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Five questions for the Edmonton Oilers as 2023 comes to a close

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Photo credit:© Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports
NHL_Sid
2 months ago
With two days left in the year of 2023, there are two games left for the Edmonton Oilers. Following a 5-0 victory over the San Jose Sharks, the Oilers will finish their six-game road trip with back-to-back games against Los Angeles and Anaheim.
After an abysmal 3-9-1 start to the season, the Oilers are 13-6 under newly hired head coach Kris Knoblauch. Currently, they still sit outside of a playoff spot. The Nashville Predators hold the final wildcard spot, ahead of Edmonton by five points although Edmonton does have three games in hand. 
There is no question that the Oilers are far from where they should be, as they rank 25th in the league. But, they’ve certainly made significant progress in the second half of November and throughout December.
Here are five important questions for Edmonton as the year 2023 comes to an end.
*All microstats via our tracking project (glossary linked here), all other stats via Natural Stat Trick unless mentioned otherwise

Can Connor Brown make an impact in the second half of the season?

Dec 19, 2023; Elmont, New York, USA; Edmonton Oilers right wing Connor Brown (28) skates against the New York Islanders during the first period at UBS Arena. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
With a secondary assist on Evan Bouchard’s goal against San Jose on Thursday night, Connor Brown recorded just his second point as an Edmonton Oiler. Keep in mind, we’re nearly in January.
Overall, Brown has 0 goals and 2 assists in 25 games. He has been on-ice for just four goals at 5v5 while being on-ice for 12 against, equating to a dreadful 25 percent goal differential that ranks last on the team. His last NHL regular-season goal came in March of 2022.
Of course, it must be mentioned that some incredibly poor luck is at play here. Connor Brown’s on-ice shooting percentage is a measly 2.8 percent. Since 2007, there have been 8467 instances where a player has played a minimum of 500 TOI at 5v5, and only eleven finished the season with an oiSH% lower than 2.8%. Note that those seasons occurred in a considerably lower scoring era, and in the past five seasons, no player has an oiSH% lower than 3.37%.
It is not all bad luck, as Brown’s expected goal differential and scoring chance metrics still rank last on the team. There is no denying that he must perform better. But, at some point, there has to be some regression. 
On the bright side, Brown can still skate and move the puck well despite coming off a season-ending ACL injury the prior season. Using our tracking data, Brown ranks fourth on the Oilers in controlled exits per hour, third in zone entries per hour, and first in dump-ins per hour. My observations match with NHL EDGE, whose data has Brown in the 99th percentile among the league’s players in average distance skated per 60. 
However, the issue is that while Brown can move the puck, he doesn’t create much at all after the puck is in the OZ. Despite dumping the puck in at an incredibly high rate, Brown still ranks 7th on the team in dump-in recoveries per 60. A mere 9 percent of Brown’s controlled zone entries has led to a quality scoring chance; for reference, that is lower than every Oilers forward and defenceman with the exception of Cody Ceci, and the team average is 21 percent. 
Brown was Edmonton’s only notable roster addition this past off-season, and so far, it has certainly not been a success. It would be significantly more bearable if not for the fact that a $3.25M bonus kicks in next season and counts towards their cap in 2024-25.
Simply put, Brown must be better. Brown must be an impactful NHL player in the second half of the season and throughout the playoffs.

Who will be Edmonton’s third-line center?

While there were plenty of things to be pleased about during Edmonton’s recent eight-game winning streak, Edmonton’s second line was not one of them. The trio of Kane, Draisaitl, and Brown had a dreadful 41 percent scoring chance differential and scored just one 5v5 goal.
Kris Knoblauch made a mid-game line change during Edmonton’s game against New Jersey on the 21st, shifting Ryan McLeod to Draisaitl’s wing alongside Warren Foegele. So far, that trio has had excellent results in the limited minutes they have played together, out-scoring opponents 5 to 0, alongside a 60 percent expected goal differential. Plenty of evidence suggests this line can be successful in the long term. 
Historically, Foegele has strong results with Draisaitl at 5v5, as Edmonton has out-scored opponents 27 to 21 in the 400 5v5 minutes they have played together since 2021-22, while they own an excellent 56 percent expected goal differential. Draisaitl also seems to be a strong stylistic fit with McLeod, as Draisaitl works well with speed on his wing and additionally benefits from McLeod’s defensive game. 
However, this creates a hole in the bottom six. Who will be Edmonton’s third-line center?
Currently, Derek Ryan is in that role, centering a line with Mattias Janmark and Evander Kane. Ryan is a useful bottom-six player, but I doubt he can fill the 3C role effectively in the long run. In the past two seasons, he has spent significant time on the wing, where he has generated his best results.
James Hamblin has played fine as an NHL 4C, but he’s not a 3C right now.
It would be interesting to try Dylan Holloway in that role. It is doubtful if this option can be successful, as Holloway last played at center in the NCAA and hardly has any experience at C at the professional level. But, before spending assets on a trade for a 3C, Edmonton should at least give this option a shot and see if it could work.
Edmonton’s forward core could still use at least one more piece, so seeing what Ken Holland will do will be fascinating. Will Edmonton target a top-six winger for Draisaitl and bump McLeod back down to 3C? Or, will McLeod stay on Draisaitl’s wing for the long run, while Edmonton trades for a 3C?

