A lot has gone well for the Edmonton Oilers in the 2022–23 season. Connor McDavid continues to defy even his own standards. Leon Draisaitl is second in league scoring even during an admittedly tough start. Zach Hyman and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins are on pace to obliterate career highs. Stuart Skinner shone in a big way early on. The blueline, and team defence as a whole has come into its own, Darnell Nurse rounding into form, Tyson Barrie having a strong campaign, and Philip Broberg coming of age before our very eyes.
In some ways the Oilers might have already made their in-season improvements, “adding” Broberg, Vincent Desharnais, and Klim Kostin as key contributors deeper in the lineup. On low cost deals, these developments are big wins for the Oilers front office given the cap situation.
Regardless of if any moves are to be made, the Oilers will be hoping that the recent ten-game point streak is not this season’s peak. What might the best version of this team look like come the playoffs?
Do the Oilers lack forward depth?
Not everything has gone well, of course. Through some injuries up front the Oilers have also navigated some relatively disappointing seasons from an individual perspective. The situation with Jesse Puljujarvi continues to devolve. Kailer Yamamoto, not without injuries of his own, seems to have settled as more of a “middle six” level forward as opposed to a “top six” role.
With the Oilers top forwards occupying so much space on the power play, and offensively in general, maybe it shouldn’t be too surprising that production hasn’t exactly blossomed deeper down through the lineup.
To round out a trio of newly re-signed RFAs, Ryan McLeod has authored a reasonable year. Though he hasn’t surpassed expectations, as he might’ve last season, at this point of his career holding down a third line centre spot as well as he has is good enough news.
While Kostin, Mattias Janmark, Warren Foegele, and Derek Ryan have had strong tears as bottom six forwards, functional and versatile depth, there is one x-factor that could come into play down the stretch, Dylan Holloway.
Holloway has had ups and downs
Holloway essentially played his way into the starting lineup with a strong training camp. A two-way force, Holloway was pressuring pucks, creating turnovers, and capitalising on offence, showing the full range of skills that saw him as a first-round draft pick. There is an element of physical prowess, size and speed, and enough offensive skills that there might be some upside.
All that changed once the regular season started. Although injury was involved it was not long before Holloway saw himself relegated to a fringe role in the lineup. His play no longer seemed as confident or assertive, perhaps waning opportunity, usage, and linemate quality began to snowball into each other.
Though his stock was high to start October, by November it was not a stretch to wonder if all parties would not be better served with Holloway or playing top line centre for the AHL affiliate Bakersfield Condors. With only a half season of AHL experience, with production closer to solid than gaudy, it is not a stretch to think Holloway could still build off those results with a sophomore AHL season.
Regardless, Holloway has stuck with the NHL club. Perhaps the Oilers are telling us that the best thing for Holloway’s development is to be around NHL infrastructure, that even a fringe role is worthwhile with regularity. At this point it seems unlikely that Holloway will be sent down, as the ideal way to split the season would be to play the first half in the AHL, building a resume of production, handling top minutes, and building confidence, before an in season call up.
Holloway showing signs of growth
Clearly in the early season Holloway was not playing with a lot of confidence, bobbling the puck, and puck control being an issue, as well as lacking a degree of decisiveness. We’ve seen some higher end offensive plays from Holloway in the past, perhaps pointing to a lack of poise. In time, with experience, Holloway should be able to operate in a stronger rhythm.
Despite the rough start to his NHL career there have been some signs of growth from Holloway. A greater level of confidence and comfort is already emerging, showing off a bit more of the offensive upside he will need to show in order to make an impact.
In particular, Holloway is using his shot a bit more often. In the past month he is averaging 1.10 shots per game, while on the season he is averaging 0.84 shots per game. The goals have yet to start coming, but getting chances and taking opportunities is a great start.
Holloway does, and has been, offering some off puck abilities, as a defender and a forechecker. In time he should start to win more board battles and be able to turn those into more dangerous offensive chances for his team. The question becomes a matter of when Holloway will take these steps and how much they might add to the Oilers lineup.
Hopeful projections for Holloway
It is completely fair to say that the hopes of Holloway delivering a top line level of offensive play are shorter if not short, at least in the immediate future (there is a long way to go yet). That said, if Holloway is able to build some confidence and momentum up the lineup the Holloway certainly has the tools to be a third line contributor.
Essentially, this means passing the likes of fellow bottom six wingers, Foegele, Kostin, and Janmark. This is not a given, as these forwards have had their moments throughout the season, but it is possible.
Quite frankly, Holloway’s career will not be defined or decided in this, his rookie season. Even if he is not ready to make more of an impact down the stretch in 2023, there should be many more years for Holloway to make that jump. Perhaps it is only another season of training, now armed with NHL experience, that can equip Holloway with the tools to improve.
For now, the Oilers are prudently not in a position where they are relying on Holloway for these expanded contributions. With an 11 forward lineup, the rotation of forwards allows for Holloway to get looks alongside different linemates. While playing with McDavid or Draisaitl would offer more opportunities for touches, Holloway is not ready for that responsibility yet.
Instead, it will be more important for Holloway to maximise the effectiveness he has alongside the Ryans: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Ryan McLeod, and Derek Ryan.
Starting with Ryan, this is where a lot of Holloway’s minutes have come from, so continuing to show improvements is the first step. McLeod is a useful checking centre, and Holloway’s defensive profile makes for an interesting pairing, though the checking assignments required of them might be steep to throw on such young players. Nugent-Hopkins, when centring his own line, is at his best with bigger wingers who have a nose for the net, something that Holloway might fit well with.
Especially with Nugent-Hopkins or McLeod, Holloway’s ability to be a shooting threat, even from in tight, is quite paramount to improving the Oilers lineup. This won’t be something that happens all at once or overnight, but if Holloway can position himself to start stepping into that role he might be able to make an impact in a big game down the stretch.
In what the Oilers hope is a long playoff run, a multitude of players will need to step up, have their own individual moments in helping the team. Star players and role players alike, veterans and rookies. Having some young legs in the lineup can often be a boon, providing energy in the sludge of attrition and double overtimes. Players just coming into their own can surprise themselves, not to mention opponents, true x-factors in heavily scouted playoff matchups, a profile that might fit Holloway quite well come playoff time.
Photo by Curtis Comeau/Icon Sportswire