Photo Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

Game Notes Flames @ Oilers: Douse the Flames

The Edmonton Oilers could bury the Calgary Flames and ensure they can’t catch them in the standings with a victory tonight. Right now Calgary is 10 points back and both teams have 19 games remaining. If the Oilers go 9-10, Calgary would have to go 14-4-1 to pass them. That seems highly unlikely already, but a win over their southern provincial rival would officially extinguish them from catching Edmonton.

— Edmonton is more concerned about keeping pace with Toronto and Winnipeg than looking in their rearview mirror at Calgary and Vancouver, but after a poor effort in Montreal on Tuesday Edmonton needs a solid effort tonight. Their first periods in Toronto (both games) and in Montreal were not good enough. They need to be ready from opening puck drop tonight.

— Dave Tippett is going back to his top-two lines that won them a lot of games in February.

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One part of me understands why he went that route. They had success as a team with those two lines. But the other wonders why he doesn’t look at some combination where the second line doesn’t have both Dominik Kahun and Kailer Yamamoto on it. Zack Kassian has been much more engaged since returning from his broken hand, but Tippett said he feels he is better on the right side that on the left. Jesse Puljujarvi did play LW in Finland, so they could try him there. For whatever reason RNH hasn’t been able to produce much 5×5 playing with McDavid, but right now it seems Tippett likes Yamamoto with Draisaitl and RNH and Puljujarvi with McDavid. It illustrates the glaring need for another top-six LW.

— I don’t get why Dominic Kahun keeps getting looks in the top-six. What am I missing? Are you seeing something I’m not? He isn’t very quick. He isn’t physical. Doesn’t have a hard shot. He is smart, makes good plays with the puck, but he isn’t a finisher and Draisaitl needs a shooter. Yamamoto isn’t one yet either, but he’s dogged on pucks and a much better puck retriever than Kahun. I think Kahun can help your team in a bottom six role, I just don’t see him as a second line LW. But they don’t have an obvious one either, so maybe that’s why he is there. The reason he is in over Ennis, is because Kahun has been consistently better positionally in the defensive zone than Ennis. If you aren’t a big time point producer coaches expect you to be positionally sound defensively.

— Caleb Jones returns to the lineup tonight. He will play with Ethan Bear, while Kris Russell and Adam Larsson will get a lot of D-zone starts. Jones has only averaged 11:30 TOI/game in his previous four games. I’d like to see him play a bit more to help find his rhythm. He isn’t on the PK or PP, so it is difficult to play a lot, but if he can find his swagger from last year it would be a big help for the Oiler blueline. When he is playing with confidence he defends well, has good gap control, moves the puck up quickly and joins the rush often. He needs to use those strengths tonight. He has hesitated more this year.

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“We are looking for more consistency from Jonesy both with and without the puck,” said Dave Tippett about what he wants to see from Jones. This chart of his past seven games illustrates how the coaches have used him. When he is on he plays 13+ minutes at 5×5. I believe he is capable of having more games like that than those when his decision making and passing leads to him playing less that 10 minutes at 5×5.

— Ideally you don’t want Larsson and Russell together long term, as you’d like them each with a puck mover, but for tonight it makes sense to slot Jones in with Bear. Larsson gets many tough minutes and D-zone starts, so asking Jones to do that right away when his game isn’t sharp wouldn’t be putting him in the best position to succeed. This way he can play with Bear, probably get a few more offensive zone starts and hopefully gain confidence. If he finds his confidence and some consistency it would really help the Oilers. Jones is better than he has shown this year, and many other teammates had tough stretches, and then sat, only to play better when getting back in. He can do the same.

— While Calgary’s chances of catching Edmonton are very slim, even catching Montreal for fourth spot looks daunting. If the Habs go 11-12 in their final 24 games then Calgary needs to go 14-5 to tied them. Calgary would have to win all five games head-to-head to have any realistic shot of catching them. I think the four spots in the west are decided. That doesn’t mean tonight is an easy game, but Calgary is slowly entering the “death march” of the season, where you aren’t mathematically eliminated, but in reality you are. Teams in that spot will still win games, but if you get up early on them their willingness to scratch and claw back into games is lower. I’ve never really bought into the “playing relaxed,” theory that teams out of the hunt supposedly have And in this scenario the top four teams in the North shouldn’t be stressed about their playoff future. Just play average and they are in.

— Tyler Ennis was placed on waivers yesterday. It is a move made so Alex Stalock can be added to the active roster and not be exposed to waivers. Stalock was on the non-roster IR and then IR since being claimed on waivers a month ago. Him being activated isn’t a sign he is going to play right away, but more about him being healthy enough to be on the active roster or waived and placed on the Taxi-squad. He has played four games in 13 months. Is it worth starting him over Mikko Koskinen? I think it is a risk. I have no doubt he will have a higher save percentage on the first shot of the game than Koskinen has recently, but  is Stalock capable of posting a .923Sv% in seven starts since Mike Smith returned? That is what Koskinen has done. In Stalock’s past two seasons (59 games) he has a .907sv%. In his past two seasons Koskinen (58 games) Koskinen is at .912. And he has played better when he plays less frequently.

