As the altitude of the NHL season grows steeper, the air grows thinner. The remaining teams curtailing, the stakes raising, the margins of success ever smaller. Each victory can swell us with confidence, each defeat with dread. We all fret and worry about the slightest bounce, but outside of the players and team personnel, none can help the Edmonton Oilers’ cause, and so as fans we are at the mercy of our emotions.
The players, for their part, can only prepare to give the best performance they can. Though their efforts have the greatest impact on the game, the influence of the coach must not be overlooked. At certain points in every series tactical adjustments must be made, as the battle of attrition known as the NHL playoffs demands adaptability.
On the heels of a convincing Game 2 win against the Vegas Golden Knights, the Oilers and their fans are feeling secure in coming home from Vegas with the split. With the series tied up, and their Game 1 jitters out of the way, the Oilers will look to keep it rolling when the series shifts to Edmonton. Normally, home ice is considered an advantage, though in the small sample size of this season’s playoffs it has been anything but for home teams across the league.
With that, and the reminder of any fervour that kindled in our minds after a Game 1 loss, should be enough to remind us all, fans and teams alike, that contentment is a dynamic process. It is something earned, as they say, one game at a time, and plots and plans to change a lineup or a tactic are never more than a loss away.
With the inevitable twists and turns ahead, even more should the Oilers hope to achieve their ultimate goal, adjustments will need to be made. What are some possible answers, solutions that Coach Jay Woodcroft might have at his disposal?
Who deserves to join the top six?
Woodcroft deserves a lot of credit in his ability to manage the atypical 11 forward seven defenceman lineup the Oilers so often use. A balancing act with uneven numbers, Woodcroft has no choice but to be mixing and matching line combinations as he goes. With questions such as keeping Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl together or not made moot, as maximising their opportunities with different linemates is a big part of the equation. The question becomes one of who joins the loose top six, alongside McDavid, Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Zach Hyman, and Evander Kane.
For a long while this has been Kailer Yamamoto’s spot, but inconsistent production and various injuries have loosened his grip. Of late, Nick Bjugstad has been pinching up into this group as a defensive presence within a group that appreciates that support. Bjugstad is a perfectly reasonable choice for this circumstantial top six usage, though beyond him and Yamamoto lies another intriguing wrinkle.
Perhaps interchangeable, to a degree, with Bjugstad is Ryan McLeod, as both have been successful centring the strong checking duo of Warren Foegele and Derek Ryan. McLeod, for his part, might have more offensive upside if given the chance to play with the Oilers top talent. In particular, he’s shown some chemistry with Draisaitl in brief stints together last season. McLeod has speed and a degree of playmaking abilities to make himself a valuable facsimile to part of what makes McDavid a strong linemate for Draisaitl.
The third line, so to speak, should have one of Bjugstad or McLeod either way, and would continue to be a strong force for the Oilers. The other would provide some defensive support for the top six, no doubt, so it is a reasonable adjustment we might come to expect should scoring grow scarce.
Backup is available if required
Waiting in the wings, both Dylan Holloway and Devon Shore have made layer games for the Oilers this season. In case of injury, one of these two would be the likely replacement.
Shore is a veteran who would be counted on for responsible contributions. His experience and ability to play centre make him a tried and true option. There is a clear expectation of what he can deliver and his ability to do so.
More of a wildcard is Holloway. The young forward had an incredible training camp and made the opening roster. This faded, as his role and icetime diminished. Ultimately he was sent down to the AHL and was injured shortly thereafter. Holloway returned for a few regular season games before the playoffs and was a clear cut top forward for the Bakersfield Condors.
Holloway has much more skill and upside than Shore, but is far less experienced. He hasn’t asserted himself in the NHL and asking him to do so now is ambitious, but it might work. The decision on whether to insert he or Shore will be a big one, with each bringing a different flavour. Circumstance may dictate which of the two gets the call.
It should be noted that Raphael Lavoie is also with the team. While he could be called to action he is likely third on this list, at least, of who gets called in when the time comes. After breaking out during the second half of the season in the AHL, Lavoie is a scorer. With no NHL experience, Lavoie would be thrown into the fire, but his skill set differentiates him from his fellow scratches.
More than anything, this will likely be a time for Lavoie to get his bearings in the NHL, and with who he hopes are his teammates next season. Lavoie will be expected to make a push for an NHL spot next season, and training camp will need to go well for him to have any hope of that.
