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Five questions surrounding the Edmonton Oilers as 2022 comes to a close

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Photo credit:Jamie Sabau-USA TODAY Sports
NHL_Sid
26 days ago
It’s New Year’s Eve, and the Edmonton Oilers will play their final game of 2022 against the Winnipeg Jets tonight.
It’s been a fairly eventful year for the Oilers, with various ups and downs. After disappointing play in the first half of 2021-22, Dave Tippett and Jim Playfair were replaced by Jay Woodcroft and Dave Manson in February.
This year, the Oilers reached the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 2006 after defeating Los Angeles and Calgary in the first and second rounds respectively but were swept by the eventual cup-winning Colorado Avalanche.
Edmonton didn’t make any many changes to their forwards in the offseason apart from the Zack Kassian trade. Aside from the retirement of Duncan Keith, their defence mostly remained the same. However, after running three straight years with a tandem of Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen, the Oilers did make a significant goaltending change by replacing them with 2022 UFA Jack Campbell and Stuart Skinner.
This season, the Oilers currently hold a 20-15-2 record, placing 3rd in the Pacific Division at the end of this year. There are several things to be pleased about, but also various concerns.
As we enter into the year 2023, here are some major question marks that surround this Oilers team.
*All stats via EvolvingHockey and Natural Stat Trick unless stated otherwise

Can Jack Campbell positively regress and lighten the workload on Skinner?

In the calendar year of 2022, a total of 40 goalies played over 1500 TOI. Jack Campbell ranked second last in save percentage (0.893) and second last in goals saved above expected (-33.4 goals allowed more than expected).
It’s safe to say that it’s been a rough year for Campbell, and hopefully, he can put it behind him because the team needs him to.
In spite of some leaky defence, Stuart Skinner ranks 8th among all goaltenders in goals saved above expected (14.2 GSAx). He stole the win for the Oilers against Calgary on December 27, a game where they allowed a whopping 92 shot attempts (80 at 5v5)
Skinner has been nothing short of exceptional this season, and in my opinion, he’s been Edmonton’s third most valuable Oiler, at worst. If you replaced Skinner with a league-average goalie, the Oilers would be significantly lower in the standings than they currently are. So far, he’s undoubtedly exceeded expectations, unlike Campbell.
However, Skinner has started 13 of Edmonton’s last 16 games. It was reported that Skinner had faced some fatigue preceding the Christmas break. For Skinner’s success to continue over the long term, Edmonton can’t overwork him, so Campbell needs to start performing well and start taking the load off of Skinner.
I’ve said this several times in prior articles, but Campbell’s SV% is unlikely to sustain for the remainder of the season. Not a single Oilers goaltender in the Decade of Darkness has posted a lower SV% than Campbell’s current 0.878, not even 2014-15 Ben Scrivens or Viktor Fasth. I highly doubt this will continue, and it’s reasonable to expect that Campbell will eventually regress positively.
Moving forward, Campbell needs to take advantage of the rest he’s obtained and perform up to his expectations to form a strong tandem with him and Skinner.

How will the Oilers deploy Dylan Holloway moving forward?

Drafted 14th overall in 2020, Dylan Holloway is a promising prospect. However, I have not been a fan of Edmonton’s deployment of him this season.
Holloway has been stuck on the fourth line for the majority of the season, averaging 8:05 TOI per game. This isn’t a suitable role for young players like him. It doesn’t put him in a role to succeed, and with mediocre linemates and limited minutes, it’s more difficult to see what he can offer at the NHL level. So far, his results haven’t been anything special, as he’s produced 4 points in 33 games, alongside a 48% expected goal differential.
In my mind, Holloway should either play consistently in the top-nine, or get sent down to Bakersfield. An opportunity in the NHL top-nine grants places him in a superior role to potentially succeed, as he obtains more minutes, better linemates, and still remains fairly sheltered. With some recent injuries to their forward group, I’d even argue that giving him a couple of games in the top-six could be a nice idea to see what he could offer.
If he still struggles in the top-nine, sending him down to Bakersfield to play top minutes at 5v5 and on special teams would be a fine idea as well. Both options possess some advantages and disadvantages, but they’re both superior ideas over continuing to deploy him in a limited role on the fourth-line. As we near the second half of the season, we’ll see what Jay Woodcroft will do.

Can the Oilers’ defence limit their mistakes and errors in the defensive zone?

One of the biggest areas of improvement for the Oilers moving forward is being able to effectively and efficiently exit the zone without making costly turnovers or unnecessary icings.
In the past three games against Vancouver, Calgary, and Seattle, Edmonton’s defence has combined for 42 failed zone exits. Nurse has 10, Ceci and Niemeläinen each have 9, Kulak has 7, Bouchard has 5, and Barrie has 2. Only 51% of their successful zone exits under pressure have been with possession (league-average is 56.6%), as the rest of their exits are either zone clears or missed passes. In total, they’ve had 130 total zone exit attempts, and only 45 of them are with possession.
Not to mention, many of their defencemen, notably Nurse and Bouchard, have been prone to costly errors leading to chances or goals against.
This has been a season-long issue for the Oilers. Breakouts with possession and control are an important aspect of the game, as most rush attacks start with a controlled zone exit, and efficiently exiting the zone can result in decreased DZ time.
Moving forward, the team must lessen their errors, and start more efficient breakouts. Puck support from the forwards is crucial in this aspect as well.

What will happen with Jesse Puljujarvi?

