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Photo Credit: Candice Ward-USA TODAY Sports

My five biggest concerns heading into the season

Training camps are opening up and optimism is in the air across the league. With the exception of a few known have-nots, I’m looking right at you Arizona, fan bases and players all feel like this could be their season. That is certainly the case in Edmonton where after a wild ride to the Conference Finals last spring, almost everyone realizes that the Oilers have a shot to go all the way this year.

They really do have a chance. I think they belong in the elite tier of teams in the league but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some legitimate concerns.

I know, it’s supposed to be kool-aid drinking season and I already know that Jay is going to yell at me on the next episode of Nation Real Life but here are my five biggest concerns heading into this season:

5 – Cap Space

The Oilers are going to be operating in LTIR territory for the entire upcoming season with both Mike Smith and Oscar Klefbom sitting on the sidelines. Not only does that makes in-season moves very difficult to pull off, but it will also make it hard for the Oilers to be cap compliant on opening night of the 2022-23 season.

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Now that McLeod is signed, things are even more confusing. PuckPedia summed it up well the other day though: 

The Oilers can barely afford to go out for a nice dinner with what little cap space they have, never mind make a meaningful in-season addition!

They could play the waiver game and send down one of Mattias Janmark or Derek Ryan and try to wiggle their way out of this with paper transactions but it’s not going to be easy and it would kill their lineup flexibility throughout the season. The easiest way out of this is still to make a trade once the season starts, but losing a member of this forward group for nothing is far from ideal. That brings me to my next point…

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4 – The Right Wing Depth

There is a lot of talk that the team could still look to move on from Jesse Puljujarvi before the start of the season. While it would solve their cap problem, it would also take away a legit top nine right winger from the roster and that would hurt.

Assuming they flip Zach Hyman to the right side, although he spent a considerable amount of time as a left winger last season, they’ll have exactly three right shots capable of playing top nine minutes. If they trade Puljujarvi, they’ll be on the hunt for another scoring right winger.

I Hyman is on the right side, then Warren Foegele will need to play top nine minutes on the left side unless Dylan Holloway takes his job and that leaves me feeling a little uneasy. The point is: their depth on the right side isn’t strong enough to deal with a potential Puljujarvi trade and that’s a concern.

3 – Bottom Six Scoring

Mar 7, 2022; Calgary, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers left wing Warren Foegele (37) during the face off against the Calgary Flames during the first period at Scotiabank Saddledome. Mandatory Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

As a whole, I’m concerned about their entire bottom-six being able to produce offence throughout the season consistently. 

I would love to see Ryan McLeod take a step forward, but results are never guaranteed with young players. I would love to see Warren Foegele bounce back, but what’s a realistic expectation? Another 4-5 goals? Dylan Holloway could surprise us and be a solid contributor, but again, you can’t bank on it.

The pieces are there for this team to be deep, but we said that last season and there were still long stretches where getting 5v5 scoring that didn’t involve McDavid or Draisaitl was a struggle. I believe there is a chance that this Oilers team can build their top nine in a way that features three solid scoring lines, but unless Holloway is a productive scoring winger in his rookie season, I still think they’re one piece away.

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One combination I’ve thought could work if Holloway cracks the lineup:

  1. Kane – McDavid – Hyman
  2. Nugent-Hopkins – Draisaitl – Yamamoto
  3. Holloway – McLeod – Puljujarvi

The top line in that example is still loaded, but is this a decent mix? It would need steps forward from almost everyone on the third line. Could one of Hyman or Kane be demoted to even it out?

  1. Kane – McDavid – Puljujarvi
  2. Nugent-Hopkins – Draisaitl – Hyman
  3. Holloway – McLeod – Yamamoto

This will only create three strong scoring lines if both McLeod and Holloway take steps forward because Yamamoto doesn’t quite bring the same play-driving potential as Puljujarvi. The combination on that third line though could drive defenseman nuts. Yamamoto is a dog on the forecheck, it’s my favourite part of his game, and the other two play fast. Still, the Oiler’s third and fourth lines might struggle to score. It’s not a huge concern, but it still exists.

