Boy, the month of February was a lot of fun. The Oilers straight up dominated the second month of the season, going 9-3-0. They went from battling for a playoff spot to battling to the top spot in the division. This team is looking good and has its fans feeling incredibly optimistic about the chances of a long playoff run coming to Edmonton this spring.
Here are my 28 takes on the last 28 days of the season.
- Ignore anyone who says that the Oilers just beat up on the bad teams in the division. The Oilers beat everyone team in the division except Toronto this month. This run was more than “just beating up on Ottawa”. They took some legitimate strides towards being a contender.
- It’s worth noting that since the Oilers beat the Senators four times, Ottawa has beaten Toronto, Montreal, Calgary, and Winnipeg. The Oilers and Canucks are the only teams who haven’t lost to Ottawa yet.
- There also seems to be this narrative that the North Division is weaker than the other four in the league. I don’t see it that way and honestly, I don’t really care about that conversation. If the Oilers are the last team standing in Canada, they’ll be in the conference finals. I’ll take that.
- When the Oilers were off to their slow start, Rick on Oilersnation Radio said it felt like “death by a thousand cuts”. There were just so many little things going wrong. I agreed and said that once they figured out one or two of the issues in their game, the wins would start to come and if they figured them all out, they’d go on a heater. Well, right now it seems like they’ve figured them all out.
- The depth scoring has come alive for a solid stretch of games, both goaltenders are giving the Oilers good starts, and when they need a big goal from one of their stars they seem to be getting one. Even if this run doesn’t last much longer, it’s nice to know that when they’re playing their best, this Oilers team is very hard to beat.
- There will be struggles. This team is not going to win 80% of their games for the rest of the season but runs like this make it so that a three-game losing streak later on doesn’t take you out of the playoff race.
- There are a few fun debates to be had right now. One is: who was this team’s MVP in the month of February? Of course, McDavid or Draisaitl are great answers, as always. But, there are some unexpected names that pop up in that discussion.
- The first is Mike Smith. After missing the first month of the season, I don’t think anyone was expecting him to jump into the lineup and play as well as he did. I know his last start against Toronto wasn’t great, but he still ends the month with a 6-1-0 record, a 2.04 GAA, and a .934 save percentage.
- Darnell Nurse probably belongs in that conversation as well. He leads the NHL in 5v5 TOI and he’s consistently going up against the other team’s best players. He has a 49.64% SF%, a 53.54 SCF%, and a 56.60 GF%, those are solid numbers. (via natural stattrick)
- I’m not trying to sound like a homer, but I wonder if we’ll start hearing more talk about Darnell Nurse being a Norris candidate. He’s tied for first in goals by a defenseman and is third in even-strength points. I don’t think he can win it, but if he keeps up this level of play, I think he can be in the conversation to be a finalist.
- Nurse has one more year of his current deal and then he will be a UFA. That means he will be in for a big payday. How much would Nurse be looking for on a seven or eight-year deal? It’s likely in the $7-$8 million range.
- If someone wants to downplay how good Nurse has been this year, just ask them this question: how would this blueline look without him? It’s a scary thought. He’s incredibly valuable to this group. Without him, Kris Russell or Caleb Jones would be playing top pair minutes.
- If you could pick the entire third line as the team’s MVP, that would a good choice as well. Jujhar Khaira and Tyler Ennis both cleared waivers in the first month of the season and now, they’re a vital part of this team.
- The trio of Ennis, Archibald, and Khaira has played 62 minutes together at 5v5. While they’ve been outshot 35-27, they’ve outscored the opposition 5-1. They were a damn big part of that run that the Oilers put together.
- As for Khaira specifically, it feels as though he may have just saved his NHL career. When he was put on waivers earlier this season, it seemed like he had run out of chances in Edmonton and considering the fact that he was in the last year of his deal, it certainly made you wonder if he would get another look in the league after this season. Well, he’s certainly turned things around. Since returning to the lineup on February 6th, he has two goals and four assists. He’s looking like a legitimate bottom-six player.
- It seems like every year we get a four or five-game Khaira heater but this year feels a little bit different. He’s been very good for eleven games now and I’m confident that he can keep this rolling for the rest of the season.