For Edmonton to add any players at the deadline, they will need to move cap space. The most realistic trade candidate as an asset going the other way for a potential trade is Jesse Puljujarvi and his $3M cap-hit.
As many know, I’ve been a vocal advocate for Puljujarvi for quite some time. He continues to remain a very polarizing player among the fanbase and media.
Puljujarvi still remains an exceptional defensive forward. His impact on suppressing 5v5 scoring chances ranks atop all Oilers forwards for the third straight season. He ranks second on the team in exit disruptions per 60, and first in DZ breakups. If there’s a hill I’m willing to die on, it’s that Puljujarvi is a valuable forechecker and defensive player.
However, he’s undoubtedly struggled offensively. No matter what way you look at it, 3 goals in 37 games, especially with considerable TOI alongside two elite offensive talents, is simply not acceptable. Unlike prior seasons, Puljujarvi isn’t driving quality scoring chances at an exceptional rate either.
With that said, there is a legitimate possibility that Puljujarvi can bounce back. With an exceptional two-way performance against Seattle last night in which he recorded a goal, he has two 5v5 goals and an assist in his past five games. Certainly not anything spectacular, but one could hope that it’s the start of an encouraging trend.
He will require a major bounce-back offensively in the second half of the season; otherwise, it’s essentially a guarantee that this is his final season as an Oiler. Several weeks back, it was reported that Anaheim, Carolina, and Detroit have looked into him
I still strongly hope that he can find his offensive game in Edmonton, and thrive as a consistent top-six winger alongside McDavid, but it may be close to inevitable that he’ll be moved. Wherever he potentially goes, I hope he thrives on his new team, and I wish nothing but the best for him.

What should Ken Holland do as we get closer to the trade deadline?

The Oilers could use help at several positions.
Their major strength is certainly their center core. A group with McDavid, Draisaitl, Nugent-Hopkins and McLeod provides various options and a ton of flexibility, especially considering that the latter three can effectively play wing. It can be argued that McLeod needs to generate more offence, but he’s fine as a defensively-minded 3C, and it certainly isn’t near the top of the list of Edmonton’s most pressing needs.
The goaltending will remain the same. We’re only in the first year of Campbell’s five-year contract, and he will not be moved.
Most people will point to Edmonton’s defence. An RD core of Ceci, Bouchard, and Barrie is somewhat mediocre, but according to Bob Stauffer on Oilers Now, all of them will remain on the roster this season. If Edmonton acquires a defenceman, it will likely be at LD.
Out of all eight Oilers defencemen that have played this season, Darnell Nurse ranks 7th in DZ Breakups per shot attempt allowed. Brett Kulak ranks 8th. Style-wise, the Oilers could certainly use a top-four LD that can efficiently break up the cycle and defend the front of the net. A player that can effectively play significant minutes could be extremely beneficial, as it reduces the load on Nurse, and could make up for Edmonton’s unexceptional RD core.
The player that matches these criteria for me is Jakob Chychrun. I wrote all about him several weeks back, but Chychrun is an exceptional two-way defenceman. He’s dangerous off the rush and excels at defending in his own zone, ranking high in various proprietary defensive microstats such as puck battle wins and stick checks. Per AllThreeZones, Chychrun would rank first on the team in DZ retrievals per hour, and that would be the first step to improved zone exit success.  
I also wrote about Joel Edmundson, who I don’t think the Oilers should pursue at all. He isn’t as reliable a defender as Chychrun is. Furthermore, Edmundson’s possession zone exit numbers rank near the bottom of the league, and he’s no better at defending zone entries than Nurse. Based on asking price and playing style, he isn’t a great fit.
Some solid alternatives to Chychrun include Cam Fowler, Mattias Ekholm, and Dmitri Orlov. Vladislav Gavrikov could be a decent target as well, although his reported asking price exceeds his actual value.
However, is defence the only area that Edmonton can improve?
I’d strongly argue they require more offensive depth. In the past two seasons, the Oilers have scored 249 goals on 263 expected goals at 5v5, ranking 25th in goals scored above expected; the Oilers don’t finish their chances at a strong rate at all. 
A winger that can finish, preferably at RW, could be quite beneficial. Unfortunately, as of now, there aren’t a ton of scoring wingers available that Edmonton could realistically pursue aside from perhaps Max Domi, who has some concerns with consistency and defensive play. In a perfect world, I’d love Timo Meier, but I’d bet that the chances of realistically acquiring him are close to 0% for Edmonton.
A big, physical, “gritty” winger for the bottom six is not a major need. The Oilers rank 17th in the league in 5v5 goals per hour in spite of possessing elite talents like McDavid and Draisaitl, they’re allowing more goals and chances than they did last season, but they’re throwing more hits per game in comparison to last season. So the solution is to further increase their physicality?
Some tenacity in the bottom-six could be beneficial, but the team needs to prioritize overall defensive improvement and strong finishing before anything else.
One thing for certain is that Holland should be willing to give up value. Edmonton’s prospects should be on the table for the right player, and that should include Philip Broberg.
The objective for Edmonton shouldn’t be the playoffs. The objective shouldn’t be simply a first or second-win either; it should be nothing short of the Stanley Cup, and with players of McDavid and Draisaitl’s caliber, I’d argue that the expectations should be multiple cups.
A reminder that McDavid turns 26 in two weeks, and Draisaitl is currently 27. Draisaitl only has two years left on his current deal after this one. This simply isn’t the time to worry about how good prospects could become in a couple of years, and the objective should be to win in their current window with McDavid and Draisaitl. Players like Broberg and Bourgault have a strong chance of developing into impact NHL players, but they should be on the table in a trade for a valuable player such as Chychrun. The team should be in win-now mode.
Ken Holland has made some solid moves, but he’s built a flawed roster with improvement needed at various positions. Holland must be willing to give up value for the right players to improve the team at the deadline.
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