The parade of Stanley Cup Finalists continues tonight at Rogers Place. After hosting the 2017 finalists Predators and Penguins on Saturday and Tuesday, tonight the reigning 2018 champion Washington Capitals are in town. The Oilers are getting a first-hand look at what true Stanley Cup contenders look like, and while the Oilers were competitive in both games, they were unable to get a victory.
Picking up a victory tonight to give them a 1-1-1 record during the three games would be a huge confidence boost. If you want to be considered a good team, you need to beat the great teams. Tonight is another opportunity for the Oilers to prove they can hang with the big boys.
We know Connor McDavid can hold his own against the best in the NHL. He has produced 7-15-22 in 20 career games v. Nashville, Pittsburgh and Washington, and tonight I expect he will see the ice a lot again.
He played a career-high 28:26 on Tuesday and the Oilers improved to 2-1-1 in games he plays 24+ minutes this season. Twenty-eight minutes is an oddity — it was only the second time in his career he’d played 28 minutes — and I don’t expect that to be a regular occurrence, but I have no issue if McDavid averages over 24 minutes/game this season.
Why wouldn’t you play him that much? He is the best player on the team and the most dynamic player in the NHL. He is the best skater in the game. He is only 21 years of age and just entering the prime of his career. I see no reason not to play him 24 minutes a night. He can handle it, and he likely will be able to handle it for a few more seasons. Down the road when he is 25 and older I see his minutes dipping a bit, but right now I see no concern in unleashing maximum McDavid.
Rod Brind’Amour at 35 years of age averaged 24:18/game in 2006 in 78 games. The Carolina Hurricanes won the Cup that season. I’m not saying the Oilers are a Cup contender, but even good teams will play their top players a lot. McDavid is an effortless skater and his skating style allows him to conserve energy.
In 2009 when the Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup, Evgeni Malkin played almost 23 minutes a night. Sidney Crosby played 22 min/game. They had two dominant centres and rode them a lot.
I’ve read many suggesting the Oilers have to play McDavid 24:34/game because they have little depth. That is partially true, but Mark Schiefele is playing 22:40/game on a deep Winnipeg team. McDavid is more impactful than Schiefele, who is a really good player, so why wouldn’t you play him a bit more? Even if the Oilers had more depth I’d still play McDavid 24 minutes a game. If he is only at 90% on a few shifts, his 90% is still better than bottom six players’ 100%.
He is in great shape. His cardio is the best on the team. He loves playing a lot, and he knows how important rest is. He hasn’t been taking morning skates on game days this season, and likely won’t as the season progresses. Players are more in tune with their bodies today than ever before. McDavid is well aware of the importance of proper sleep, nutrition, stretching, physio and other decisions that allow him to play big minutes.
Former NHLer and current TSN analyst Ray Ferraro said this about McDavid’s increased ice time.
“He’s not racing around for 45 seconds on every shift. He’s like a shark or a predator. He waits and looks at certain areas and then all of a sudden, bam, he’s off. One shift he had on Tuesday I actually laughed because he went through the Penguins like they were pylons. He went all the way through, and then he was the first one back. I was thinking, ‘How did he do that?’ It is actually kind of funny that he’s able to do that. I think because of the way he skates, and the way he can save his energy, because he has a good understanding of what’s going on, I think he can play more minutes than most can. He’s not going to blue collar grind it out. He doesn’t have to do that. So I think it’s possible,” said Ferraro.
No one is expecting him to play 28 minutes regularly, but I think it would be a good use of his skill if he averages 24 min/game this year.
Jesse Puljujarvi could be a healthy scratch tonight. He and Zack Kassian were on the ice well after the optional morning skate, which is usually a sign of who isn’t playing. Kassian got banged up in the Pittsburgh game, and Todd McLellan wouldn’t confirm who was in or out, but those two look like they will watch from the pressbox this evening.
Many really good players have been healthy scratches early in their career, so spending one game in the pressbox doesn’t mean Puljujarvi is finished. Far from it. But if it stretches out to three or more games, then it makes much more sense to send Puljujarvi to the minors.
I asked Todd McLellan how a coach balances trying to develop a young player and winning. He didn’t answer directly and talked about different scenarios, but did say Puljujarvi is no different than most other players. Or course there are some exceptions, but for those who haven’t established themselves as regular, everyday NHL players, regardless of draft status, the ones who play well will stay in lineup, and those who struggle might take a seat.
I’d much rather ask Peter Chiarelli that question. The coaches job is to win games, while management and scouts should be the ones thinking about development. The NHL is not a developmental league. Players are always evolving and learning, but I see the NHL as a league where a player refines his game. It is too difficult of a league to try and find your game.
I don’t blame Puljujarvi for struggling. He wasn’t NHL ready at 18, and shouldn’t have been here and it is the organizations job to protect him. Sending him down to the AHL as a rookie after 28 unproductive games was wise, but I’d have kept him in Finland at 18 and let him gain confidence, and I would have strongly encouraged him to get an English translator. You can’t change the past, but moving ahead this season the organization has to take a long look inward and realize they need to put Puljujarvi in the best position to succeed. If that means a stint, or a long stay, in the AHL, then do it, and have the courage to not worry about how it might look to those outside the organization.
Do not take a penalty. Do not take a penalty. That will be the Oilers mantra tonight. The Capitals PP is deadly with 12 goals in 31 chances and they are a league-best 38%. I spoke with defender Matt Niskanen about the Capitals PP. He defends all the top players in the league and opposing powerplays so I wanted to get a PKer viewpoint on his team’s PP.
“They have been together for a while now so they are really good at reading which areas of the ice are open,” said Niskanen. “Teams will try to kill us differently with different tactics that we see, and our guys are very good at seeing what is open. I think what hand shots we are sets up well, having two lefties cycling and distributing and three right shot options. We actually don’t have a lot of movement, but are guys adjust very quickly.”
I asked him about defending the Oilers five lefties powerplay.
“There are some areas of the ice you can pressure guys to the backhand, and there are very few players in the league who are as efficient on their backhand as they are on their forehand. If you can push it to one side and force more backhand plays you might have a chance for some pressure and create a turnover that way.
“The other big thing is one-time options. If they are all lefties then you know what direction the one timers are coming from and you can adjust accordingly, but I’ve noticed they set up more on the left side recently,” said Niskanen.
GAME DAY PREDICTION: Oilers and Capitals continue the offensive trend from Tuesday. Oilers come up one goal short, losing 4-3.
OBVIOUS GAME DAY PREDICTION: Both teams score a powerplay goal.
NOT-SO-OBVIOUS GAME DAY PREDICTION: Alex Chiasson has five two-goal games in his career, but he has never scored three goals in a two-game stretch. He achieves that tonight.
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