All-Star roster, but last night it was revealed that teammates Leon Draisaitl and Stuart Skinner were voted in as well.
Naturally, McDavid and Draisaitl are worthy of All-Star appearances every year, but this is a nice surprise for Skinner. Fans around the league will get the chance to see the combination of skill, poise, and personality that has seen Skinner become a fan favourite in Edmonton, just as Skinner will get a chance to see some of the top players from around the league.
Photo by Curtis Comeau/Icon Sportswire