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Tuesday’s Ten Thoughts…

Here are 10 things I think I see…

Ethan Bear has played his best hockey of the season over the past few weeks. He spoke openly last week about needing to find the pace in his game again after his unlucky and strange concussion. He was sitting on the bench on January 30th, when an errant puck hit him in the side of the head. He didn’t play again until February 25th, and it took him almost a month to feel comfortable.

“You can get your legs back (conditioning), but it is more getting your timing and seeing the play that takes time,” said Bear. “It took a few weeks, but I feel I’ve got it back now and I’m feeling better and making more plays,” Bear said last week. And you can see it on the ice. He’s more engaged in the play, and now that he has his game back to the level he wants, I wonder if Dave Tippett and Jim Playfair consider playing him more with Darnell Nurse?

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“Bear is a strong, solid defender, while Barrie is a really strong offensive player. It gives us flexibility and allows Jim (Playfair) to have different matchups,” Tippett said last night when I asked about switching the pairs for the third period and if he wants to play Bear with Nurse more.

It is a unique situation, as their best attributes show up in the opposite ends of the rink. It didn’t make much sense to put Bear with Nurse when Bear was trying to get back up to speed in early March, but I see the merit in doing it now. Maybe they continue the switch at different times, but I won’t be surprised if we see more of Nurse/Bear as a pair heading into the playoffs.

The bigger question might be: Who plays with Adam Larsson and who plays with Barrie? Playing Dmitry Kulikov with a puck mover makes sense, but I also see why coaches want a reliable pair in the playoffs who can take the tough matchups. I’d lean towards Kulikov with Barrie to start. Who would you want to see?

Jujhar Khaira will be out for a few weeks after taking a hard, clean hit from Alexander Romanov. Khaira was wobbly, and needed help to skate off the ice. It is the second time this season we’ve seen him wobbly like that, and I sense he will be out at least two weeks. That is a big blow. He’s been very consistent since returning to the lineup in early February, after clearing waivers and playing in only three of the first 11 games. For the past 30 games, he’s been very good as a third line C and on the PK.

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They will miss his size and strength down low, and Ryan McLeod will likely take his spot next week. Edmonton would benefit from having both of them in the lineup, and hopefully for Khaira, the hit was a case of looking worse than it feels.

— Edmonton didn’t start the season very well, but if you subscribe to the “What have you done for me lately?” theory, Oilersnation should be excited.

From April 1st to today the Oilers sit fourth in the NHL with a .786P%.
From March 1st to today the Oilers are 10th with a .667P%.
From February 1st to now Edmonton is fifth with a .697P%

They are good. They still have some areas general manager Ken Holland will want to address in the off-season, but they are trending towards becoming a legit Cup contender for the first time in a long time. The challenge is taking that final step is more difficult than the previous steps to get to this point. To become a truly elite team you need depth across the board.

— Holland has been smart with his cap spending. He’s gotten a lot of bang for his buck on his short contracts, but the next step is where he is really going to earn his pay. Can he land a few other veterans on short-term, value contracts like Barrie’s? Like every GM, not all contracts are ideal, but even a miss on Kyle Turris won’t crush Edmonton, because he could play in the AHL next year and only count as $575K on the cap. I think the next 11 months (assuming trade deadline is in March next season) will go a long way in setting up what should be the start of the Oilers becoming a legitimate Cup contender.

— Montreal’s penalty killing forwards played quite high yesterday, and the Oilers will need to take the puck down low more to have more success. Alex Chiasson and Jesse Puljujarvi are good at creating traffic down low and winning battles, but neither has quick hands in tight. Puljujarvi is still so young in his development it is something I suspect he works on in the summer. Many players round out their games as they develop — just look at Darnell Nurse — and I’m curious to see which little areas of Puljujarvi’s game improve next season. Make no mistake: his puckhandling skills can improve. He’s got a great shot, especially shooting in motion. He’s also an incredibly hard worker. He puts in the time, and I hope the Oilers skills coach sets out a plan to work on his puckhandling and quick hands in tight in the off-season. Once he adjusts his stick, I won’t be surprised to see him become a 30-goal scorer. And the other thing is: He loves to score. His excitement on goals is infectious. If you asked me today to predict next season, I see him scoring 28 goals next year.

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— He won’t win the Vezina, but I bet Mike Smith will find himself getting some top-five votes. He is now fifth among starters with a .923Sv% and 7th with a 2.30 GAA. It’s one of the best and most unexpected stories of the season.

— I understand, to a point, that debate and controversy sells, but there is no Hart trophy discussion this season. Connor McDavid is the obvious winner. He will win it. He is the runaway choice just like Nikita Kucherov was in 2019 when he tallied 128 points. Kucherov received 164 of the 171 first place votes. Sidney Crosby (3), Johnny Gaudreau (2) and Nathan MacKinnon and McDavid each had one. Two voters had Kucherov third and another two had him fourth, so don’t be shocked if McDavid isn’t unanimous. But it doesn’t matter. In 2019 Kucherov deserved to win and won in a landslide, and I expect the same for McDavid this season.

— McDavid still has an outside shot at 100 points. He needs 26 points in the final 12 games. He had 21 points in his final 12 games in 2017, then 22 points in his final 12 games in 2018, 16 in his final 12 games in 2019 and 18 in the final 12 last year. The best 12-game stretch of his career occurred earlier this season when he had 25 points in 12 games between January 28th to February 20th. He was also close between February 16th-March 17th, 2019 when he produced 23 points in 12 games.

I know 26 is a lot, but McDavid is having the most productive season of his career and I think he has a legit shot. Edmonton plays 12 games in 25 days and they only have two sets of back-to-backs. Fatigue won’t be much of a factor.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins skated today, but will they play him tomorrow or wait until next Monday? An extra five days of rest would be wise due to him coming off a concussion. You need RNH more in May than you do on April 21st.

Patrick Marleau played his 1,768th NHL regular season game last night, breaking Gordie Howe’s record of 1,767. Amazing. The crazy part is that 18% of players who have played at least one game this season weren’t born when Marleau made his NHL debut on October 1st, 1997. Kailer Yamamoto, Jesse Puljujarvi, Evan Bouchard and Ryan McLeod weren’t born. McDavid was nine months old. Bear and Caleb Jones were both three months old. It’s an incredible achievement for Marleau, especially considering he hasn’t missed an NHL game since April 9th, 2009. What a testament to his passion for the game and his commitment to train and stay healthy.

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Congrats Patrick. Well deserved and well said.

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