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Photo Credit: Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

GDB 45.0: Winning with Defence (8pm MT, SNW)

When you have the two leading scorers in the NHL it is difficult to be considered a defensively sound team. Even if you play well defensively, when Connor McDavid makes a dynamic end-to-end rush and finishes with three points he garners much of the attention.

Despite McDavid and Leon Draisaitl’s offensive brilliance, the Edmonton Oilers have quietly become much better defensively. Head coach Dave Tippett believes they can improve even more, but they are trending in the right direction.

In April the Oilers have allowed only 2.00 goals/game, fourth best in the NHL. Their GA/GP on the season is down to 2.75, 13th lowest in the NHL, but even more impressive is that since February 1st (33 games) the Oilers have the fifth best GA/game at 2.42.

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And they are doing that without sacrificing their offence. They are 11th (3.12 G/GP) since the beginning of February. Edmonton’s penalty kill has been stellar since early February, humming along at 84.1%. Only Vegas has allowed fewer PP goals (13) than the Oilers’ 14. Mike Smith, just like last season, has been excellent on the PK as he has the fourth best sv% at .894 (among goalies with 20 appearances).

The Oilers defensive play won’t be confused with the New Jersey Devils of the late 1990s and early 2000s, but they have taken big strides, and Tippett has really hammered down on the need to improve their GA at 5×5. The past three seasons saw no improvement as they were 2.18, 2.14 and 2.16 goals against/game at 5×5.

This season they are 2.02 overall, but they are at 1.90 since February first and are 1.71 in April. It has been a season-long improvement and until they can get consistent top-six production at 5×5 from forwards not named McDavid or Draisaitl, they will need to be stingy defensively.

McDavid leads the NHL with 40 points at 5×5. Draisaitl is fourth with 32. Yet their wingers aren’t close. Here is where they rank among forwards in 5×5 points.

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Kailer Yamamoto is 157th with 15 points.
Jesse Puljujarvi is 186th with 13 points.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is 217th with 11 points.
Dominik Kahun is 266th with 9 points.

I’ve noticed many focus on the Oilers bottom six players and their GF%, SF% etc, and that is valid, but the four aforementioned forwards need to produce more when constantly playing with two of the most productive players in the NHL. Look at their point totals, combined with their actual 5×5 TOI.

McDavid is second, Draisaitl eighth in TOI and both sit higher in actual points ranking than their TOI rankings. But three of the four winger’s point rankings are well below their TOI rankings.

Yamamoto is 63rd in TOI.
Puljujarvi is 95th.
RNH is 120th.
Kahun is 246th. Kahun’s production is close to his TOI rankings, but he isn’t a top-six forward in my eyes.

Yamamoto and Puljujarvi are young and improving. I believe Puljujarvi will for sure be more productive next season. But entering the playoffs, Edmonton desperately needs one of Yamamoto, Puljujarvi or Nugent-Hopkins to increase their 5×5 production. Ideally two of them need to, and Nugent-Hopkins has the most experience and should be the first one who produces more.

I find it funny how so many are offended my the mere mention Puljujarvi needs to alter his stick. Most players do during their careers. If you think his stick is fine, then why has he not produced much playing with McDavid? I like his talent. I was the one arguing the Oilers rushed him for three years. I wrote four years ago how when he is 22 you will see him fill out and be a threat. He skates incredibly well. His work ethic is outstanding, but he needs to produce more. That doesn’t mean he has no skill or is playing poorly. It means when you play with the most dominant player in the NHL you should produce.

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Look at how Patrick Maroon produced with McDavid. He scored 24 goals at 5×5. In 2019, Zack Kassian produced 23-22-45 at 5×5 playing with McDavid. Kassian was 18th in the entire NHL in 5×5 points over 82 games in 2019. That is production you should expect from players who play regularly with McDavid. When Kassian stopped producing he was taken off that line. Asking the current wingers who play with McDavid and Draisaitl to produce more isn’t controversial. It is simple mathematics. McDavid is producing at the best 5×5 rate of his career, yet his wingers are sitting 186th and 217th in points and some think that is okay? Help me understand this.

The reason the Oilers have the fifth best points% in the NHL since February 1st is because they’ve tightened up defensively. Their superstars have shown you can still produce while playing sound defensively, and the rest of the team has followed in the defensive zone. Of course there is still room for improvement, but as Edmonton enters the final 12 games of the season, their attention to detail in the defensive zone has been a welcomed improvement.

LINEUP…

Oilers

RNH – McDavid – Yamamoto
Kahun – Draisaitl– Puljujarvi
Archibald – Shore – Kassian
Neal – Haas – Chiasson

Nurse – Barrie
Russell– Larsson
Jones – Bear

Smith

These lines are just a hunch on my part. The Oilers had an optional skate today and Tippett wouldn’t divulge where RNH was going to play. But he was in same colour jersey as McDavid and Yamamoto.  I see JP and RNH as the Oilers two best forwards at 5×5, so McDavid and Draisaitl should each have one on their line. Maybe Tippett will reunite the line many readers want, RNH-Draisaitl-Yamamoto, but it hasn’t yet this year. Nygard wasn’t on the ice so Neal could be in for him.

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Regardless of which line combinations he goes with, Edmonton could tie the franchise record for most consecutive home wins with a victory tonight. They won their final nine home games in 2017 to set the franchise high.

Canadiens

Tatar – Danault – Anderson
Toffoli – Suzuki – Armia
Drouin– Staal – Perry
Lehkonen – Kotkaniemi – Bryon

Chiarot– Weber
Edmundson – Petry
Romanov – Merrill

Allen

Jake Allen starts in place of the injured Carey Price, while Jon Merrill will play his first game with Montreal in place of Brett Kulak. Also, Drouin and Lehkonen swapped lines, as the Habs are looking to find some offence. They’ve scored 12 goals in their last eight games.

TONIGHT…

Photoshop: Tom Kostiuk

GAME DAY PREDICTION: The four-goal third period was huge for the offensive psyche of the Oilers. They tie the franchise record with most consecutive home wins in a season with a 4-1 victory.

OBVIOUS GAME DAY PREDICTION: The Oilers get four powerplays as Montreal continues to take penalties.

NOT-SO-OBVIOUS GAME DAY PREDICTION: We see another spirited affair and it results in two bantamweights engaging in an exciting tilt, as Archibald and Byron throw down.

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