The NHL season is 27 days old and the Edmonton Oilers are still in first place in the Pacific Division. Their 19 points are tied for first in the Western Conference with the Chicago Blackhawks.
They won two road games in 24 hours over the weekend, to stop a three-game winless streak, and they have an eight-point cushion on ninth place Winnipeg. They continue to set themselves up for a legitimate playoff race for the first time in a decade.
Thirteen games doesn’t guarantee that the Oilers are “for real,” but they are becoming a much more competitive team on every inch of the ice.
Yesterday, the Oilers won in Detroit for the first time since 2009. They were playing the second game of a back-to-back and they only allowed 23 shots against, their second-lowest total of the season. Ottawa had 22 in their 2-0 victory in Edmonton on October 30th.
They won on the road playing a very sound defensive game, despite numerous injuries, and allowed eight fewer shots than their season average. This is not the Oilers of the past decade.They won’t finish the season with 119 points, their current pace, but it is impossible to say you aren’t witnessing actual substantial improvements in their overall play.
TEN THINGS I SEE
- They finally have depth. They won yesterday with nine players out of the lineup: Kris Russell, Zack Kassian, Jesse Puljujarvi, Matt Hendricks, Mark Fayne, Brandon Davidson, Drake Caggiula and Iiro Pakarinen. I don’t include Andrew Ference in same boat as above eight because he was never going to play this season.
Matt Benning has played very well on the blue line in his first three NHL games. One unfortunate shift doesn’t overrule the other 58 solid minutes he has played.
Tyler Pitlick didn’t play more than 10:02 TOI in any the first 11 games, but he still produced 3-1-4. With injuries he played 14:30 in Brooklyn and 15:11 yesterday in Detroit, and scored another big goal. He has earned his increase in ice time. He led the Oilers with six shots yesterday and he continues to be physical on the forecheck.
- The Oilers have seven players in the top-28 in hits. Adam Larsson is tied for eighth with 37, Milan Lucic is 11th with 35, Patrick Maroon is tied for 13th with 33, Darnell Nurse and Eric Gryba are tied for 18th with 32, while Pitlick and Kassian are tied at 26th with 30. The Oilers are a much more physical team and they are also much more skilled. They don’t get pushed out of games anymore and their size and physicality can wear teams down. The Oilers have 11 players with two or more goals — Lucic, Maroon, Pitlick, Nurse and Kassian are five of them and have scored 17 of the Oilers’ 39 goals. Their physical players are also main point contributors.
- It was only one game but Jonas Gustavsson played the backup goalie role to perfection. He stopped 22 of 23 shots and gave his team a chance to win. He hadn’t started a game in a month and was solid. The Oilers play eleven more times this month, and none are back-to-back, but Gustavsson’s play will have head coach Todd McLellan more comfortable to give Cam Talbot another game off in a week or two.
- The Oilers are so much better on the road thus far than the past few seasons that it is almost funny. They are 5-1-1 and they’ve outscored their opponents 20-15. Their road PP is the best in the NHL at 33.3% (6 of 18), and their PK is also first at 94.7% (1 of 19). The Oilers used to get crushed on the road when the opposing coach had last change and could get the matchups he wanted. The Oilers overall team depth is proving they don’t have a line that equates to the “free space” on the Bingo card anymore. There is no obviously weak defensive pairing and that’s been a huge reason they are no longer roadkill.
- What is up with the Nashville Predators? They are 3-5-3 and they have been terrible at EV, getting outscored 19-11 at 5×5. They have 12 PP goals in 67:19 TOI, but only have 11 goals in 526:20 of EV TOI. Filip Forsberg (0), Ryan Johansen (1) and James Neal (2) have four goals between them, and only Neal has scored at EV. If your three best offensive player are invisible at EV your chances of winning decrease significantly. Johansen has five PP points, but only one at EV. One measly point in 156 minutes. It is hard to win when your best players aren’t producing.