Defensive pairings stay somewhat static
Again, the odd numbers of a seven man blueline make the pairings an inherently dynamic mixing and matching, but Woodcroft is clearly more steady with his defence deployment. There are, unfortunately, things that can induce change beyond performance or a coach’s whim.
Mattias Ekholm and Evan Bouchard have been fantastic together, truly bringing out the best in each other. Darnell Nurse and Cody Ceci have done quite well together over the years, but it is fair to expect that Ceci will not hold up so high in the lineup forever. Brett Kulak and Vincent Desharnais have been good as well, with Desharnais providing a clear niche as a defender.
Should things need changing on the back end, it will likely be Philip Broberg on the rise. Although he didn’t make the team out of training camp, Broberg quickly showed he had little left to gain in the AHL this season, dominating play in his brief stint with the Condors. During his time in the NHL, since late December, Broberg has proven quite a bit.
Broberg held down a regular shift with Bouchard before the Ekholm trade, and proved he can function in the NHL on a pair with an offensive-minded partner. Though Bouchard’s quality play certainly helped Broberg, Broberg held his own and contributed to the pairing.
Since Ekholm-Bouchard was put together, Broberg has been cast as the seventh defenceman, cycling through partners in sheltered or low leverage situations. Broberg has continued to excel in his NHL minutes, even when playing on his weak side—the right—as he has been of late. In short, Broberg has passed every test thrown at him since being called up and might well be ready to take on a bigger role. If the Oilers are looking for answers anywhere on the back end, Broberg might prove he is up to the task once more.
Desharnais has continued to play well in the playoffs, though he won’t be mistaken for a Norris Trophy candidate. There can be some misadventures with the puck, and that has reared its head at certain points already. That said, Desharnais is valuable as a seventh defenceman for the penalty kill and defensive situations.
Pairing Broberg with Kulak would make for a capable third pairing, and would be the least intrusive on the current lineup. There is another option.
Creating a Kulak-Ceci pairing would be a strong veteran defensive union, capable of handling some tough deployment. Nurse could still eat a ton of minutes, but a partnership with Broberg might be quite positive for both players. Desharnais could swap in for Broberg to take some of the minutes off of the rookie, and to allow Nurse to play more minutes, closer to his usual.
Some of this does hinge on Broberg’s being ready, but he will never be ready until he is. The thing is, he might be. We are seeing a later stage of this with Bouchard blooming without Tyson Barrie blocking him. Many thought that Bouchard was ready for top power play time since joining the Oilers full time, yet this process can take time.
Given the success of the current lineup it might only be desperation or injury that sees Broberg elevated in the near future. This is evident with Broberg’s usage in Game 2, as all but a few minutes of his limited icetime came in the back half of a third period in which the Oilers had a comfortable 5–1 lead. However, with his ability to play on the right or left side, as well as his profile to contribute offensively and defensively, Broberg is as good of an option to move up the lineup as one could ask for.
Skinner provides stability in net
The most straightforward of possible changes lies in net with Jack Campbell. Stuart Skinner has continued his ascension, and at this point has done little to suggest he is anything but a legitimate starting NHL goalie.
Skinner has already had some tougher moments that he has come back from this playoff, including an early pull in the series against the Los Angeles Kings. Down 3–0 early, the Oilers turned to Campbell who played extremely well in relief, helping the Oilers in earning a 5–4 overtime win.
Around the league, too, we’ve seen multiple teams utilise different goaltenders. Already this playoffs we’ve seen the Carolina Hurricanes, Florida Panthers, and New Jersey Devils use multiple goalies, as well as the eliminated Boston Bruins and Minnesota Wild. Spreading starts between goalies is an accepted practice to get the most from them in the regular season, but the pressure of the playoffs make the subject more taboo.
For all teams, players, and goalies alike, their historical levels of play mean little in the playoffs. The only thing that matters is their performance in the given moment, and we have already seen Campbell rise to the occasion this spring. At the very least Campbell offers the Oilers a viable option to turn to in relief of Skinner.
Overall changes not needed
In all the Oilers should hope that none of these adjustments are necessary, but the playoffs drip with chaos that supersede even the best laid plans. The good news is that the Oilers have enough depth to offer a number of in house options to adjust the lineup should the time come.
Photo by Curtis Comeau/Icon Sportswire