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Are the Oilers Forwards Better?

Last season the Edmonton Oilers had the 12th best points percentage, they were ninth in points and eighth in regulation wins. They had a very good regular season, especially the 2020 portion of the 2019/2020 season. However, they did not play well in the qualifying round against Chicago in August and were eliminated in four games.

Recency bias is legitimate. It is “a cognitive bias that causes us to remember more recent information better than information we were given or saw prior.”

The last memory the hockey world has of the Oilers is an uninspired four games against the Blackhawks.

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Because those four games were playoff games, and the Oilers didn’t play as well as they did between January and March, 2020, many wonder: how good are the Oilers?

It is a fair question. The answer isn’t clear cut. There are many factors. In a short series, a few bad bounces, or one bad game can cost a team a series. It has happened many times, and it will happen again. It is what makes playoff hockey so wonderfully frustrating.

The Oilers need to be a better regular season team first. They haven’t made the playoffs in consecutive seasons since 2000 and 2001. This spring will be 20 years since Oilers fans saw their team in the playoffs in back-to-back seasons.

For many years I felt the major flaw of the Oilers organization was they were always looking too far down the road instead of focusing on the step in front of them. They rushed young players to the NHL because they wanted them to be ready to compete in a few seasons. The problem with that thinking is the team wasn’t good enough to compete in the current moment, and they never improved enough to compete in the future.

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I’d be a hypocrite if I suddenly felt like the Oilers main focus should be whether they are good enough to win a Stanley Cup. The main question heading into this season should be: Are they good enough to make the playoffs? Can they win one round?

That’s what their focus should be. You have to walk before you run, and after the Oilers won a playoff round in 2017, many, myself included, felt their run of futility was over. It wasn’t. They haven’t won a playoff round since.

So I’ll leave the playoff discussion to others.

The Oilers were actually a solid team last year, but they need to improve, mainly at 5×5. Their special teams were incredible. Their PP was 29.5% while the PK was 84.4% and they were a combined 113.9%. That is the second best total in NHL history behind the 1978 New York Islanders, who were 114.9%.

I expect the PP to be top-five again, because history has shown us that elite power plays carry over from season-to-season when they main components remain the same. Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins will all be back, and the PP runs through them. Tyson Barrie will give them a different look with a right shot from the blue line, and he’s an exceptional passer, so I don’t see him being a detriment.

However, there has been more fluctuation in penalty kills from year to year.

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In 2020 the top-five penalty killing teams were San Jose, Edmonton, Boston, Carolina and Arizona. In 2019 Edmonton was 30th, Boston 16th, San Jose 15th, Carolina eighth and Arizona third.

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In the past three seasons Arizona is the only team to be top-five in consecutive seasons.

Power plays often remain good for consecutive seasons. Last year, Edmonton, Boston, St.Louis, Vancouver and Tampa were top-five. In 2019 Tampa was first, Boston third, Edmonton ninth, STL 10th and Vancouver was 22nd.

In the past three seasons Tampa has been third, first and fifth. Boston was seventh, fourth and third. Edmonton was fifth in 2017, 31st in 2018, then ninth and first. Their 2018 struggles were outside the norm of what we usually see. The PP will improve.

5×5 Play

Dec 6, 2019; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers forward Connor McDavid (97) and forward Leon Draisaitl (29) discuss a play during the third period at Rogers Place. Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Here is where the Oilers need to improve. They were 18th in GF, 26th in GA and they were 25th in GF-GA differential at -16.

Their offence should be able to produce more with JESSE PULJUJARVI, Tyler Ennis, Dominik Kahun and Kyle Turris added to the mix.

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Here were the Oilers lines at the start of each month last season.

October 2nd:
Neal-McDavid-Nygard
RNH-Draisaitl-Kassian
Khaira-Cave-Archibald
Granlund-Haas-Chiasson

Nurse-Larsson
Klefbom-Bear
Russell-Benning

Jurco, Manning and P. Russell were the scratches. Sheahan was on IR. Larsson got injured this game and Joel Persson was recalled for game two. Draisaitl and McDavid didn’t start together, but played much of the first two months on the same line.

November 2nd:
Draisaitl-McDavid-Kassian
Khaira-RNH-Gagner
Neal-Haas-Chiasson
Granlund-Cave-P.Russell

Nurse-Bear
Klefbom-Persson
K.Russell-Benning

Manning, Jurco and Sheahan were scratches. Archibald was on IR.

