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Monday Mailbag – Darnell Nurse’s step forward

Happy March 1st, everybody, and welcome to a brand new Mailbag where I’ve taken your questions about what’s going on with the Edmonton Oilers, emailed them to our writers, and copied and pasted their worldly wisdoms right here on the ol’ Internet for your education and enjoyment. This week, we’re looking at the Oilers’ turnaround, Darnell Nurse’s fine play, Jujhar Khaira, 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.

Feb 23, 2021; Vancouver, British Columbia, CAN; Edmonton Oilers forward Dominik Kahun (21) celebrates with forward Leon Draisaitl (29) his goal scored against the Vancouver Canucks in the first period at Rogers Arena.

1) Marc asks – The turnaround we’ve seen over the last month has been impressive and I’d like to ask everyone what they think the Oilers are doing now that they were not doing in January?

Jason Gregor:

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They were playing like it was preseason and knocking off the rust. They made some big errors that lead to easy goals. They’ve stopped doing that, and more players found their scoring touch. They weren’t finishing their good chances early in the season.

Robin Brownlee:

They are better in every aspect of the game. Better goaltending with Mike Smith returning from injury. Better performances from guys like Tyson Barrie and Jesse Puljujarvi, who started slowly (statistically). More contributions from bottom-six forwards with Jujhar Khaira coming in for Kyle Turris, as one example. The penalty killing has been much better lately. They’ve been a different team in almost every aspect since that 3-6-0 start.

Cam Lewis:

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I think a big part of their poor play early on was from the lack of a pre-season. The Oilers have a lot of new players in the mix this season (Tyson Barrie, Jesse Puljujarvi, Kyle Turris, Dominik Kahun) and it took some time for everyone to adjust. It seems now that Dave Tippett has players playing in roles in which they can be effective, which helps too. I don’t think there are too many Oilers who are out of their depth right now.

Tyler Yaremchuk:

It’s pretty simple. They’re getting depth scoring and good goaltending. We knew coming into the year that production from McDavid and Draisaitl was not going to be a problem, it was just a matter of the other areas of this team holding up. Right now, we’re seeing what happens when everything starts clicking at once.

Baggedmilk:

They’re playing a simpler game, getting goals from throughout the lineup, and the goaltenders are making the saves needed to weather the storms that come up in a game. All good stuff, but as we saw on Saturday night, this team is still a work in progress.

Jan 13, 2021; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers players celebrate a third period goal by defensemen Darnell Nurse (25) against Vancouver Canucks at Rogers Place. Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

2) Trey asks – I feel as though Darnell Nurse has taken a big step forward this year. What do you notice about Darnell Nurse’s game that has improved this season over last?

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Jason Gregor:

His decision making with and without the puck. He is calmer. He isn’t trying to make every play right away. The game seems to have slowed down for him. Also, his edgework is better, so his pivots and change of direction in tight spaces has allowed him to make more plays in the Ozone and stop more plays in the D zone.

Robin Brownlee:

He’s been very good at managing his game — knowing when to jump up and knowing when to stay home — and that might be out of necessity because he’s being asked to play more minutes. He’s just continued to refine and polish the strengths of his game he showed us in 2018-19. He’s been better defensively because he plays smarter and better positionally instead of taking chances and relying on his mobility when he gets caught out of position. Sometimes less is more.

Cam Lewis:

One qualm I had with Nurse’s game in the past is that it seemed he was trying to do too much. He was frequently trying to make a big play, like a hit or a pinch, and it resulted in him getting out of position and chasing. It seems this year he’s calmed his game down a lot and he looks like the top-pairing defenceman his physicals skills suggested he could be.

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Tyler Yaremchuk:

He just looks so much more calm and confident. You never catch him scrambling around the zone, he always seems to be in the right spot, and he’s looking much more confident with the puck on his stick in the offensive zone. It just looks like every part of his game has taken a step forward.

Baggedmilk:

He really has stepped up in Klefbom’s absence and I think he looks more confident in all three zones on the ice. I like how he’s choosing to jump into the play, how he’s firing pucks on net, and I’m hopeful that he’ll keep getting better as the year goes on.

Feb 20, 2021; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers forward Jujhar Khaira (16) fights Calgary Flames forward Sam Bennett (93) during the first period at Rogers Place.

3) James in Peterborough asks – The third line centre position has been a weak link for the Oilers for years. Jujhar Khaira has recently strung together some good games in the role. Do you see him doing so permanently? If not, is this a spot that Ryan McLeod may soon fill?

Jason Gregor:

He is a better centre than a winger, and playing there regularly has helped. He is moving his feet regularly and that has helped. McLeod isn’t even a 4th line NHLer, so I don’t see him filling it soon. I see Haas being a more realistic option to push for that spot in the near future.

Robin Brownlee:

Khaira’s issue has always been consistency, so looking too far down the road with him makes no sense until he really settles into the role. I haven’t anything from Ryan McLeod to make me think he’s even in the equation this season. I guess it depends on what you mean by “soon.”

