Coming off a lacklustre effort against New Jersey and travelling from Sweden, the expectation is the Oilers will struggle in Boston tonight. Despite a less-than-ideal start to the season, effort and schedule wise, the Oilers might have more confidence than you think when they face the Bruins tonight.
1. The Oilers have won six of their last seven v. the Bruins, including their last three visits to Boston. Since Connor McDavid was drafted the Oilers are 5-1 against the Bruins, and two of those wins came with McDavid out of the lineup.
2. McDavid has 0-7-7 in four career games v. Boston. Even though he had two assists v. the Devils on Saturday, McDavid’s overall play was, by his standards, average. Look for him to be more involved, and more dangerous tonight, especially since he will see a lot of Boston’s excellent top line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak.
3. The Bruins top line has combined for 18 points in the first three games. Marchand has scored 0-7-7, Bergeron has produced 4-2-6 and Pastrnak has 3-2-5. McDavid, along with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Ty Rattie, will need to be very aware defensively, but the best way to slow down Bergeron’s line is to possess the puck, something McDavid excels at. These two lines going head-to-head should be a fantastic matchup.
4. The Oilers have to improve their defensive play. There are only a few ways to play in your own zone. They aren’t that different. But the players need to commit to doing it properly. If they want to start winning consistently again, this group needs to demand more from each other. As Jason Strudwick said yesterday, “You need to commit to wanting to make the right play, and be in the right spot. The systems aren’t very complicated. There will be mistakes, every team makes them, but the winning teams don’t make the same mistake repeatedly. The coaches will point out the mistakes, but ultimately it is up to the guys on the ice to make the right read.”
5. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins needs to be more involved. He played 21 minutes, second most among forwards, in Sweden, and did very little. He is playing in the most preferred spot on the Oilers, McDavid’s left wing, and he will get a lot of icetime. He has been very quiet, except for one preseason game. The Oilers need much more from him.
6. “We need more from our third and fourth lines,” said McLellan. “They didn’t give us much the other day. It’s a four-line league and they have to be more productive (providing) momentum, physicality, defending, pace and energy. We need more from those lines.” That is a fair assessment, and we will see a few changes tonight in the bottom six. Drake Caggiula will debut on the third line with Ryan Strome and Jesse Puljujarvi, while Jujhar Khaira will play centre between Tobias Rieder and Zack Kassian. As I tweeted yesterday, freaking out about practice lines the day before a game can lead to a lot of undo stress. Strome and Puljujarvi are still together. Relax.
7. Jesse Puljujarvi’s development is a hot topic. Any comparisons to Nail Yakupov are way off base in my eyes, but so are the suggestions Puljujarvi is ready to play in the top six. His draft status means very little today. I still believe you won’t see the best of Puljujarvi until he is 22. Players develop at different rates, and while he isn’t as developed as Leon Draisaitl was at 20, that doesn’t mean he won’t be a good player when he is 22. I don’t see his developmental curve having a sudden surge, instead I see a steady progression. I believe he will be better in January than he is now and next year he will be more prepared to be a regular top-six player. The benefit for Puljujarvi of playing in the bottom six is he won’t be pressured to get the puck to Leon Draisaitl or Connor McDavid. He won’t defer to Caggiula or Strome, instead he will want to make plays. That is the main reason he was put with Strome to start the season. I find certain players are beloved more in Edmonton than others, and Puljujarvi is that player for many fans. I understand why many like him. He is a very personable and friendly young man, but his situation reminds me of when many in Oilersnation ripped on Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle, but never heaped the same scrutiny on Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, despite him having the same salary, and less production. Puljujarvi isn’t the player many believe he is. I think he can become that player, but right now I believe using him on the third line makes the most sense. As he gains confidence they can move him up.
8. Oilersnation and Twitter were up in arms yesterday because Puljujarvi practiced on a line with Khaira and Caggiula. I tweeted out that from past experience I wouldn’t put too much stock in line combos the day before a game, especially after many days of practice. Strome and Puljujarvi have practiced together for a month, so one 40 minute practice, with about ten minutes of line rushes, won’t suddenly ruin their chemistry. Some times a coach tweaks things in practice to keep players sharp. Too much of the same can be mundane at times. It also can be a subtle message to not get too comfortable. I don’t see it as a major deal. Yesterday many wanted McLellan fired because of switching a line in practice. I think four days off between games is no good for anyone including media, players, coaches and the fans.
9. The NHL’s early scheduling is perplexing. Three of last season’s top six scorers, and the reigning Hart and Art Ross winners — McDavid, Nikita Kucherov and Taylor Hall — have played once in the first eight days of the season. Why have three of your brightest stars virtually invisible for the first week of the season? Odd.
10. One final thought on the Ethan Bear situation: I believe Bear deserved to start the season here, and he could have if the Oilers hadn’t signed Alex Chiasson. Chiasson could have remained with the team, similar to Chris Kelly last season, and in a few weeks if the Oilers wanted to sign him, they could. I realize signing Chiasson, and having Bear on the roster last Tuesday, allowed the Oilers to maximize their LTI space. But I see it as once again looking down the road too far, instead of focusing on the next step in front of you. Is the extra $650,000 in LTI space that important? Are they for sure going to use it later this season? I doubt it. Wouldn’t icing your best possible lineup be more important? Had Bear dressed, the Oilers would have most likely still lost the game v. the Devils, because the team was not very good. But the Bear decision, for me, illustrates once again the organization looking too far ahead, rather than focusing on the now. Will Evan Bouchard playing five to nine games impact his future that much? It might, but winning now should be their #1 focus. Bouchard didn’t cost them the game, far from it, he was actually pretty decent, but it is the continuous trend of looking down the line instead of right now that concerns me.