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Photo Credit: Tom Kostiuk

Monday Mailbag – What’s up with Zack Kassian?

Happy Monday, fair citizens, and welcome to a brand new Mailbag where I’ve taken your questions about our dear hockey squadron, emailed them to our writers, and copied and pasted their answers right here on this very website for your education and enjoyment. This week, we’re looking at the powerplay’s early struggles, fanless games, Zack Kassian, and a whole lot more. If you’ve got one, email it to me at [email protected] or hit me up on Twitter at @jsbmbaggedmilk and I’ll get to you as soon as we can.

Edmonton Oilers’ head coach Dave Tippett watches his players during a practice on the ice at Rogers Place in Edmonton, on Friday, Feb. 7, 2020. The team plays the Nashville Predators on Saturday. Ian Kucerak / Postmedia

1) James asks – Are the Oilers actually as inconsistent as their record suggests or is there an element of early-season rust at play and you legitimately expect them to improve?

Robin Brownlee:

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I don’t think there’s an element of rust but I do expect them to improve. Their 5×5 play and scoring has to improve as a whole, but especially in the bottom six group of forwards. The PP has lagged and I expect that’ll be better. Too many forwards producing nothing or next to it. Too many uneven performances on the blueline, especially from veterans like Adam Larsson. The team is better than it has looked but they can’t waste much time proving that.

Jason Gregor:

I do expect them to improve. Their top lines will score more 5×5, like they did in Winnipeg, but also the bottom six will score more as well. Also I expect them to make some change on the blueline as the season progresses. Caleb Jones will get back in and he will help with moving the puck out.

Cam Lewis:

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There are a lot of new players in the mix and it’ll take some time for everyone to adjust. I wouldn’t draw any conclusions until 10 games have been played.

Tyler Yaremchuk:

I think it’s the product of a handful of things. Their division is very good, they started slow, and they’re a pretty top-heavy team that’s prone to being inconsistent. That’s the reality of the situation and really, I don’t think it’s going to change. This season is going to be an absolute rollercoaster.

Zach Laing:

I’m leaning more towards rust, but in no way should that be an excuse. Edmonton knew when the season started and they didn’t seem to be ready for it. Last night was a solid indication that has been shaken off.

Baggedmilk:

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I’m honestly waiting to answer this question. I need to see where the Oilers are at when Family Day rolls around. By then, they’ll have had more than enough time to knock the rust off and that’s when I think we’ll see what this team is all about. The problem, of course, is seeing how big the hole they’re digging will be by then.

Nov 24, 2019; Glendale, AZ, USA; Edmonton Oilers head coach Dave Tippett against the Arizona Coyotes at Gila River Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

2) Nathan asks – Obvious question: What’s going on with the power play?

Robin Brownlee:

I don’t see as much urgency as I’d like. Get the puck down low, get shots and bust to the net. Use that extra man. I’m sure there’s something of an adjustment with Barrie on the point, but that’s not the big reason for the lack of productivity.

Jason Gregor:

They aren’t getting enough pucks to the crease and on net and then creating plays off of it. They are trying to create plays first, and they need to simplify it. Also they aren’t executing well on the break ins. They will need to tweak it. It will get better, but they need to avoid what happened in 2018 where they remained frustrated and stubborn on the PP all year.

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Cam Lewis:

They look overconfident. Taking things too slow and trying to make perfect plays.

Tyler Yaremchuk:

They’re trying to pass the puck into the net and they just aren’t fully in-sync yet. There are too many times where they’re over-thinking a situation or just taking a half-second too long with the puck on their stick. I think the return of Neal will help as well.

Zach Laing:

I think the transition from a left-hander in Oscar Klefbom to a right-hander in Tyson Barrie has been a complicating factor. They’ll find their way soon, that I’m confident of.

Baggedmilk:

They don’t look like they’re on the same page and they also don’t seem to have much interest in getting quick shots on net. I think the PP will improve with time but there have been games when it’s been about as ugly as it gets.

July 28, 2020; Edmonton, Alberta, CANADA; A general view of Rogers Place is seen before an exhibition game between the Edmonton Oilers and the Calgary Flames prior to the 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs on July 28, 2020 in Edmonton, Alberta. Mandatory Credit: Andy Devlin/NHLI via USA TODAY Sports

3) Chip Sahoy asks – Do you think that with no fans in the arenas that the emotional energy level of the players is lower? Are there fewer fights because of this?