December 1st:
Neal-McDavid-Archibald
Khaira-Draisaitl-Gagner
Nygard-Cave-Chiasson
Granlund-Haas-P.Russell

Nurse-Bear
Klefbom-Larsson
Jones-Benning

Manning, Sheahan and Kassian were scratches. K.Russell were on IR. RNH was injured. Sheahan only missed five games all season, but three were the first game of the month funny enough. He usually would be in place of Cave.

January 2nd: 

Neal-McDavid-Kassian
RNH-Draisaitl-Yamamoto
Khaira-Sheahan-Archibald
Nygard-Haas-Chiasson

Klefbom-Bear
Nurse-K.Russell
Lagesson-Larsson

Gagner, P.Russell and Jones were the scratches. Benning was injured.

This was the beginning of the 93-29-56 line becoming a force. Sheahan’s line became a regular line as well. This was a rare game Nurse and Bear didn’t play together, but realistically they were  pair for 90% of their 5×5 time all season.

February 1st: 

Kassian-McDavid-Archibald
RNH-Draisaitl-Yamamoto
Khaira-Sheahan-P.Russell
Gagner-Haas-Chiasson

Nurse-Bear
Klefbom-Larsson
Jones-Benning

Nygard and K.Russell were on IR. Neal had injured his ankle and was scratched with Benson and Lagesson.

March 2nd: 

Ennis-McDavid-Archibald
RNH-Draisaitl-Yamamoto
Athanasiou-Sheahan-Kassian
Khaira-Haas-Chiasson

Nurse-Bear
Jones-Larsson
K.Russell-Benning

Klefbom was on IR, as was Neal. Mike Green, P.Russell and Lagesson were the scratches. Green didn’t play another game due to his ankle injury.

WHAT TREND DID YOU SEE?

Jan 6, 2020; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Edmonton Oilers forward Connor McDavid (97) celebrates his goal against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Scotiabank Arena. Edmonton defeated Toronto. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

There will be injuries, so having 14 NHL forwards is a good start for Ken Holland.

Their opening night roster from last year will have these changes:
In: Puljujarvi, Ennis, Kahun, Turris, Yamamoto and Tyson Barrie
Out: Benning, Granlund and Cave (RIP).

If every player is healthy then only one of Nygard, Haas, Khaira and Chiasson will likely dress. Probably Haas or Khaira as the fourth line Centre. Chiasson could be in tough to crack the opening night roster, because Archibald kills penalties. But things change during a season, and Chiasson could easily play on opening night if he is in better shape than others after a long hiatus, or be a contributing player all season. Yamamoto joined the team midway through the season and became an impact player.

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Head coach Dave Tippett will have an option of Neal, Ennis or Kahun to fill the other top-six LW spot. We know RNH will be there, either with McDavid or Draisaitl.

The Oilers could have an entirely new third line with Puljujarvi, Turris and one of Ennis or Kahun.

Considering the Oilers will have five new forwards on their opening night roster, and all of them have scored at least 11 goals in an NHL season, the Oilers should have more scoring depth. Yamamoto scored 11 in 27 games, Puljujarvi scored 12 in 2018, Kahun has scored 12 and 13 the past two seasons, while Ennis scored 16 and 12 the past two seasons, and had three 20-goal campaigns in his career.  Even though Turris had nine and seven goals the past two years while missing 36 games due to injury, I think expecting 10 goals from him is realistic.

Almost 42% of the Oilers forwards projected opening night roster will be new faces, but all of them with more NHL experience and NHL production than the five they replaced.

The Oilers 5×5 offence should improve, and with that, they should spend less time in their own end, thus lowering their goals against. My question (coming in an article tomorrow) is: Can the Oilers score more gritty goals off of rebounds, screens, broken plays and deflections? We will discuss it tomorrow.

The health of Oscar Klefbom is a concern, no question, but when he was out for nine games late in the season, Caleb Jones filled in very well. Jones is very mobile, and I’d argue he joins the rush better than Klefbom.

Barrie will bring the Oilers a dimension they haven’t had on their blue line in years. He is a great passer, but his ability to join the rush and become the fourth attacker is something the Oilers blue line hasn’t had in years. I believe Jones and Bear will benefit from watching Barrie and we could see them become more active in the future. It is one thing to coach and tell players to join the rush, it is another when they get to see a teammate do it successfully on a nightly basis.

I don’t expect the Oilers to suddenly become a defensive juggernaut. But we saw them take positive strides in the second half of last season. In 2020 they allowed 2.06 GA/game at 5×5, down from the 2.34GA/game in the first 42 games.

It isn’t unrealistic to expect them to be similar this coming season. If they can maintain a GA/game around 2.10 then they should be middle of the pack defensively, and with two Hart Trophy winners up front, along with more proven scoring forwards, the Oilers should see an improvement in their GF-GA ratio at 5×5.

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