Analyzing what went wrong in the season opener for Edmonton, and what adjustments they could make moving forward

Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
6 months ago
With an abysmal 8-1 loss against the Vancouver Canucks to start the season, it’s safe to say the Edmonton Oilers didn’t have the best opening night on Wednesday.
It’s just the first time they’ve lost by a seven-goal margin since April of 2017 when Edmonton lost 7-0 to the San Jose Sharks in Game 5 of the first round.
Of course, it’s only Game 1. No team in the league should overreact after just the first game of the season, and we know this team is significantly better than this. That said, there are undoubtedly several areas of improvement and some adjustments to make.
Here’s a recap of what happened on opening night and how the Oilers should move forward.
*All on-ice stats via Natural Stat Trick and EvolvingHockey, all microstats via my Oilers tracking project

So, what exactly went wrong?

The short answer? Pretty much everything.
The long answer? 
Edmonton posted a 47 percent expected goal differential at 5v5 (score and venue adjusted). They tied Vancouver in 5v5 shots on net (19) and had more shot attempts. The Oilers had 57 zone entries, 31 of them controlled, while the Canucks had 49 zone entries, 21 of them controlled. At a glance, those don’t look like awful results at all. At least, they don’t seem bad enough for a team to lose by seven goals.
However, the issue is that the chances Edmonton did generate weren’t particularly dangerous. They never tested Thatcher Demko enough, and on the few quality chances they did develop, Demko rose to the task and made the key save. 
On the other end of the ice, the chances Edmonton did allow were exceptionally high-quality, particularly in transition. The first, third, and eighth goals were all dangerous scoring chances off the rush. The second goal was an excellent shot in a somewhat dangerous area, with an unsuccessful dump-in retrieval by Bouchard and poor coverage decisions by Nurse/McDavid. On the sixth goal, the puck bounces off Bouchard, and Broberg leaves Boeser wide open in the slot for an easy rebound to tap in.
All of these are strong goals. It’s games like these where private expected goal models with access to more granular pre-shot movement data could be more accurate.
That said, neither Jack Campbell nor Stuart Skinner had good performances. Both had identical stat lines of 4 goals allowed on 16 shots and while most of the goals they allowed were quite dangerous and not entirely their fault, some were indeed stoppable. Goaltending undoubtedly couldn’t have won them the game alone, but I also don’t believe Edmonton’s defence played that poorly to allow eight goals. Simply put, you need some saves.
Additionally, the penalty-kill remains an ongoing concern. Vancouver went 3/6 on the power play on Wednesday night.
Since Jay Woodcroft and Dave Manson’s arrivals in Edmonton, the team has the second-best regular-season record in the NHL. There’s no question the coaching change has significantly benefitted the Oilers, most notably at even-strength and regarding their bottom-six, but ever since Feb 10, 2022 (the day Woodcroft and Manson were hired), the Oilers rank 18th in the league in PK goals allowed per hour. Since the beginning of 2022-23, they rank 22nd.
With their outstanding power play, Edmonton doesn’t necessarily need to be world-beaters on the penalty kill, but they must be much better. It’s an issue that’s persisted for quite some time.
It makes you question the point of Mattias Janmark on the roster. Janmark is extremely replaceable at 5v5, as he ranked 10th in points per hour, 11th in goal differential, and 13th in goals per hour among 14 Oilers forwards last season (minimum 300 TOI). Many cite his penalty-killing ability as the justification for his roster spot, but the Oiler’s PK isn’t at a satisfactory standard in the first place. That substandard PK allowed more scoring chances per hour with Janmark on-ice instead of without. I don’t think Janmark deserves a secure spot on a healthy roster, as he simply doesn’t provide enough meaningful on-ice value. Waiving Janmark allows the Oilers to accrue more cap space at the deadline, and I don’t see any team claiming him.
Overall, it was simply a disaster of a night for Edmonton. As Jay Woodcroft said in the post-game interview, the Oilers “laid an egg.”

So, what are the ideal adjustments to make to the defence?