Robin Brownlee:

Everybody is playing in the same conditions so I don’t know if a lack of energy level is a significant factor. Full buildings enhance the game experience for fans, but I’m not sure how much real impact it has on the players.

Jason Gregor:

Fighting has been dropping for years, so I don’t think a lack of fans is a the reason. You have fewer players who fought in junior, so when they come to the NHL it is not part of their game.

Cam Lewis:

I don’t think it’s that big of a deal. We’ve seen teams play completely listless in front of 18,000 fans plenty of times.

Tyler Yaremchuk:

I think the emotional level is a little bit lower but I think that as the year goes on, the players will find ways to create energy themselves and rivalries will start to build up as well, which will certainly add more energy to the games.

Zach Laing:

Doesn’t seem to be much of a thing bothering the players. We’d have to check with resident hockeyfights expert Nation Dan on that one.

Baggedmilk:

I think it’s easy to understand why fanless games have less emotion in them, but the players will need to find a way to make it happen. Every team is in the same situation so it feels like a cheap excuse at this point.

Feb 1, 2020; Calgary, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers right wing Zack Kassian (44) skates during the warmup period against the Calgary Flames at Scotiabank Saddledome. Mandatory Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

4) Raymond asks – Zack Kassian has had a quiet start to the season and I’m wondering how much leash you think he has in his current top-six role, more specifically with Connor McDavid?

Robin Brownlee:

That leash ran out late in the second game against Toronto and Puljujarvi got that spot against Winnipeg last night. What makes Kassian an asset when he’s playing well is that he can chip in offensively and he can bring physicality and speed to the line-up. He’s done precious little of both this season.

Jason Gregor:

I think we have seen it. Puljujarvi is playing well, and Kassian has actually played better ever since he lost the puck battle to Matthews in the first game in Toronto. He hit a crossbar later that game and missed a good chance early in game two. Then he added a nice assist in Winnipeg. I like him and Neal on the same line, and they have some ability to finish and a good mix of size and speed. It could help Kyle Turris get going.

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Cam Lewis:

I don’t think Jesse Puljujarvi is going to be giving up his spot on McDavid’s line any time soon.

Tyler Yaremchuk:

His leash should be pretty short right now. He’s missing chances, not playing overly physical, and hasn’t been forcing turnovers on the forecheck. He really needs to start bringing more to the table.

Zach Laing:

As far as I’m concerned, the leash has already been yanked back. Don’t see Kassian replacing Puljujarvi on the top line anytime soon.

Baggedmilk:

Time is running out and the clock is ticking. Puljujarvi has already taken a few at-bats in that spot and it feels like an inevitable scenario unless something turns around.

Jan 20, 2021; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Edmonton Oilers goalie Mikko Koskinen (19) makes a glove save on a shot from Toronto Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews (34) in the second period at Scotiabank Arena. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

5) Jenn asks – Since he’s playing every night, what is your early season opinion on Mikko Koskinen?

Robin Brownlee:

Overall, he’s been sub-par. Not good enough. Koskinen carried a .905 save-percentage into last night’s game against Winnipeg and you need every other part of your game to be clicking to win with mediocre goaltending like that. Need to get that GAA under 3.00 to win more games than you lose.

Jason Gregor:

He has been fine. Two goals he’d like back, Romanov and Matthews, but the Matthews goal was only one he allowed in a win, so it wasn’t a factor. I’m curious to see how he handles being the clear starter. He wanted this opportunity so let’s see how he play after 10 consecutive starts. They will need to monitor his practice time and ensure he is rested.

Cam Lewis:

I don’t think he’s been the problem for the team at all but he also hasn’t stolen the team a win. Pretty much what you’d expect from a solid-not-great goalie.

Tyler Yaremchuk:

He’s handled the workload very well. It’s not easy to play as often as he has and while he hasn’t been perfect every single game, he’s given them a chance to win most nights. He’s let in some softies, but he’s also made some big and timely saves. It’s hard to complain about what the Oilers have gotten from #19.

Zach Laing:

He’s been better than expected. Great to see him take the reins and run with it. He’s keeping the Oilers in games and they need to play better defensive hockey in front of him.

Baggedmilk:

I think Koskinen has played fine — not horrible but not great either — but the problem is that the team needs him to be better than that when they’re having a hard time scoring goals.

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