Five potential ways the Edmonton Oilers could improve 

Photo credit:© Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports
11 months ago
As the first two months of the NHL season have passed, the Edmonton Oilers possess a 13-11-0 record, ranking 4th in the Pacific Division, and placing in the first wild card spot in the Western Conference.
There are certainly some bright spots, but there’s a lot of room to improve, as Edmonton ranks 25th in the NHL in 5v5 goal differential.
Without further ado, here’s a list of five potential ways how the Oilers could improve this season.
*All stats via EvolvingHockey and Natural Stat Trick unless stated otherwise

Split up the top-pairing of Darnell Nurse and Cody Ceci

One of the major reasons for Edmonton’s poor defensive play is the struggles and inconsistency of the top pair.
With Nurse and Ceci on-ice at 5v5 this season, Edmonton has been outshot 143-160, and hold a 47 xGF%. They’re even worse as of recently, with a 44% shot share, and 45% expected goal share in their last fifteen games.
After the coaching chance last season, Ceci excelled at 1RD, but as I’ve mentioned previously, he just isn’t capable at consistently playing on a top pair. On a true contending team, Ceci is more suited to play 3RD or 2RD with a solid partner.
Of course, Nurse’s struggles are arguably an even larger reason for the top pairing’s struggles. Last season, he took steps forward defensively, with a huge improvement in his entry defence metrics, but they’ve collapsed yet again, as he ranks second last on the team in zone denial%. He’s also making more errors in the defensive zone. This level of play is a big concern, especially considering that this is just the first season of Nurse’s eight-year contract, where he makes more than Draisaitl.
I would love to suggest limiting Nurse’s minutes for the time being, but Edmonton doesn’t have anyone to really replace him. Consequently, I firmly believe the best available option is to deploy Evan Bouchard on the top pairing.
Edmonton has tried both Nurse – Barrie and Nurse – Ceci and the team has struggled defensively either way. The team doesn’t have a lot left to lose by at least trying Bouchard on the top pair.
I wrote all about Bouchard last week, and why his struggles have been exaggerated by the fact that he’s faced abysmal puck luck. Bouchard is slowly starting to regress positively, with 3 goals and 5 points in the past four games (his on-ice save percentage was gradually beginning to improve as well, before Campbell’s poor performance against Minnesota).
Last season, Nurse – Bouchard posted an excellent 58% shot attempt share, and 58% expected goal share. In the time they’ve played together, they’ve dominated scoring chances and possession. 
Of course, there are some defensive concerns with this duo, but it’s Edmonton’s best current option, and considering Edmonton’s mediocre 5v5 offence this season, perhaps they could be a huge boost in that aspect. Again, there isn’t much to lose at this point.

Simply wait for (eventual) positive regression from Jack Campbell

Dec 1, 2022; Saint Paul, Minnesota, USA; Edmonton Oilers goaltender Jack Campbell (36) makes a save during the first period against the Minnesota Wild at Xcel Energy Center. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports
It should be indisputable that Jack Campbell has struggled this season. With a 0.872 SV%, and ranking 2nd last in the league in goals saved above expected, he hasn’t played anywhere near his expectations. Since January 1st, he ranks dead last among all goaltenders in save percentage and GSAx.
Of course, the defence in front of him has been awful, but metrics such as GSAx already adjust for team defence, and based on the quality of the shots he’s faced, Campbell has allowed roughly 11–12 more than expected to in just 13 games. Furthermore, Skinner has faced a similar workload, yet has posted considerably better results.
With all of that said, it’s quite likely that he will positively regress soon.
Currently, Campbell is on pace for the worst GSAx in the past 15 years, and even his harshest critics will agree that he isn’t that bad. Historically, he’s always been a streaky goalie, with stretches of both awful and spectacular play.
For instance, in the first three months of 2021-22, Campbell ranked 2nd in the league in GSAx and SV%, saving roughly 13-14 goals more than expected with a 0.936 save percentage. 
Is it a probable possibility that he’ll repeat a stretch of games at this level of performance again? Probably not, but it does back up my point that he has a history of being inconsistent with stretches of both excellent and poor play. At some point, I think Campbell will have a stretch of genuinely solid performance.
For now, I’d still start Skinner for the majority of Edmonton’s upcoming games, but barring injuries, it’s very unlikely that Campbell finishes the season with an SV% lower than any Oilers goaltender in the Decade of Darkness. Eventually, he will rebound.
Of course, signing an inconsistent goaltender with no proven history of being an NHL starter, to a $5M deal for five years was never a wise decision in the first place by Ken Holland. That deal could look even worse in its later years, and I believe there were better goaltending options available in the offseason, such as Darcy Kuemper and Ville Husso (who I advocated for before he was dealt to Detroit). In the offseason, I had mentioned several times I was not a fan of Campbell at all.
However, at the current moment, there’s no better decision than to simply wait for positive regression to occur. I sincerely hope it happens soon.

