Two days remain until the Oilers open their 35th NHL season against the Calgary Flames. As I watched practice there we some interesting things unfolding on the ice.
Nikita Nikitin took part in every drill and line rush and he looked fine. He wasn’t favouring his ankle at all, and if he has no pain or swelling tomorrow it looks like he could be in the opening lineup on Thursday.
The D pairings looked like this:
Brad Hunt ahead of Klefbom and Nurse is bit of a surprise to me. I don’t see him as a better defensive defenceman than Klefbom, and the Oilers ES scoring was their biggest weakness last year. Eakins and his staff see Hunt as a better option on the PP, which is fair, and better at moving the puck up ice so that is likely why he could be in the lineup on Thursday.
Schultz was on the first PP unit with Hall on the point, with Nugent-Hopkins, Eberle and Pouliot down low. The 2nd unit had Hunt on the blueline, with Draisaitl, Perron, Purcell and Yakupov.
Eakins had a brief press conference, and I wasn’t able to ask him about his D pairs. People asked about the military day and the 84 reunion, but I plan on chatting with Eakins about his D pairs tomorrow. He did say that Nikitin will be re-evaluated tomorrow to see how he feels after a full practice.
The Oilers want D-men who can move the puck, and Hunt can do that, but what about when he has to defend? Even the best puck-movers still have to defend. That is a concern, but the Oilers have last change on Thursday so Eakins, and more specifically Craig Ramsay, can be more selective in line matchups.
The Oilers were 28th in five-on-five goals last year, scoring only 130. They were 30th in five-on-five goals against allowing 183. They were -53. I understand that people want the PP to improve, but the Oilers scored 46 PP goals and allowed 50 last year. Combine the shorthanded goals they allowed (12) and the shorthanded goals they scored (3) and the Oilers were a combined -13 on special teams.
Their main focus of improvement for the Oilers has to come at five-on-five.
Ramsay told me earlier he wants D-men to be aggressive and join the rush, and Hunt does that well. He has a low panic point when handling the puck and that is a must for a possession team. How he handles NHL forecheckers will his biggest challenge, but pairing him with Schultz it seems obvious that the top two pairings will see the hard minutes, especially in the defensive zone.
I could see Eakins and Ramsay using Schultz/Hunt with the RNH line as often as possible, to generate more offence.
If Nikitin isn’t ready to go I think Nurse or Klefbom will slot in with him and Hunt will stay with Schultz. It is definitely a surprise pairing, and we’ll see on Thursday how they look.
I understand the willingness to want to improve puck movement out of their own zone, but the major concern will be what happens when the Oilers don’t have the puck with Hunt and Schultz in their own zone.
Who will be able to break up the cycle or forecheck?
Will they be able to box out opposing players in front of the net so they don’t bang home rebounds?
If Nikitin plays, will Hunt? If so, it will be a decision that will perplex many in Oilersnation.
- Dallas Eakins got rid of his alternate-captain-by-committee strategy and chose Hall and Eberle to be the only alternates this year. It is the right choice, but it doesn’t mean that Matt Hendricks will be any less vocal in the dressing room, or that Nugent-Hopkins won’t be a leader.
- It just means the team has a more defined leadership core, and more importantly, the referees will talk to the same players every game. I believe that is important, and Hall said he has learned how to interact with the officials better. Look for him to be much more composed when he approaches the officials.
- Benoit Pouliot didn’t skate today due to a hip flexor. Eakins was confident he’ll be ready on Thursday, and the coach needs him. Pouliot will be integral to the success of the second line with Draisaitl and Yakupov. He is an excellent forechecker and puck retriever. Yakupov is not a guy who scares teams on the rush, and he is better suited finding holes while Draisaitl and Pouliot work the puck down low. As a trio they have yet to play a game together, so it might take some time to build chemistry, but in theory this line has good potential.
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