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Photo Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Bouncebacks and Step Backs

The other day, I had a nation citizen float me a very interesting question/idea. They asked if our expectations for some players are too high and they added that sometimes before a season we assume that all players who had great seasons the year prior will repeat their success while also assuming that all players who are coming off bad seasons will find ways to bounceback.

We often joke about this a little bit on The Real Life Podcast, but this time of year really is kool-aid drinking season. Everyone is starving for hockey, they miss the Oilers, they’ve dissected all the offseason moves as much as they can, and now they just want to be positive.

For the last three seasons, this has been the time of year where we all start to convince each other that Mikko Koskinen is due to take a big step forward or that Zack Kassian is primed to hit the 25-goal mark if he spends the entire season with Connor McDavid. For the most part, we don’t spend a lot of time talking about who could potentially take a step backwards and I totally get it. It’s way more fun to be optimistic.

With that all being said, I thought I would throw together a list of a few players who could be primed for bounce-back seasons while also mentioning a few players who could potentially take some steps backwards in 2021-22.

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KAILER YAMAMOTO

What I love about Yamamoto is that a lot of what usually allows him to have success is all effort-based. He forechecks like a demon, isn’t afraid to go to the tough areas of the ice, and creates turnovers. His 2.6 turnovers/60 was second only to Leon Draisaitl on last year’s Oilers roster (via Natural Stat-Trick).

Last season, he just simply didn’t produce the offence that the Oilers needed him to. He struggled to get a lot of scoring chances and when he was getting looks, we didn’t finish them off. Creating turnovers and playing hard is one thing, but to keep his spot in the top six, Yamamoto will have to produce.

He’s a young player and has shown that he’s capable of scoring at the NHL level before. Combining that with the fact that he should get plenty of opportunities in the Oiler’s top six this coming season and his work ethic, I like Yamamoto’s chances of bouncing back next season.

ZACK KASSIAN

I’m not as sure we’ll see a bounceback season from Kassian. He only scored 2 goals in 27 games last season and for him to get back in the top six, he’ll have to take away a spot from either Yamamoto or Jesse Puljujarvi. I don’t think he’s a better fit than either of those two with Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl.

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If Kassian doesn’t play in the top six, he’ll have to be a consistent offensive producer in their bottom six in order to earn his $3.2 million cap hit. In the past three seasons, that hasn’t been something that Kassian has been good at. Over the last three regular seasons, when Kassian has been on the ice with McDavid his GF% has been 51.92% and when he’s been away from McDavid that number drops down to 37.08%.

I get that he’ll be less productive when he’s not with the best player in the world, but Kassian needs to be a key part of things if the Oilers bottom six is going to outscore their opposition and based on his history, I’m not sure if he can be.

When Kassian is on his game, he’s a fan favourite and it’s easy to see why. I love the physical edge that he plays with and if he brings that consistently and combines it with good offensive production, then he can be a valuable part of this team next year.

If Kassian gets a crack in the top six and starts producing with McDavid then a bounce-back season is possible. If he’s not with McDavid then I’m not sure if it’s going to happen but I’d love to see Kassian prove me wrong.

MIKE SMITH

Mar 27, 2021; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Edmonton Oilers goaltender Mike Smith (41) defends the goal against the Toronto Maple Leafs during the first period at Scotiabank Arena. Mandatory Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Speaking of proving me wrong, Mike Smith did exactly that in 2020-21. To say I didn’t have high hopes for Mike Smith heading into last season would have been an understatement. I thought the Oilers made a mistake bringing him back and he ended up being a key reason why they ended up finishing second in the Canadian division.

Well, the Oilers are banking on Smith having another magical season and it’s a pretty big risk in my opinion.

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Last season he had a .923 save percentage, which was much better than the .902 mark he had in 2019-20. It was also the best save percentage he’s posted since 2011-12. I feel pretty comfortable saying that his numbers will not be that good this coming season.

I don’t think he’ll be bad, but I’m expecting at least a bit of a step back. If his numbers end up somewhere in the middle of what they’ve been the last two years, then the Oilers will be in fine shape. I’ll also add that they’ll need a good backup to play with Smith so that he doesn’t get overworked and I’m not sold on either Mikko Koskinen or Alex Stalock being able to fill that role.

He’s a great athlete, is coming off a great season, and he will once again be highly motivated, so my concerns when it comes to Smith aren’t as big as they were last season, but they still exist.

TYSON BARRIE

When Tyson Barrie signed his one-year deal with the Oilers last offseason, even the most optimistic Oilers fan likely didn’t think he would end up leading all defensemen in scoring. Last year went perfectly for both the Oilers and Barrie and now, he’ll need to prove that last year’s numbers weren’t just a one-off. 

That will be very tough to do. He was close to a point per game producer, with more than half of those points coming on the powerplay. Honestly, the production won’t be an issue for me. He’ll be surrounded by a more talented forward group than he was last season and he’ll get his points.

A step back is possible production-wise, but I’m actually going to say that it’s not exactly likely and even if it does happen, it’s likely just because someone like Evan Bouchard started getting more powerplay time so it shouldn’t hurt the team too much.

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The concern with Barrie is that his defensive zone play will slip and since Adam Larsson isn’t around anymore, the Oilers need Barrie to improve in his own end. If that happens, then even if his production drops, it will be a good season for Barrie. If his numbers slip and he struggles in his own end, then things might get ugly.

Who do you like to bounce back next season? Or is there someone that you think is being overhyped? Let me know!