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Photo Credit: © Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Ten Tuesday Thoughts…

The excitement is building as the regular season winds down. Twelve teams have officially clinched a playoff spot, but only three teams know for sure where they will finish. Florida, Colorado and Calgary will win their divisions. Toronto and Edmonton (who haven’t officially clinched, but will eventually) are on track to earn home-ice advantage and finish second in their divisions, while the other 11 playoff positions are still undetermined.

1. The Pittsburgh Penguins are floundering down the stretch. They are 5-7-2 in the last month, and sit 23rd in P% at .429P%. The next closest P% is Carolina at .563. Washington is suddenly one point behind the Penguins with a game in hand. If Washington passes Pittsburgh the Penguins look destined to face the dominant Florida Panthers. The Panthers are an absolute beast. They’ve been good all season, but have really ramped up their play the past two months. They are 12-1 in the last month and 20-5-1 since February 20th. The Penguins would get mauled by them in the first round.

2. To add to the Penguins’ problems, former Edmonton Oil Kings goalie Tristan Jarry is out with a broken bone in his foot. It seems unlikely he’d be ready to start the playoffs. And the Hurricanes also got bad goaltending news with Freddie Andersen being out. He will be re-evaluated in a week, but numerous reports think he too could miss the start of the playoffs. Health is such an important factor at playoff time. Many teams and their fanbases have seen how a key injury at playoff time can derail their team.

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3. I’ve seen many articles being written about Jesse Puljujarvi’s value to the Oilers. I think Puljujarvi has many good assets as a player. He skates well, he’s learning to use his size to his advantage, and he is very good on the forecheck. He is still young, turns 24 in May, and still has room to grow. But I caution those who are overvaluing him based on on-ice stats. I remember people writing articles stating how Ethan Bear made Darnell Nurse better based on WOWY as well as CF%, GF% and xGF%. I think that has been proven incorrect over time.

I think it is dangerous to suggest Puljujarvi makes McDavid better due McDavid’s GF%, xGF% and other numbers with and without Puljujarvi. You would need to show video of every goal scored to illustrate the impact of Puljujarvi on those goals, and the same in the defensive zone. It would be a large undertaking. Maybe someone will do it in the off-season, but until you have video to match the numbers, I’d be cautious suggesting McDavid is better when Puljujarvi is on his line.

Again, it isn’t a knock on Puljujarvi. I’ve said for many years I expect him to become a more impactful player when he is 24-27 and I still see that occurring. How much better of a finisher can he be is yet to be determined. Scoring goals is the most difficult thing to do in the NHL. It is hard to do it consistently year after year. Players who score regularly get paid, as they should. Younger players often get a raise because teams believe they will score more over the term of the new contract. Some do, many don’t.

4. I also found it interesting that when Evander Kane was on fire people pointed to him being on a PDO heater as the main reason. I found that a bit odd because Kane was scoring goals and producing points. PDO combines on-ice SV% and SH%. Kane’s offensive production shouldn’t be tied to Sv%, should it? Regardless of whether they should be connected, if you use it to suggest Kane is on a heater, how come the same people don’t mention that since Woodcroft arrived Puljujarvi has a 1.064 PDO, the best on the team? And Puljujarvi has two 5×5 goals in 20 games with Woodcroft. If you are going to use PDO as a reason to suggest you don’t believe Kane is as good, then shouldn’t you use it similarly when discussing Puljujarvi’s strengths and weaknesses?

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5. I’ve been perplexed reading and listening to the debates about Kane and Puljujarvi. I don’t see them in the same category at the moment. Kane is a proven scorer. He has the 31st most goals in the NHL since 2016-17 with 151 in 380 games. He’s averaged .40 goals/game in that span. Puljujarvi has 45 goals in 256 games (0.17 goals/game). It is unfair to compare Puljujarvi to Kane at this moment. JP is younger and has yet to establish himself as a goal scorer or as a point producer (0.375 points/game). Kane is at 0.74 points/game. That doesn’t mean Puljujarvi doesn’t have value. He does, but he doesn’t have the goal scoring or play making abilities of Kane, nor is he as physical. He also isn’t used on the PK, so I’d suggest the coaches don’t feel he is as polished defensively at this moment. That doesn’t mean he won’t be in the future, but today Kane does more things for the team, as he should — he’s more experienced.