It’s not a good sign when the entire defence falls apart after a single injury.
Of course, it’s just one game, and part of their struggles may be attributed to the fact that the Oilers are running a new defensive-zone system. Last season, they typically ran a more aggressive man-to-man structure throughout the season and in the playoffs. This year, they’ve seemed to have switched to a box-and-one structure in the defensive zone, which is a more passive system where four players form a tight box near the front of the net while the fifth player attacks the opposing puck carrier. Here’s an excellent article by fellow OilersNation writer Bruce Curlock outlining Edmonton’s tactics and systems in much better detail
You could argue they were still adjusting to their new system, hence their struggles, which is a valid point. They should improve moving forward, especially with the return of Ekholm. Still, I have concerns about the defensive core, nonetheless.
Firstly, I have mixed opinions on a Nurse – Bouchard pairing. This summer, I worked on a defensive pairing chemistry tool that aims to determine how well two certain defencemen could stylistically pair together. I’m still making some tweaks, but here’s how Nurse and Bouchard look:
Nurse’s primary weaknesses are defending the rush and making breakout passes, and luckily, Bouchard is Edmonton’s best rush defender and transitional passer. In those aspects, Bouchard stylistically compliments Nurse well. Overall, the pair ranks quite well, but the issue is that Bouchard is a very weak in-zone defender at this point of his career, and Nurse’s in-zone defending is not at the level to compensate for that. As a result, the major downfall of this pairing is that they’re pretty prone to allowing high-quality chances off the forecheck or cycle, which is a problem against better offensive teams in the playoffs.
There’s a good chance Mattias Ekholm plays tonight. During practice on Friday, the Oilers reunited the pairings of Ekholm/Bouchard and Nurse/Ceci. I partially think this is the correct move.
Here’s how Ekholm-Bouchard and Nurse-Ceci rank by my chemistry tool model:
Ekholm and Bouchard complement each other exceptionally well. Last season, the duo was exceptional in the minutes they played together, posting a fantastic 77 percent goal differential and 61 percent expected goal differential. 
The issue was the Nurse pairing, as the duo of Nurse and Ceci were out-scored 46 to 48 in the regular-season, and 6 to 8 in the playoffs. It’s a problem when a pairing that makes the same amount of money as Connor McDavid consistently gets out-scored by the opposition. 
While there were reports Ceci played through an injury in 2022-23, even a healthy Ceci does not compensate for Nurse’s weaknesses, as Ceci has been a subpar breakout passer and an even worse entry defender throughout his NHL career. 
I don’t mind giving a healthy Ceci another opportunity with Nurse. Ceci did thrive alongside Nurse in the second half of 2021-22 (although that seems like a major outlier in his career), so perhaps that duo’s results see improvement to some degree in 2023-24. Still, I don’t believe they’re an adequate top-four defensive pairing on a true cup contender.
If Ceci continues to struggle at 2RD, I would consider giving Nurse and Kulak a chance together. Kulak did have some experience at RD in Montreal. Here’s the potential fit of a Nurse-Kulak duo:
I think it’s a good idea to at least temporarily reunite Ekholm/Bouchard to spark the team with an elite pairing. It’s what briefly worked for them last season; they had an 18-2-1 record with that pairing in the regular-season. As for the Nurse pair, it could be best to pair Nurse and Kulak for a couple of games, just to obtain a decent sample of how well they could perform alongside one another. 
If that pair doesn’t work, the Oilers could try Broberg and Ekholm as a second pairing, which would cause them to reunite Nurse and Bouchard. This option does have some downsides as mentioned previously, but it could be their best bet for two well-rounded pairings with the current roster.
If that alternative is also unsuccessful, expect a trade for a top-four RD at the deadline.

What about the goaltending?

