It took 23 days for the Oilers to pick up their first victory of 2022, and instantly the mood within the dressing room changed. Players say they are staying positive, and they try to, but the longer the losing goes the more difficult it is to feel confident. The postponed games extended the losing streak, in terms of days, and to finally end it Saturday was a huge relief for the Oilers. Now their focus is to get back to winning regularly.
— “You say you have to stay upbeat when you are losing, but losing sucks, so how do you stay upbeat?” replied Zack Kassian when I asked him to quantify how much different things are after a win. “There is no if, ands or buts, the mood is better in here today. You lose a bunch in a row and you feel like crap, you win one it is amazing what it can do for the morale of the team and the confidence.”
— One reason I believe the Oilers will have a better second half of the season is their captain is having a down year, by his lofty standards, at 5×5. McDavid has 23 points in 36 games. For most players that would be excellent production. McDavid has been held pointless in nine of his previous 14 games at 5×5. Only twice has he scored two 5×5 points in a game this season.
Last season he had 11 games with two points, five games with three points and one game with four points. That is 41 5×5 points in 17 games.
— He is averaging 0.63 points/GP at 5×5 so far this season, well below his pace of previous years.
2017 he averaged 0.76 PPG at 5×5.
In 2018 it was 0.86.
In 2019 0.82.
In 2020 0.78.
Last season he was at 1.00 PPG.
He scored 304 in 362 games (0.84 PPG) over the past five seasons. If you only used his 5×5 production he’d still be 29th in NHL scoring during that span. That’s how dominant he has been at 5×5, and it is only a matter of time before the production returns. He has set up some players for great scoring chances, and they haven’t capitalized, but that happens every year. The NHL’s best player is, by his standards, in a bit of an offensive funk. When he emerges from it the Oilers will most likely start winning more games.
— It could happen any game — that’s how talented he is. And as Kassian suggested a win can do wonders for the entire team. He will have one of his breakout games, it is just a matter of when. And even for the best player in the world, when his production isn’t where it normally is, it begins to weigh on him.
— McDavid started the season on a 17-game point streak. He had points in 20 of his first 22 games. He had multiple-point games 14 times, which equates to 63.6% of the games. However, in his last 14 games he’s been held scoreless six times and has five multi-point games (35.7%). Again, for most players scoring 13 points in 14 games would be great, but McDavid expects more of himself.
— He is due for a goal. He has 54 shots in his last 14 games, but only three goals. He won’t be sitting at a 5.56H% for much longer. I expect the dam to burst, and when it does I won’t be surprised to see him go on a crazy tear for a few games. Even the best players battle with a lack of offensive confidence now and again, and this might be the first time we’ve seen it. It won’t continue and that is the main reason, despite other flaws in the team, the Oilers will start winning more in 2022.
— One area that needs to improve is limiting goals off the rush. I asked Dave Tippett about that specific area of defending for the Oilers.
”There are times when we can have tighter gaps,” said Tippett. “We talk about it with our group. We don’t give up a ton of outnumbered chances. We’re top-five in the league in giving up the least amount of out-numbered chances against. That being said, you have to have a good gap, you have to have the ability, the strength and courage to hold that blue line and to make sure you’re not giving up anything there. There’s been some issues with that and we continue to talk about them. Our forwards got to help coming back certain times. It’s a combination of defense and the third guy coming back, and having the third guy high, that you’re not allowing those easy entries in and that result in shots from the slot.”
— So do the Oilers blueliners need to step up (defend the blue line) more?
“You could make a case for both,” said Tippett. “There are times when you have to do it, and there are times when you’ve got to back off. If a player is coming at you 100 MPH, if you lunge at him you’re in trouble, right? You’re giving up a breakaway. That being said, there’s some stuff you can do to get up and close gaps, and not allow that speed to get going that makes you more effective. It’s moving up to take away space so they don’t have the space coming back at you. We’ve got some guys that do it well, and we’ve got some guys who have to improve in that area.”
Being up higher in the neutral zone before the opposition gains speed will help, but often it is about timing, and if the forwards turn the puck over at the blue line that is often where a gap can be lost as the D-man isn’t expecting such a quick transition. It is an area the Oilers need to improve.
— Ryan Nugent-Hopkins should return to the lineup tonight. He skated with the group yesterday and was centering Brendan Perlini and Zack Kassian on the third line. Ideally when the Oilers are truly competitive RNH should be their third line centre. He hasn’t produced as well as you’d want in a top-six winger role. He is a big part of the power play and the penalty kill, and if he is your third line centre that means you have a solid top-six. Edmonton doesn’t have four legit top-six wingers today, but I’d still slot RNH as a third line centre regularly. It won’t be difficult to replace his 5×5 production.
— Of course you’d like a legit top-six producing left winger to fill his spot, but over the past two seasons in 82 games he has 10-14-24 at 5×5. Warren Foegele can produce at that level. In 68 games in 2020 he scored 13-17-30, and last season in 53 games he scored 10-10-20. He wasn’t playing regularly with Draisaitl or McDavid. I don’t believe Foegele is a regular top-six winger either, but if moving RNH to your third line and playing him at centre strengthens that line, then moving Foegele into RNH’s spot isn’t a big downgrade.
— Getting RNH back should help the penalty kill immensely. He has only been on the ice for four PP goals against this season. And he’s been on the ice for three shorthanded goals for, so he is only -1 on the PK. His return should be a huge boost to the PK. It desperately needs him to return. And the PK will benefit again when Zach Hyman returns, likely on Thursday. They have been a very solid tandem all season.
— Derek Ryan and Colton Sceviour have been the top-two PK forwards since December 1st and they’ve struggled. In 32 minutes of PK time Ryan has been on for 11 goals against and Sceviour 10. It isn’t just the forwards. The entire unit is struggling, but there is a noticeable downgrade from the RNH/Hyman duo compared to the other PK forward groups.
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