- I have no issue with Michel Therrien leaving Al Montoya in the net for all ten goals. He was just as bad as the rest of the team. Why should he get the mercy pull? However, I don’t buy the argument they had to keep him in because Carey Price was going to play the next night. He is the best goalie in the NHL — are you telling me he couldn’t handle an extra 20 minutes on Friday and still play Saturday? I don’t buy it. He could have played, but I had no issue with Montoya playing the entire game. Win as a team, lose as a team.
- Depending on how much longer Davidson is on the IR could alter the strategy for expansion draft protection list. The Oilers don’t have to protect Connor McDavid, Nurse, Puljujarvi, Benning or Caggiula. At the start of season I thought they’d protect four D-men, four forwards and Talbot. However, during his injury the defence has played well. Russell and Gryba are pending UFAs, so they could re-sign them after the expansion draft rather than protect them. Yes, Vegas would be able to discuss contract talks with them, but would they want to sign on a team destined for a few tough seasons?
The Oilers could protect seven forwards and three D along with Talbot instead. Andrej Sekera, Oscar Klefbom and Larsson are the easy three D. Leon Draisaitl, Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Lucic are the obvious forwards and they could protect three of Benoit Pouliot, Maroon, Kassian, Letestu and Pitlick. Pitlick and Kassian are both RFAs, and while Vegas could talk with them, I know Kassian really likes Edmonton and is loyal to Peter Chiarelli for giving him a second chance. If Pitlick keeps playing this well, after so many frustrating injury-riddled seasons, he too could be more inclined to sign after the draft rather than sign with Vegas. It gives them more options and the expansion draft strategy for many teams will change as the season progresses.
- The Vancouver Canucks are fading quickly. They’ve lost seven in a row and are winless in eight after winning their first four games. They have been outscored 24-7 in their seven-game losing streak and have been shutout four times. They are carrying a plastic knife into a gun fight most games. General Manager Jim Benning will be on the hot seat, as will head coach Willie Desjardins, but Desjardins doesn’t have the players to be competitive. The tough part for the Canucks is they don’t have many tradeable assets to use at the trade deadline. Ryan Miller is a UFA, and he’s played quite well (I also loved seeing him drop his glove and blocker to stop Matt Martin from destroying rookie Troy Stecher), but the other UFAs are Alex Burrows, Philip Larsen, Jack Skille and Jayson Megna.
They have some decent defenders, but I wonder if their ownership is patient enough to go through a 29th or 30th place finish without panicking?
- McDavid has 0-2-2 and is -7 in his last five games, proving even the best players in the world will have a slight hiccup. He will be fine, but the good news for the Oilers is they won consecutive road games, and were 1:30 away from going to OT versus the Rangers without McDavid carrying them. He has been creating chances and his points will come, likely in bunches, but if the Oilers want to be competitive they need to be able to win when McDavid doesn’t dominate.
- The Columbus Blue Jackets have really surprised me. Before the season started I looked at their first two months and thought they’d be out of it. They have a really tough schedule, but they are 5-3-2 so far after playing Boston, San Jose (2), Dallas (2), Chicago, Los Angeles, Anaheim, Montreal and St.Louis.
The rest of the month they face Anaheim, Boston, St.Louis, Washington, New York Rangers, Washington, Colorado, Calgary, Tampa Bay, Florida and Tampa Bay. Sixteen of their first 20 games were against playoff teams from last year, and 12 of those games were against opponents who had 102+ points last year.
Their PP has been incredible. They have the league’s best PP, 11 of 28 (39.3%), despite having the fewest PP chances. It also helps having the second best PK, allowing three goals on 32 chances (90.6%). And at 5×5 they are outscoring teams 18-15 despite being outshot by five goals per game.
They have done much better than I expected, and it sucks for them that Seth Jones will be out at least three weeks. Their schedule doesn’t get any easier, but if the Blue Jackets are still in the mix on December 1st, then I will have grossly underrated them.