The Oilers will kick off a weekend back-to-back tonight at home when they face the St. Louis Blues. After that, it’ll be off to Calgary for another Battle of Alberta.
1. There’s been no hangover in St. Louis this season. The Blues are rolling along in their pursuit of defending the first Stanley Cup championship they won in their franchise history last year. St. Louis is currently 31-12-8 with a healthy lead at the top of the Western Conference and they’re only three points back of the Washington Capitals for the best record in the NHL. It’s anybody’s guess at this point who wins the Presidents’ Trophy between them, Washington, the Boston Bruins, and perhaps the surging Tampa Bay Lightning.
2. It’s impressive St. Louis has been as good as they have been given the fact they’ve been without arguably their best forward, Vladimir Tarasenko, for the majority of the season. Tarasenko was producing at a point-per-game clip for the first month of the season before suffering a shoulder injury on Oct. 29 in a game against the L.A. Kings. He underwent surgery and isn’t expected to return until late April.
3. The fact the Blues are the 10th highest-scoring team in the league without Tarasenko in the lineup speaks volumes about the team’s quality of depth. David Perron, Ryan O’Reilly, Brayden Schenn, Jaden Schwartz, and Alex Pietrangelo all have at least 40 points while young depth players like Oscar Sundqvist and Robert Thomas have chipped in 11 and eight goals respectively.
4. Perron is leading the way offensively for the Blues, putting together likely the best season of his career on an incredibly team-friendly contract. He has 52 points through 51 games, putting him on pace to shatter the career-high of 66 points he set in his one season with the Golden Knights back in 2017-18.
5. Perron’s career arc and commitment to the Blues has been fascinating. He was drafted by the Blues at the end of the first round in 2007 and played six seasons there before getting traded to Edmonton in 2013. He bounced from Edmonton to Pittsburgh to Anaheim in a matter of a couple of years and signed back in St. Louis is a free agent in 2016. He would spend just one year with the Blues before being exposed in the expansion draft. After being a key part of Vegas’ shocking Stanley Cup Final run, he signed in St. Louis again, this time to a four-year deal. The third time’s the charm.
6. The Blues have the majority of their core locked up to contracts beyond this season, giving them a healthy contention window with this group. O’Reilly, Tarasenko, Schenn, and the newly-acquired Justin Faulk are locked up long-term while Perron, Schwartz, Colton Parayko, and Jordan Binnington have at least one more year left on their deals after this one. The one name that curiously isn’t locked up is captain Alex Pietrangelo.
7. Pietrangelo is going to get paid this summer. He’s consistently been a top-pairing, near Norris-calibre defenceman for over a decade now and this might be the season he takes home the hardware at the NHL Awards. Pietrangelo has 13 goals and 42 points through 51 games, putting him on pace to produce a career-high 67 points. His biggest competition for the Norris Trophy will be the offensive dynamo John Carlson, who’s on a 100-point pace for the Capitals right now. Even if he comes up short, Pietrangelo is having this amazing season and will command $10 million annually on the open market.
8. The Blues only have about $7 million in open cap room to work with this off-season, so signing Pietrangelo will require some maneuvering. They could try to dump Tyler Bozak’s contract, which has a $5,000,000 cap hit for one more season. Or, given the fact they’re heavy on the right side of the blueline, they could deal Parayko for a left-handed defenceman. All three of Pietrangelo, Parayko, and Faulk are righties, making the 36-year-old Jay Bouwmeester their top actual lefty. Could a deal be made with the Oilers? Would something around Darnell Nurse and Parayko work? If the Blues could get Nurse signed at a similar cap hit to Parayko’s $5,500,000 and the Oilers help them out by taking on some salary, something could be there.
9. One player’s injury is another’s opportunity. With Joakim Nygard and Kris Russell being placed on the Injured Reserve yesterday, Tyler Benson and William Lagesson have been recalled from AHL Bakersfield. It’s been a long time coming for Benson, who has put up 104 points in 115 AHL regular-season games. Kailer Yamamoto has hit the ground running since his recall, finding instant chemistry on the team’s second line with Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Given that Dave Tippett likes to have bottom-six players with specific skillsets and Benson isn’t known for his defensive play, I figure we see Benson slide in on the top line with Connor McDavid and Zack Kassian.
10. James Neal has been playing in the top left-wing spot since Drasaitl was moved from McDavid’s wing, but he isn’t producing much at even strength. If you want Benson to hit the ground running in his cup of coffee at the NHL level, you have to put him in a place to thrive, just as they did with Yamamoto. Benson’s best attributes are his play in the offensive zone, working the puck out from along the boards and finding players in open space. Having a playmaker like Benson alongside McDavid could be an incredible recipe for success.
11. Of course, the other argument for putting him on the third line alongside Riley Sheahan and Josh Archibald is that he wouldn’t have to face the other team’s top defenders when he’s on the ice. The reality of playing with McDavid is that he’s a magnet for top opposition, which is a big challenge for a rookie to face. Benson could provide an offensive spark to the third line, which, right now, is mostly used in a defensive role.
12. The other player who will get an opportunity to prove themselves due to these injuries is Caleb Jones. With Russell out, Jones will actually have a chance to play his natural left side on the blueline rather than playing on his off-hand. The Oilers showed faith in Jones, locking him up to a two-year extension earlier this month. It’ll be interesting to see if he can prove himself as the team’s third left-handed defenceman. If he does, it becomes a lot easier to shed Russell’s $4,000,000 cap hit over the off-season.