— I understand the frustration with Koskinen’s struggles on the first shot, and in the first periods overall. In his seven starts he has allowed nine goals on 69 shots in the first period (.869sv%), while allowing only three goals in both the second and third period. He’s posted a .959sv% in the second period and .952sv% in the third. It is a small sample size, and I’d have to dig deeper, but in recent games he has not given great first impressions all the time. Only two of his seven starts did he not allow a first period goal, and in those two games he only faced four shots (in Vancouver) and six shots (v. Winnipeg) in the first period. I think it might be fair to see Koskinen needs to be more focused early in games.

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— Reader James asked me if the Oilers rely too much on McDavid offensively because he’s been in on over 51% of the Oilers goals this season. Here are the past five seasons of the Oilers, with their team total G, goals/game, the leading scorer, his points, points/game and percentage of goals he was involved in (GII).

Year TOTAL G G/GP Leading Scorer Pts PTS/G % of GII
2017 243 2.96 McDavid 100 1.22 41.1%
2018 229 2.79 McDavid 108 1.32 47.1%
2019 229 2.79 McDavid 116 1.49 50.6%
2020 223 (71 GP) 3.14 Draisaitl 110 1.55 49.3%
2021 122 (37GP) 3.30 McDavid 63 1.70 51.6%

In 2019 the Oilers averaged 2.79 goals/game and McDavid was in on 50.6% of them. This year the team is averaging 3.30 goals/game (fifth best in NHL) and McDavid is in on 51.6%. When a player is scoring at a rate like McDavid, it isn’t a surprise he is in on that many goals. Edmonton’s overall team offence is better than it has been in decades. The last time Edmonton averaged more than 3.30 goals/game was in 1992 at 3.69. In 1991 they scored 3.40 goals/game. Last season at 3.14 was their best since 1992, and they are scoring more this season. Of course McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are main factors in their offensive surge, but when the Oilers were the most potent offensive team in the NHL, Wayne Gretzky was factoring in on over 50% of the team’s goals. In 1985 he was in on 51.8% of their goals. They scored 401 goals and he had 208 points. He had three seasons above 50% and another two where he was over 48%.

Having McDavid and Draisaitl on separate lines is a big bonus, and no question Edmonton could use another scoring top-six winger, but their blueline has added a lot of offence this season which helps.

— Edmonton’s blueliners have the most goals (22) and points (85) among North teams. Toronto (8G, 75 pts), Vancouver (11G, 72 pts), Montreal (20G, 68pts), Ottawa (10G, 68pts), Calgary (15G, 61pts) and Winnipeg (7g, 57pts) are well back in either goals, points or both. Darnell Nurse and Tyson Barrie have been the main contributors. Nurse has more goals than the rest of the Oilers D corps combined. Ethan Bear (0-3-3) and Caleb Jones (0-1-1) haven’t added much offence at all, but it hasn’t hurt because of how well offensively Nurse and Barrie are producing. If Bear and Jones could start chipping in a bit offensively down the stretch would be a big plus for the Oilers offence.

— The Oilers blueline has scored 18 goals at 5×5, tied for the most in the NHL with Washington and Vegas. In the North, Vancouver and Calgary defenders have 10 goals at 5×5, Montreal nine, Ottawa seven while Winnipeg and Toronto have two. It has been a major weapon for the Oilers and considering Jones, Bear and Russell have no goals it is even more impressive. If they can find some offence in their game, especially the pair or Jones/Bear, it could really help the Oilers, and mainly Leon Draisaitl’s line. With Nurse and Barrie playing a lot with McDavid’s line, I could see Jones/Bear getting half of their ice time with Draisaitl. They have the potential to produce offence, but need to show it. Bear and Jones have combined for only four assists in 42 games.

— Frank Seravalli reported the Oilers offered Ryan Nugent-Hopkins a five-year deal. And I’m hearing the money was less than RNH’s camp was hoping for. That is part of the negotiations. You never make your best deal early. I think Oilers fans should be thrilled with the term. Unless a player is elite, I would never offer more than five years. Term is what handcuffs teams. Even some elite UFA players have term that is hard to stomach. I’d assume if they would prefer five years with RNH, that holds true for Adam Larsson and Tyson Barrie, and likely even shorter.

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That is a good thing, but I also think we will see this across the league. With a flat cap for the next few seasons, you need players to live up to their deals. We’ve seen many GMs make the same error in free agency or on pending free agents: Paying them for what they did, not what you expect them to produce moving forward. Five years is the right term on RNH. We’ll see if they can make the money work, but in conversations I’ve had I think it is more likely his cap hit begins with a five rather than a six, whether he signs in Edmonton or tests free agency.

— Today’s episode of the DFO Rundown podcast had lots of discussion on potential buyers, sellers and more for the upcoming NHL trade deadline. Who makes sense for Edmonton, and the teams expected to be most active? Also no fence sitting when asked a question. You must answer.

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