2 – Goaltending

Ken Holland went out and spent real money on his goaltending this summer. The days of running a wildly inconsistent Smith/Koskinen duo are over and now they have put all their eggs in the Jack Campbell and Stuart Skinner combination.

I think the duo that the Oilers are running into next season with has a higher floor than the one they had last season. The rough moments with Campbell and Skinner won’t be quite as bad as they were with Smith and Koskinen.

At the same time, Mike Smith was lights out down the stretch last season. In the final six weeks of the regular season, he was one of the best goalies in the NHL. Is Jack Campbell capable of ripping off that kind of heater?

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The Oilers probably don’t need him to do that, but they need him to be a solid .912-.918 sv% kind of goalie for the bulk of this season, and considering the fact he’s essentially paired up with a rookie, they’ll probably need him to play 50+ games in 2022-23.

1 – The Entire Defensive Group

I think the biggest weakness of this team is their blueline and I don’t think anything else is really close.

The right side is pretty solid. Evan Bouchard is a promising young defenseman who should continue to get better in his own end as he gets more accustomed to the NHL game. Even if he doesn’t, he’s an elite point-producing defenseman who is their best puck mover on the back end. 

Cody Ceci showed last season that he can handle tough assignments in the Oiler’s top four and I see no reason to believe he can’t do that again this upcoming season.

Tyson Barrie should be more than okay in a third pairing role but my concern starts to come when we look at the left side of the blue line.

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Darnell Nurse is a damn good defenseman and most of the people who complained about his game in the postseason were totally forgetting that he was incredibly banged up. Is he a $9m+ defenseman? Probably not, but he’s a legit top pairing guy and their best all-around blueliner. It’s as simple as that. I’d love to see him spend the whole season with Evan Bouchard next to him to see what they’re capable of but I do recognize that duo could have some defensive struggles.

Brett Kulak was the Tyson Barrie whisperer last year and that duo was solid. However, I want Kulak on a pure shutdown pairing this year to maximize his abilities and that probably means moving him away from Barrie. Kulak-Ceci would be a great shutdown pair but, if you put them together though, that leaves you with one of Ryan Murray or Philip Broberg to play with Tyson Barrie and I’d worry that putting one of those two left-handed defensemen with Barrie could create a pretty weak third pairing.

I think the top four should be able to survive, but I don’t view them as elite. The third pairing could be a problem some nights though. 

I view their top-six as elite and it’s so good that they’ll be able to overcome a bottom-six that isn’t great. Their goaltending should be more solid than last season but if their defense gives up a lot of high-quality chances, then that could negatively affect the goaltending. They’re missing one more really good left-handed defenseman as it is right now. If one of Kulak or Nurse gets injured, then it will be a massive problem. 

It likely won’t sink them, but it’s concerning, and barring a breakout season by Philip Broberg or a big step forward from Ryan Murray, I’m fully expecting the Oiler’s number one need at the trade deadline to be a shutdown defenseman to play the left side.

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#NATIONVACATION TO LAS VEGAS

  • When: On Thursday, January 12th, we’re jumping on a flight at the Edmonton International Airport and making our way to Vegas. On Sunday evening, we’ll fly back from Vegas to Edmonton. So the dates that you need to block off for this trip are January 12th to 15th.
  • Where we’re staying: After landing in LV, we’ll jump on the free shuttle and make our way to the Park MGM before settling in for a good night’s sleep. 😉
  • What you get: Your roundtrip flight, hotel, shuttle, viewing party (Friday night), game entry — we got seats this time (Saturday night), and exclusive entry into our pre-trip ‘get to know everyone’ event.
  • How Much: The total cost for the trip, flight, hotel, and entry to the game is $1499 per person (based on double occupancy) 
  • Tickets: Ready to dive in? Click this link.