At this point in the season, nitpickers can always throw out the small sample size caveat, and that’s fair, but there’s a lot to like about the Edmonton Oilers right now after their 4-3 win over the Detroit Red Wings beyond their 8-4-1 record going into a game against the Washington Capitals Monday.
It’s not just that the Oilers are winning – the stretch they’re on after a 0-2 start now includes five straight road wins – it’s how and why they’re winning games in this largely unexpected bolt out of the blocks through 13 games. After considerable consternation early on, I’m seeing some promising trends and developments.
From where I sit, it looks like coach Todd McLellan might – emphasis on might – have himself a bonafide first-pairing on the blueline in Oscar Klefbom and Adam Larsson, a fourth-line that can contribute some secondary scoring in Kyle Brodziak, Jujhar Khaira and Zack Kassian and a back-up goaltender worth throwing in the net once in a while in Mikko Koskinen.
Of course it’s too soon to say for sure, but if I’m McLellan I’m rolling with it for now until I see otherwise.
BLUE LINE DUO
Klefbom and Larsson are healthy so far, save for a puck in the mouth and a nasty cut for Larsson, and playing a boatload of reliable minutes to this point. Klefbom played a game-high 24:57 against the Red Wings and is averaging 25:56 this season. Larsson logged 23:43 in Detroit and is averaging 21:47, even with the 22 stitches in his busted lip.
Quantity aside, McLellan is getting quality from both them. With 0-6-6, Klefbom has been pretty good offensively. As important, his advanced stats paint an even brighter picture. They’re here. Same for Larsson, who has some very solid underlying numbers to go with four assists and the physical punishment he delivers on the defensive side of the puck, which is his forte.
While Klefbom and Larsson likely won’t ever shape up as a high-end first pairing offensively, if they can stay healthy, which has been an issue for both of them, and deliver more of the same, that’s a good start on sorting out a blueline that might be more capable than many of us thought going into the season.
THE FOURTH LINE
Successful teams don’t hang their hats on a solid, reliable and occasionally productive fourth line, but almost all the best teams have them. Reclamation project Brodziak, Khaira and Kassian, who struggled last season and again to start this campaign, looked like a reasonable facsimile of that in Detroit.
Brodziak scored two goals, including the winner. They were his first goals with the Oilers since March of 2009 during his first go-round here. Khaira finished with two assists and Kassian was intent on banging bodies and being the pain in the backside he has to be if he wants to stay in the lineup. Again, you can’t hinge your hopes on your fourth line, but you miss it if you don’t have it.
“Not only did they score a couple of goals, but they were consistently one of our better fore-checking lines and created a number of offensive opportunities,” McLellan said. “They’ve been playing very direct hockey. Not a lot of hope plays, not a lot of fancy or cute stuff. They’re big, they’re physical and they can all skate and think.”
THE BIG STOPPER
After beating Nashville 5-3 and hanging a 4-0 collar on the Chicago Blackhawks, Koskinen made it three straight wins with 23 saves on 26 shots against the Red Wings. Koskinen wasn’t as solid as he’d been in his previous two outings, but he was good enough to win and that’s all you want from your back-up.
Through three starts, Koskinen is 3-0 with a 2.02 goals-against average and a save percentage of .935. Those numbers will swing a lot given how few games he’s played, but the bottom line for me is he’s looked more than capable of being the 20-game guy GM Peter Chiarelli paid for.
While it’s too early to talk about Koskinen taking the net from starter Cam Talbot, it does the rest of the roster a world of good to know they don’t need to score five goals to have any chance of winning when the big Finn is in the crease. That’s a mental bump that plays into things.