On the other hand, the Oilers don’t really have a ton of options in regards to their goaltending.
With Connor Hellebuyck signing a seven-year contract extension with the Winnipeg Jets, it doesn’t seem that there’s a plethora of realistic and available goaltending options at the trade deadline, at the moment. John Gibson is a very risky option and hard to fit into the roster, and I’m not sure how realistic Juuse Saros is. Perhaps Boston could be willing to move one of their goalies, but Linus Ullmark is on a $5M contract with a modified no-trade clause, and Boston also has little cap space remaining (~$521K), making that trade difficult to pull off. Not to mention, pursuing a goalie at this point makes it unlikely the Oilers acquire another defenceman, which is a genuine hole.
Simply put, both Stuart Skinner and Jack Campbell will need to step up, because Edmonton doesn’t possess many great alternatives.
Some will place the blame on goaltender coach Dustin Schwartz, but I personally disagree. While he struggled in the playoffs, Skinner finished second in Calder voting in 2022-23. He had a strong rookie campaign, saving 18 goals above expected in 50 games, and achieved this under Dustin Schwartz. As for Jack Campbell, his struggles didn’t originate in Edmonton; from January through May in the second half of 2021-22 with the Maple Leafs, Campbell posted an awful 0.893 save percentage, allowing 80 goals on 59 expected goals (-21 goals saved above expected). His struggles began even prior to his tenure in Edmonton, so I feel it’s unfair to scapegoat Schwartz for Campbell’s play.
You can never say anything with absolute certainty when it comes to NHL goaltenders, but I expect Skinner to rebound. Again, he is coming off a disappointing playoff performance, but so are the other goalies who played a red-hot Vegas team, which includes two prominent goalies in Connor Hellebuyck and Jake Oettinger who posted save percentages of 0.886 and 0.877 respectively against Vegas. At age 24, I believe Skinner does have the capability to build off a strong rookie season.
I’m more concerned about Campbell, who’s struggled for quite some time. In a tight cap-world where you need every player to play at or above their cap-hits, at a cap-hit of $5M for four more years, Campbell needs to genuinely challenge Skinner for the starter spot.

Additional note: can Evander Kane play well this season?

While the top-six was subpar, I expect them to bounce back. You could swap McDavid and Draisaitl’s wingers, and eventually grant Holloway an opportunity in the top-six in the season, but I don’t think the line combinations need a major tweak for now. Compared to the other concerns on this list, I think they’re the least of their worries.
That said, I do have a particular concern; Evander Kane. In my opinion, he may have been Edmonton’s worst overall forward on opening night.
Kane sustained a scary injury to his left wrist in November of 2022. Ever since his return from that injury, Kane has a 40 percent goal differential and a 50 percent expected goal differential at 5v5, ranking last among all Oilers forwards in both categories. In the playoffs, he had just one goal in twelve games, and there were reports he played with a broken finger on his right wrist. Overall, he has mightily struggled since that injury.
We’ve already known that Kane is a poor passer and quite weak defensively for a while, so poor play-driving numbers are not a surprise, but his major strength is supposed to be his goal-scoring, and two wrist injuries on separate hands to a goal-scorer is quite concerning. Not to mention, Kane has yet to play a full season in his NHL career.
In prior articles, I’ve discussed quite a bit about how McDavid could benefit from a winger who can consistently finish his passes at 5v5, which is the primary justification for playing Kane on McDavid’s wing. If Kane isn’t healthy, and fails to be an effective scorer, he could be a big liability at that $5M cap-hit. This will be something important to keep note of as the season progresses.

Final Thoughts

I certainly wouldn’t panic after just one game. I expect the team to perform significantly better once they start getting adjusted to their new d-zone system, alongside the addition of Ekholm.
I think there’s a very genuine chance the Oilers eventually hoist the Stanley Cup in June, and we look back at this game and laugh. There are a couple of question marks on the roster that must be addressed before the playoffs, but this is a genuinely good team. I would not be overly concerned unless their struggles persist for multiple games.
Edmonton will have a rematch against Vancouver tonight at 8:00 MT. Let’s hope the Oilers rebound and earn their first win of the 2023-24 season.
Find me on Twitter (@NHL_Sid)

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