There are a little under three weeks left in the Edmonton Oilers’ season, a 20-day span of time in which the team will play 10 games. With Edmonton seemingly settled firmly into 28th-place in the NHL, the club’s performance over these 10 games doesn’t matter much at all from a standings perspective.
That doesn’t mean these games are meaningless. Far from it, in fact; these might be the most meaningful games the Oilers have played all year.
Through some trick of fortune, virtually every player of any significance on the roster is healthy, and with one or two minor exceptions virtually all are expected to be back next season. That makes these final 10 games a fantastic chance for the Oilers to test-run a (largely) healthy roster and the coaching staff behind the bench. Fans have the luxury of being ambivalent about this 10-game stretch, but from a management perspective these games are the team’s last, best chance to assay its personnel and make final tweaks to its plans for this summer.
Importantly, this 10-game stretch comes entirely against Western Conference teams, with five coming against opponents currently in playoff position and five coming against teams outside the postseason. Of the latter five, two games are against the Los Angeles Kings, two against the Colorado Avalanche and one against the Dallas Stars; all three are solid teams that aren’t out of the postseason by much.
The Oilers have a chance here to measure what they have against a fair example of what they’ll face next year. It’s an opportunity.
The team needs to make a decision on interim head coach Todd Nelson. I don’t think Nelson has conclusively won the job, because the team’s record hasn’t been very good. I don’t think he has conclusively lost the job, either, because the list of players at his disposal hasn’t been very good either. At this point there are arguments for and against, and these last 10 games are an opportunity to see what he can do with the roster as currently constituted.
The forward group is missing a few players, but Iiro Pakarinen, Tyler Pitlick and Matt Fraser are all pretty generic end-of-roster types at this point in their respective careers; in the grand scheme of things their absence isn’t important. In Nelson’s shoes I’d rather have Pakarinen or Pitlick in place of rookie forward Andrew Miller, but the improvement there is virtually the definition of marginal. All of the forwards are either under contract or restricted free agents, with Derek Roy the lone exception but with the Oilers apparently leaning toward retaining him too.
With Taylor Hall getting a game under his belt on Saturday night, the question now is where he lines up. Does Nelson restore a supercharged No. 1 line, does he place Hall on the other side of Nail Yakupov as a reward for Yakupov’s fine work (colleague Jason Gregor made the argument for this a short time ago) or does Hall stay with Anton Lander in an attempt at three scoring lines?
My preference in Nelson’s position would be to split up the scoring, putting Hall on either the second or third line (and double-shifting him at times) and to leave Benoit Pouliot on the top unit, where he’s been pretty effective. For whatever reason, Oilers’ coaches have been reluctant to do that and my guess is that we’ll see Nelson conform to the usual approach of loading up the top unit, which would suggest the following regular units:
There was a bit of mix-and-match on the defence against Philadelphia, but for the most part we saw three regular units. The general manager has repeatedly stated his approval for the marriage of Oscar Klefbom and Justin Schultz on one unit, and the team’s plan to run Nikita Nikitin and Mark Fayne as a shutdown tandem has seemingly remained stubbornly unchanged from training camp:
Judging from Craig MacTavish’s public statements, it is not inconceivable that for the most part the above players will return next season with only a few changes (goaltending being the most plausible one). The next 10 games will either reinforce or undermine that possibility.
Seventy-two games into the season, I find MacTavish’s apparent faith in this roster disturbing. I don’t believe such faith is warranted in light of the results, even if we allow that goaltending has been a black hole all year.
In my view, the roster as currently assembled needs help in the following areas:
- One top-six centre, pushing one of Roy/Lander to reserve duty.
- One top-nine winger, allowing the Oilers to ice (when healthy) three effective offensive lines.
- At least one top-pair defenceman, giving Fayne a reliable partner to lead the tough-minutes pairing and allowing him to play a complementary role on the tandem.
- A starting goaltender.
It’s a long shopping list, and I’m probably being overly kind in suggesting the defence only needs one key building block added.
The next 10 games will go a long way toward establishing exactly what this team is and how much help needs to be brought in this summer.
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