Without star centre Connor McDavid, a panic is seeping into Oil Country. Through the first six games the Edmonton Oilers have managed only one win, a paltry pace for even the weakest teams league wide. Quite simply, there’s no way that the Oilers current record represents what the team is capable of, but it does however reflect the quality of their overall efforts so far.
Through it all the temperature continues to rise. Just how far do the Oilers issues run? Is there anything worth salvaging from their start?
Who is in the hot seat?
An unexpected scapegoat is coming into focus, Coach Jay Woodcroft, as more and more grumblings are levied from the fan base. While there have clearly been mental errors on the part of his team, which may or may not stem from a systems change, there are some early results that offer promise. The Oilers have been fading out fairly well in terms of expected goals, as per moneypuck.com. Of course, expected goals have little effect on standings points.
Perhaps the new team systems are not yet installed, with players thinking instead of reacting. On one hand, over the course of the season and a half that Woodcroft has been the Oilers head coach the team finally took a meaningful step towards their status as true perennial contenders. Woodcroft’s tactical adjustments have always seemed to pay dividends, at least from a season-long perspective, as the Oilers steadily improve their defensive game over the course of each season.
On the other hand, Woodcroft does seem to be departing from one of the fundamental advantages he had upon taking over the Oilers job: the willingness to entrust younger players with elevated roles. While veterans like Mattias Janmark, Warren Foegele, Brett Kulak, and even Connor Brown receive a lot of respect for their level of play, the Oilers might have greater upside as a team to elevate younger players, like Dylan Holloway, Ryan McLeod, Philip Broberg, and even Raphael Lavoie, instead. The line combinations have come under scrutiny, though to be fair most aspects of the Oilers game to this point are no different.
All of these failings might be fixed by a stronger performance in net. In particular, the Oilers as a team have a shockingly poor save percentage on high danger shots against. Jack Campbell has made some impressive saves, though the fantastical nature of his best work might be read as a lack of positional discipline in the eyes of some. Stuart Skinner, for his part, might be struggling even more, putting together his worst stretch of play in at least three seasons.
Expectations for xG
Usually hovering around 50%, the pairing of Darnell Nurse and Cody Ceci is grading out quite strongly, closer to 60%. Lines featuring Ryan McLeod have fared well too, as he and Dylan Holloway have posted xG rates around 70%. Zach Hyman has also stood out in this category, as lines including him tend to grade higher than those without him.
The simpler evaluation is Ekholm, who missed most of training camp and preseason with a hip injury. Clearly, Ekholm has not been at his best, an issue that greatly impacts the play of his partner Evan Bouchard. While Bouchard possesses rare offensive talents, and has produced offence in the early stages of the season, he might never be known as a player of great defensive prowess. At their best the Ekholm-Bouchard pairing should be pushing the Nurse-Ceci pairing for minutes, if not passing them outright. With a diminished Ekholm, they are scarcely more effective than the Oilers options on the third pairing.
Kane, meanwhile, has had a much louder start, though perhaps not as disappointing. Much was made from Kane’s comments during an intermission interview, where he expressed comments about wanting more icetime. The truth is that his time with the Oilers have been among his most stable years in the NHL, but Kane is undoubtedly a polarising personality, to say the least.
Kane was always clear to express his interest in playing for the Oilers was contingent upon a chance to play with either or both of McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. With McDavid out, and Kane playing on a line with McLeod, it shouldn’t be too surprising that his demeanour showed more discontent against the Winnipeg Jets. Still, Kane found a way to get on the scoresheet, fighting Brendan Dillon. The next game Kane was back up in the top six, and was visibly determined, leading to his first goal of the season as part of a Gordie Howe Hat Trick.
Kane’s best hockey is likely behind him, and he never really embodied a profile that would suggest a dominant possession player or a major contributor to team defence. The best case scenario is that Kane is able to bring a consistent effort, an abrasive style of play, enough production to stay in the top six, and some chemistry with a player or two in the lineup.
The worst case scenario might be that Kane’s cap hit outweighs his production, and tensions rise with friction from within and without. While this might be a ways away yet, it is likely that much of Oil Country recalled how things have gone for Kane prior to his joining the Oilers due to the fairly disastrous start to the team’s season, and Kane’s part within it.
Rising to the occasion?
A growing number across Oil Country are starting to question the Oilers as they fall well short of their potential. No doubt, the Oilers do have the opportunity to make a strong statement to the contrary in turning things around without McDavid. While the visions of an Oilers team strong enough to come together are not unfounded, this would require a level of play that the Oilers have yet to earn this season. Somehow this group has to find a way to get more out of each other.
The points pace is completely unacceptable, but four regulation losses is very possible to overcome. Fans, players, coaches, management, everyone should be feeling a bit uneasy, at least, with the Oilers play so far. These results can only continue for so long, and it’s quite possible that major changes could be on the table if the team finds themselves out of the playoffs come the 2024 calendar year. It’s a bit much to speculate about what changes might be made at such a hypothetical time, but a coaching change, a goalie acquisition, or a high stakes swap of futures to move out contracts to facilitate a buy, as was the case with the Oilers dealings last trade deadline.
A lot of Oilers are under the microscope, but the group deserves a few months to try to round into form, at least. Last season, in the fall portion of the schedule, we saw a trade to acquire Klim Kostin from the St. Louis Blues. At the time it seemed a minor deal, but Kostin provided the Oilers with some strong moments. His play was enough to offset the loss of Jesse Puljujarvi, to an extent, and to convince the Detroit Red Wings to take on Kailer Yamamoto’s salary. Maybe we will see another version of this trade this season, or perhaps a call up for Raphael Lavoie might be able to make a similar impact.
- 26th vs New York Rangers
- 29th vs Calgary Flames
- 2nd vs Dallas Stars
- 4th vs Nashville Predators
- 6th @ Vancouver Canucks
- 9th @ San Jose Sharks
Photo by Curtis Comeau/Icon Sportswire