Reduce Devin Shore’s role in the lineup, and give Tyler Benson, Klim Kostin, and Dylan Holloway a greater chance

The team’s 5v5 scoring rate without McDavid and Draisaitl (1.59 goals per 60) is close to the lowest it has ever been in the McDavid/Draisaitl era. They had a great game against the Rangers last week, but aside from that, they’ve struggled. Something has to change.
With three of Edmonton’s top-nine forwards injured (Kane, Yamamoto, McLeod), their options with forward line combinations are evidently limited. However, I feel that Edmonton should use this to grant an opportunity to their younger, skilled, forwards, like Dylan Holloway, Klim Kostin, and Tyler Benson. Play them higher in the lineup, and give them more minutes.
Since November, Devin Shore ranks last among forwards in shot share and expected goal share. Derek Ryan ranks 3rd last in both categories. They’ve both struggled and have consistently played the majority of their time in the DZ, and they haven’t generated much offence at all.
If the team doesn’t want to send Holloway down to Bakersfield, at least granting him an opportunity with the top nine would be much more preferable over playing him for less than 9 minutes per game. I’ve also liked what I’ve seen with Kostin, who currently remains the only bottom-six player to rank above average in both goal and expected goal differential. Furthermore, Benson had a strong performance in the preseason prior to his injury; he could start on the fourth line, but I would argue the Oilers are better off with him in the lineup as opposed to Shore.
At the least, I don’t see what Edmonton has to lose by trying something different with their bottom six. 

Fix the penalty-kill

What happens at 5v5 isn’t the only area of concern for Edmonton, the penalty kill must be better as well, as the team ranks 29th in the league in shorthanded goals allowed per 60.
The two players that have performed the best at preventing 4v5 scoring chances have been Kulak and Bouchard, but the defencemen with the most PK TOI are Nurse and Ceci. Perhaps limiting their overall TOI could benefit their 5v5 performance. The first step towards both a better PK and improved play for Nurse/Ceci could be to deploy Kulak and Bouchard more frequently on the PK.
I would also reduce Draisaitl’s minutes. He ranks last among Edmonton forwards in on-ice 4v5 goals and chances against; only two forwards in the league have been on-ice for 4v5 xGA at a higher rate than him. Hyman has been an ineffective PKer as well, ranking last in on-ice 4v5 shots per 60. Hyman has been splendid offensively this year, but his defensive game needs work.
Injuries certainly play a role, as Ryan McLeod is one of Edmonton’s best PKers and is currently out of the lineup, but the PK has struggled for the entire year.
One concern is that Woodcroft has never had a strong PK system, even in Bakersfield. Part of their struggles can be linked to overall player deployment, but they can be related to systematic issues as well.
Just from my eye, they seem to be overly passive. I feel they’ve really struggled at limiting those cross-seam/royal-road passes.

Even when healthy, the roster remains unbalanced, and the team needs to be willing to sell value to upgrade at the deadline

Injuries have undoubtedly played a role in Edmonton’s struggles, but even when healthy, the roster is flawed. The team still doesn’t have enough finishing talent, and their defensive core is quite poor.
There’s been talk that Edmonton is pursuing a gritty, rugged, physical forward with an edge, but in my opinion, there just isn’t much reason to. 
The Oilers have actually increased their physicality this season. They had roughly 25.8 5v5 hits per game last season, but they’re at 29.1 hits per game this season. 
Edmonton’s 5v5 goals per 60 have significantly declined (9th place in 2021-22, 23rd in 2022-23), their goals against per 60 have risen (19th place in 2021-22, 26th in 2022-23), but they’ve had more hits per game, and their solution is to further increase their physicality?
Sure, a bottom-six forward with some aggressive forechecking and tenacity would be beneficial, but what the team truly lacks is strong finishing and defensive play. 
In my opinion, the Oilers have two main, good options; replace Barrie with a top-four RD, or acquire a high-end offensive winger.
With the first option, they could considerably improve the team’s defensive play. A defensively-inclined RD that can reliably perform against elite competition could make a significant difference. 
This RD could play with Nurse, which could be beneficial for Nurse in regards to defensive play. Additionally, Barrie and Bouchard on the same defensive core are quite redundant, and the team will improve defensively with Barrie dealt.
Furthermore, it pushes Ceci down the lineup. Again, he isn’t a capable 1RD, but he’s perfectly fine as a 3RD. Playing on the third pair with Philip Broberg could be very beneficial towards Broberg’s development.
There’s a lot of upside with this option, and it pushes them closer towards overall balance.
On the other hand, with the second option, the objective would be to build an “all-offence” team. Target a high-end offensive forward, such as Patrick Kane or Timo Meier. You could perhaps argue that one defenceman alone isn’t enough to fix Edmonton’s defensive struggles, and they won’t be able to add multiple defencemen at the deadline due to their tight cap situation. 
Consequently, some may argue that the best option is to improve their offence, try to outscore their issues as much as they can, and make them the most dangerous offensive squad in the league. 
I personally lean towards Option A, but both have their pros and cons, and they’re much better options over wasting assets and cap space over more physicality.
Either way, Edmonton has to be willing to give up value. The first-round pick and all prospects should be on the table, and with three years left (including this one) until the expiration of Leon Draisaitl’s contract, the objective should be to win now.
I believe a healthy Oilers team is better than their current record shows, but even with their injuries, there are decisions to be made that can improve this team, and a fully healthy roster still remains unbalanced.
Find me on Twitter (@NHL_Sid)

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