Will Philip Broberg remain in the organization after the trade deadline?

At the moment, Philip Broberg is playing top-pairing minutes in the AHL with the Bakersfield Condors in his DY+5 year.
Mattias Ekholm, Darnell Nurse, and Brett Kulak are the team’s top three defencemen on the left side. As a left-handed defenceman, there is hardly any opportunity for Broberg to play on his natural side. Broberg does not have great experience on his off-side either.
I like Broberg, and I think he has a fine chance of developing into an NHL top-four defenceman. There are some very encouraging things in his game, most notably his superb skating. But right now, the question is not necessarily what Broberg’s potential is, or how good he can be, in general. The big question we should be asking is how good he can be on Edmonton’s roster. Broberg simply may not have the opportunity to reach his full potential in Edmonton.
Would keeping Broberg benefit Edmonton more than it would to use his trade value at the trade deadline to address an actual area of need? It is a question that management must ask.

Who will be Stuart Skinner’s partner for the rest of the season?

The goaltending is arguably the team’s most significant question mark on the roster.
Currently, Stuart Skinner has played in 24 of Edmonton’s 32 games. Over a full 82-game season, that projects to around ~61-62 games. The only goaltenders who have played over 60 games in each of the prior two seasons are Juuse Saros and Connor Hellebuyck.
After a horrid start, Skinner’s recent play has been considerably better as of late, but is he a bonafide NHL starting goalie, especially for a team with cup aspirations? I have my doubts. While Skinner did have a strong rookie season, according to CSA Hockey, a model with much more detailed data than publicly available goaltending models, Skinner’s 2022-23 seasons were above-average, but nothing exceptional. This year, his overall results have been far below expected.
Regardless of what you think of Skinner, he needs support. Calvin Pickard has not been awful in the limited minutes he has played, but he is a 31-year-old goalie with just 17 NHL games played since 2019-20; it is far from a guarantee that he is an NHL net-minder.
Currently, the Oilers have three options with their goaltending situation. 
The first is to simply stick with the status quo. The Oilers do own a 14-7 record with the Skinner/Pickard tandem, and it is not entirely unreasonable to expect Skinner and Pickard to provide around league-average goaltending, which is all Edmonton may need. However, a team with cup aspirations can aim much higher.
Bakersfield goaltender Olivier Rodrigue (33) skates away from the net to stay loose during a break in play in the third period of their game at Acrisure Arena in Palm Desert, Calif., Saturday, Dec. 16, 2023.
The second option is to recall Oliver Rodrigue from Bakersfield, a 23-year-old goaltender drafted by Edmonton in the second round of the 2018 NHL Draft. Currently, Rodrigue has beat out Jack Campbell for the starter’s role in Bakersfield, as he ranks first among all AHL goaltenders in save percentage, sitting at an excellent 0.932 SV%. 
Rodrigue is young, waiver-exempt, and has even better numbers than Skinner prior to his initial recall to the NHL. In my mind, it is definitely worth a shot to give Rodrigue an opportunity and see what he can potentially provide at the NHL level.
Finally, the third option is to trade for a goaltender. If neither Pickard nor Rodrigue can be reliable NHL goaltenders, Edmonton will be forced to select this option. A trade will be difficult to execute with Jack Campbell’s contract, but this is a mess that Ken Holland has created himself, and it is up to him to fix that mess.
The Oilers have multiple holes, but I would argue that goaltending is the most significant one.

Does the organization still have a “cup or bust” mentality?

Heading into the season, it was evident that fans, players, and the team in general were beginning to embrace a “cup or bust” mentality. Following their disastrous start to the season, many were left wondering if the team would even make the playoffs in the first place.
However, their current record should not change their objective. This remains an extremely important year for this organization, and the goal must be nothing but the Stanley Cup.
In about one-and-a-half years from now, Leon Draisaitl and Evan Bouchard’s current contracts will expire. Bouchard currently has 34 points in 32 games, and after another full season on Edmonton’s top power-play unit, his asking price will be sky-high. Additionally, Hyman, RNH, Nurse, Ekholm, and Kane will be 33, 32, 30, 35, and 34 respectively, while they make a combined cap-hit of $31M. Not to mention, Edmonton’s prospect pool is quite shallow.
In other words, Edmonton’s ideal window to win a cup is during these next two years. It will be difficult for their roster in two years to be better than what it is now.
The salary cap ceiling in 2024-25 is on track to rise by around $4.2M next season, but a large chunk of that increase will be negated by Connor Brown’s bonus. As a result, I would argue that the urgency to win this year should be even higher.
As mentioned earlier, I believe a goaltender is their greatest priority, while they also need a top-four RD partner for Nurse, and a top-nine forward. All picks and prospects must be on the table for potential deals.
While Edmonton did have an awful start to the season, squeaking into the playoffs with prime McDavid and Draisaitl is simply not enough, and they must aim much higher. There are a couple of holes on this roster, but make no mistake, this team has genuine potential to be bonafide cup contenders.
Management should be quite aggressive at the trade deadline to pursue upgrades for those holes.
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