The Edmonton Oilers and their fans did not expect to win just three of their first nine games. A 3-6 start isn’t the end of the world, but in a 56-game season, it’s not ideal. The Oilers should be better in a Canadian division ripe with flawed teams, though there are still signs of hope amidst the slow start to the 2021 season.
A second line
McDavid and Draisaitl were always going to run amok, but doing it on their own lines five-on-five cannot be understated. For years the Oilers relied on just one line for scoring, whether that was with Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins or McDavid and Draisaitl. There were questions whether Draisaitl could hold his own at center without McDavid, but that shouldn’t be a big concern after spending a good chunk of time away with McDavid during his Art Ross-season. Draisaitl’s line, with Nugent-Hopkins on his left and Kailer Yamamoto on his right, were ridiculously hot down the stretch in 2019-20. The RNH-Draisaitl-Yamamoto line was destined to cool down a bit, but you could still reasonably expect them to hold their own behind McDavid’s line.
Well, Nugent-Hopkins has been summoned to McDavid’s line to start the season and new signing Dominik Kahun has taken his place at left wing. Kahun isn’t Nugent-Hopkins but with Draisaitl and Yamamoto, who looks increasingly more like the real deal, Kahun only needs to ride shotgun. The Kahun-Draisaitl-Yamamoto line has outscored the opposition 3-1 five-on-five with okay shot attempt numbers. Sure, they have a .980 save percentage behind them going, but that trio isn’t a concern for Dave Tippett and Ken Holland.
Darnell Nurse and Ethan Bear
With Oscar Klefbom out for the year, Nurse and Bear were going to be relied upon even more. Nurse-Bear is the Oilers most used defensive pair. They’ve played almost 60 more five-on-five minutes than the next pair, Kris Russell and Tyson Barrie, who have not fared well together, getting badly outshot and outscored 2-0 on the season.
Nurse-Bear have a 54.82 CF%, and sure they have played a big chunk of their minutes alongside the McDavid line, but someone has to and they look more like a complement than a passenger. Bear hasn’t missed a beat, even with a healthy scratch mixed in, as a nice fit beside Nurse. With Larsson’s decline and Barrie’s shakiness, Bear is the Oilers’ most reliable right-handed defender. Nurse has seven points in nine games, including a three-point night against the Winnipeg Jets.
McDavid line just ….. didn't give up any shots. One shot against in the entire first period. Casually rattled off a 2:57 shift in the third during which the Oilers drew a penalty. pic.twitter.com/QcxGzQ6OaS
— Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath) January 15, 2021
McDavid is a wonderful wonderful player. That’s always been the case. But the only flaw you could tag McDavid with is some questionable defensive play in recent years. Of course, McDavid more than makes up for it with his offense but stats people were starting to wonder how much McDavid, and Draisaitl, were giving back in terms of defensive impact.
McDavid’s put that to rest to start the 2021 season. He’s ratcheted his play to another level, with numerous statistical models noting a significant improvement in his defensive play this season. Unsurprisingly, we should not have doubted McDavid. Whether it was influenced by injuries or multiple coaches implementing their own systems, McDavid is doing McDavid things and dominating both ends of the ice. Who woulda thought?
All is not lost despite their tepid start to the season. Jesse Puljujarvi looks like a different player after a stint in Finland. Caleb Jones has shown promise in limited minutes. Kahun and Koekkoek stand out among the free-agent signings. The Oilers haven’t even played the North Division’s Punching Bag, the Ottawa Senators, currently 1-6-1 and recently dominated by the Vancouver Canucks.