- Jesse Puljujarvi isn’t this team’s MVP for the month, but you could argue that he was the biggest surprise on the team this month. He scored 6 goals this month, which is tied for McDavid for the most on the team. He’s looking like a natural fit on McDavid’s wing and is playing like a fourth overall pick. Pretty crazy considering what the outlook on Puljujarvi was a year ago.
- When he first signed his two-year deal, I thought the second year was added to make him more appealing for Seattle to take. There’s no chance that the Oilers leave him exposed now. I think he’s a permanent fixture in the top-six.
- From a big picture perspective, the emergence of Puljujarvi is huge. So is the arrival of Evan Bouchard. He starting to look like a legitimate NHL defenseman and he doesn’t even have 20 career games. He’s one of their best puck movers and his ability to get shots through traffic stands out.
- The Oilers blueline is quickly becoming strong at moving the puck. Barrie, Nurse, Bouchard, Bear, and Jones are all very good at getting the puck onto the sticks of the Oilers’ skilled forwards. That allows them to create more offense off the rush which is where players like Connor McDavid are the most dangerous in my opinion.
- Speaking of McDavid, he’s been shooting the puck a lot recently and I’m loving it. His 46 shots on goal in February were the seventh-most in the NHL. I’ve always said that if he decides to start shooting the puck more, he’ll be a threat to get 50 goals one year. That might sound crazy but he has 14 goals in 23 games so far and that’s basically a 50 goal pace.
- Earlier this year McDavid talked about how two-on-ones haven’t been kind to him. If he starts shooting the puck more, he’ll start making goalies think about him as more of a shooting threat and that will make him even more difficult to stop on odd-man rushes.
- I like to end these with a few offseason topics that I’m keeping an eye on. The biggest question though that needs to be answered before the Oilers make any other big decisions: will Oscar Klefbom be back next season? If he will and they think he will be 100% healthy, that drastically changes the way they’ll need to approach the expansion draft and their group of pending free agent defensemen.
- If Klefbom will be back. They’ll need to protect him from Seattle which means they’ll likely have to leave both of Caleb Jones and William Lagesson unprotected. If that’s the case, I still think they should be trying to flip Jones for a young top-nine forward.
- If Klefbom won’t be back next season, then not only will they likely not protect him but I think it also opens the door for Tyson Barrie to be brought back next season. I’m not sure if I would give Barrie more than $4 million on a multi-year deal but I could see Ken Holland thinking long and hard about bringing him back. Considering the number of young offensive defensemen on the roster, I’d be nervous about committing to Barrie long-term.
- Personally, I would love to see them give Evan Bouchard the reigns on the top powerplay unit next season. With Bouchard and Bear both ready for full-time work next season, I would almost prefer if Adam Larsson was brought back over Barrie. I could see him being as much as $2 million cheaper and it’s clear that Dave Tippett really trusts him. The Oilers need some competent penalty killers on the blueline and if the price is right, I wouldn’t rule out an Adam Larsson return.
- One move I think the Oilers need to seriously consider this summer: a buyout of James Neal. He has two more years on his current deal, which carries a $5.75 million cap hit. If they buy him out, they would save $3.83 million for the next two years and then have to deal with a $1.9 million penalty for two years after that. Neal is expendable right now and with Puljujarvi looking like a fit on the team’s top powerplay unit, I think buying out Neal could make a lot of sense and it would give the extra wiggle room this summer might allow them to get someone like Kailer Yamamoto locked up long-term.
- The Oilers will now begin a stretch of 16 games in 31 days. Both goalies will need to be excellent and the depth scoring will need to hold but most importantly, this team’s key players will need to stay healthy. They can’t afford to have a big piece go down with an injury during a crucial stretch like this. This month will be busy and stressful but if they come out of this with a good record, they’ll put themselves in a great spot to not just be a playoff team, but to potentially have home-ice advantage in round one of the postseason, when fans could potentially be in attendance.
Hearing from multiple sources that OEG is putting forth a 50-page proposal to AHS to allow a limited number of fans to attend games. The hope is to have people in the building as early as April – if & when the province is able to get to Step 3 of its plan to move forward.
— Tom Gazzola (@TomGazzola) February 28, 2021