Cam Lewis:

I think the third-line centre spot is Edmonton’s biggest position of need right now. If you have Jujhar Khaira and Gaetan Haas as options for your fourth line and a veteran pivot at 3C, you’re doing very well. I would love Ryan Getzlaf in that spot, but I’m not sure it’s possible to execute a deal for a player with that big of a cap hit right now.

Tyler Yaremchuk:

I think McLeod is a player who could fight for that spot next season, but I can’t see him being recalled this year. Khaira has been solid and hopefully, he and Haas can continue to be a very good 1-2 punch in the Oilers bottom six.

Baggedmilk:

I love Jujhar Khaira and when he’s on his game he can be a very valuable contributor at both even strength and on the penalty kill. That said, he’s also a streaky player so I’m just keeping my fingers crossed that the player we’re seeing right now we’ll be here beyond a few weeks or so. I believe in you, Jujhar.

Mar 9, 2019; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers forward Connor McDavid (97) and Toronto Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews (34) battle for a loose puck during the second period at Rogers Place. Mandatory Credit:

4) Dallas asks – Do you feel TSN and Sportsnet are crossing a line in their blatant lobbying for Auston Matthews to be named MVP or am I just a salty McDavid fanboy?

Jason Gregor:

I’d say the latter. Matthews scoring 18 goals in 18 games is amazing. If he scores 50 goals this season he will get strong consideration for the Hart. Doesn’t mean McDavid won’t either, especially if he scores 100 points. It is possible both can have great seasons at the same time. Also, it is more accurate to say the names of the people pushing this rather than just TSN or Sportsnet.  Cassie Campbell said she felt Matthews’ overall game is better. She can have that opinion, but I disagree with it without having to resort to name calling or insults. I can show data that illustrates McDavid’s overall play is still a better package.

Matthews is a better goal scorer, and better in one-on-one battles defensively because he is a bit bigger.
McDavid is a better point producer, skater and his defensive awareness and commitment has improved a lot this season.

I wouldn’t worry too much if someone (media outlet, blog, or fan) pushes a player not name McDavid for the Hart in February. The Hart is not won in the first 20 games. Enjoy the debates, but there is no reason to think McDavid is not going to get massive consideration. Last year some Oilers fans were freaking out because a few voters were talking about Panarin…It was wasted energy as Draisaitl won by a large margin.

Robin Brownlee:

Media attention always tends to be focused on players in the Toronto market by media outlets in that market, and it’s no different with Matthews especially since he’ is such an exceptional player.  I’m not sure I’d categorize coverage about him as “blatantly lobbying” because the best player on the best team is bound to get a lot of attention when that team wears a Maple Leaf. I can see why fans roll their eyes at it, but why let it get to you?

Cam Lewis:

No. Matthews has been very good this season and he deserves the praise he’s received. Also, it’s much more interesting to talk about “can player X be the MVP this year” than it is to have a daily talk about Connor McDavid being the best player in the league. Voter fatigue is a reality. You see it in baseball with Mike Trout and it happened in the NBA with LeBron James when he was in his prime.

None of this matters. It’s all just banter. The more you get worked about TSN or whoever “lobbying” for Matthews, the more validated their content strategy becomes. They’re trying to make you upset and it seems it’s working.

Tyler Yaremchuk:

You can find plenty of TSN and Sportsnet analysts who are saying that Connor McDavid is the clear MVP. There is no massive media conspiracy to give Matthews the Hart Trophy.

Baggedmilk:

Meh. Who cares? Last year, some folks in the media were also coming up with all kinds of excuses for why Leon Draisaitl shouldn’t win the Hart and he did it anyway. I think we all — myself included — can do a better job of letting this stuff slide.

Feb 4, 2020; Glendale, Arizona, USA; Edmonton Oilers head ocahc Dave Tippett looks on prior to a game against the Arizona Coyotes at Gila River Arena. Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

5) @CGYCraig asks – The Oilers started the season with a heavy schedule – 11 games in 19 nights – and the lack of practice time and rest really seemed to affect their play. From March 6-27, they are at it again, with 13 games in 22 nights. How can they keep on track during those tough stretches?

Jason Gregor:

I think a lack of preseason games had a major impact. When they play a heavy schedule coming up they will have 25+ games under their belt. They are more in tune. Also, with Smith and Koskinen healthy neither will have to play all the time. Both will get ample practice time to sharpen their skills which should allow them to play better and not have deficiencies creep into their game.

Robin Brownlee:

They get days off before 10 of those 13 games, so it’s manageable. Travel — jetting all over the continent — isn’t the factor it usually is either. Just play.

Cam Lewis:

Health will be very important. If you have a whole roster of NHL-calibre players ready to go every night, you’ll be fine.

Tyler Yaremchuk:

Having two goalies that they can rotate between will help. Also, getting everyone healthy and having the option to give some veteran players nights off during the busy stretch will be important.

Baggedmilk:

I think this stretch is going to come down to goaltending and making sure they continue to play a simple style of game. When teams get tired, mistakes tend to happen and the boys will need to do what they can to minimize those errors as we work through this tight March schedule.

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