Oilers fans should be happy both are on the team. They offer different things at the moment, but for me, actual production matters more. Being on the ice for goals for or against is obviously good, but on many occasions, a player can be on the ice and have zero impact on your team scoring goals, or your team stopping them. And I don’t believe a full analysis of a player has to focus only on 5×5 play. Power play and penalty kill have huge impacts in the outcome of games. If a coach is using you on both, I’d say you are adding more value and more involved in the outcome of games. And even empty net goals — sure, they are easier to score, but the head coach trusts you to be on the ice defending a lead late in games. To just discount those situations seems odd to me.

6. Having Kane, Puljujarvi, as well as Zach Hyman, Warren Foegele and Zack Kassian has given the Oilers a much different look up front. They have much more size and speed on the wings with those five compared to who they used last season in the playoffs.

Last year in the final two playoff games against Winnipeg the Oilers’ forwards lines looked like this:

Draisaitl-McDavid-Puljujarvi
McLeod-RNH-Kassian
Shore-Khaira-Archibald
Ennis-Hass-Yamamoto

It is vastly different now.

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Kane-McDavid-Puljujarvi
Hyman-Draisaitl-Yamamoto
Foegele-RNH-Ryan
Brassard/Shore-McLeod-Kassian.

And if Woodcroft runs 11 forwards and seven defenceman, then McLeod and Kassian are rotated throughout the lineup. The size, skill and speed of the Oilers forwards is much better this season, especially in the top nine.

7. Speaking of the 11-7 rotation: Some have asked if the Oilers are more successful with it. Since Woodcroft arrived they are 9-4-1 when playing 11-7 and they are 12-4-2 when going 12-6. They have a .678P% with 11-7 and .722 when 12-6. I’d have to look at who they played to see if that impacts it, but they’ve had success with both. The benefit of seven D-men is it allows Dave Manson to use players in more specific spots. Kris Russell can be used mainly on the PK and in defensive situations at 5×5. It also allows Dave Manson to spread out the minutes among the D-men not named Darnell Nurse and Cody Ceci.

I could see Woodcroft going 11-7 and 12-6 in the playoffs depending on the opponent and if they are at home or on the road.

8. Manson’s deployment of his defenders has been something to watch. He is using Nurse and Ceci against elite opposition almost 50% of the time. That is crazy high. Courtesy of PuckIQ.com you can see that Nurse has played 290 of his 582 minutes at 5×5 v. elite players. That is 49.8% of the time.

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Ceci has played 239  minutes (43.7%) of his 546 minutes v. elites. He and Nurse have played quite well despite a heavy workload against the opposition’s best players. In the future as the Oilers’ blue line improves I’d expect Nurse’s TOI v. elite to go down, but for this season and in the playoffs he and Ceci will be relied on heavily.

For a comparison, Cale Makar has skated 599 minutes in the same time and played 232 (38.7%) against elite. If a player is between 38-41% that is usually high v. elite. For Nurse to be at 49.8% is crazy, but it shows how Manson views his blue line. And Nurse has only been on the ice for three goals against in those 290 minutes. I find people focus on the odd missed pass Nurse makes, and completely overlook how well he has defended top players the past two months.

9. Tough loss for Vegas last night, losing 3-2 to New Jersey. They outshot them 44-28 but couldn’t beat Andrew Hammond. The Hamburgler turned back the clock for a night. The most points Vegas can accumulate is 97. The Oilers only need four points in their final six games to ensure Vegas doesn’t catch them. If the LA Kings go 3-2 in their final five then Vegas needs to go 4-0-1 to catch them. It doesn’t look good for Vegas. For Canucks fans still holding out hope, if the Kings go 3-2 then Vancouver has to go 5-1 to catch them. Unlikely.

10. Our friend Pierre Lebrun mentioned the 3-2-1 system again. Would it be better for the NHL? If you look at European soccer leagues it hasn’t made much of a difference. However, there are fewer goals in soccer, so that isn’t a fair comparison. We will never know if it is better or changes anything until we see it. I’d be all for it if they tried it in the AHL.

For fun, if the system was in place this season here is how the point totals for second and third place in the Pacific division and the two wildcard spots would look like:

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Pacific:
Edmonton 129 points.
LA 121
Vegas 120
Vancouver 117

Wildcard:
Nashville 126
LA 121
Dallas 120
Vegas 120
Vancouver 117

Would teams play different if the 3-2-1 system was in place? They might, but we won’t know for sure until we see it in action.

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