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Photo Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Five Reasons the Oilers are for real

The Edmonton Oilers are 9-4-1 and first place in the Pacific division. That’s not a record most predicted but the Oilers are starting strong, even with Adam Larsson injured after the first game against Vancouver.

Here’s why it will continue, unlike their hot start with Ken Hitchcock last season.

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A second line

Last season, at 5v5 the Oilers with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins on the ice without Connor McDavid were outscored 37-29 and generated just 43% of the shot attempts. This season the Oilers have outscored teams 7-4 with Nugent-Hopkins on the ice without McDavid. They’re generating 53.85% of the shot attempts too.

James Neal has been a big boost to Nugent-Hopkins’ line as his most common linemate so far followed by Alex Chiasson and Tomas Jurco. Last season, when Nugent-Hopkins wasn’t playing with McDavid he spent time with Chiasson, Jesse Puljujarvi, Milan Lucic, Zack Kassian, Jujhar Khaira, and Ty Rattie.

Can Nugent-Hopkins and Neal continue their success? Neal isn’t going to shoot 25% all season, but just three of his 11 goals are 5v5.

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Goaltending

Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith weren’t expecting to be this strong of a goaltending tandem as they have been through 14 games. Smith has a .919 save percentage in 8 games. Koskinen has a .922 save percentage in 7 games.

Koskinen started strong last season as well, but faltered as the season went on and his workload increased. Koskinen played a ton and shouldn’t have to play as much as long as Smith is competent in his starts. If he plays less often than last season perhaps he can maintain a higher level of play and not nosedive like last year.

Draisaitl’s dominance

Everyone knew Leon Draisaitl could score alongside McDavid, but most people didn’t think he’d reach 50 goals and 105 points.

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This season, Draisaitl is on pace for 70 goals and 146 points. I don’t think he’ll get there, but I also didn’t think he’d ever reach 105 points. It was fair to assume 2018-19 was a career year and Draisaitl would come back down to a more reasonable 30 goals and 75 points, but so far Draisaitl is continuing from his ridiculous 2018-19 totals.

Draisaitl’s averaging nearly 24 minutes a game and making good use of it.

A healthy Oscar Klefbom

Oscar Klefbom’s health is always a big part of any Oilers success. He’s been healthy and logging a career high 25:26 minutes a game. The Oilers have outscored teams 10-8 with Klefbom on the ice 5v5, which is impressive considering his most common partners have been either Kris Russell, Joel Persson or Ethan Bear.

Klefbom’s doing his best to carry substandard partners (Russell), players new to North American ice (Persson), or NHL rookies (Bear).

A right side that can move the puck

The Oilers haven’t had a right side on defence that can move the puck this well in years. Bear, Persson, and Matt Benning are all competent puck-moving defencemen. Larsson’s injury might be a blessing in disguise with how well Bear’s played.

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Larsson and Russell are NHL defencemen but neither move the puck particularly well and playing either with Darnell Nurse leaves at least one pairing in the top four that isn’t comfortable moving the puck and another that relies too much on the play to flow through Klefbom. That leaves Benning on the third-pairing, a role well suited to his abilities.

After all the Oilers have spent trying to fix their right side defence, it’s a rookie drafted in the fifth round and a free agent from Sweden who look pretty good in those roles.