Four Oilers players that have taken a step forward in 2022-23 so far, and one that needs to improve

Photo credit:Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
1 year ago
The Edmonton Oilers have not had a perfect start by any means, but there have been numerous bright spots for the team so far in 2022-23.
In these first nine games, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are producing at elite levels, as usual. McDavid currently leads the league with nine goals, and has a very legitimate chance at hitting the 50-goal mark, and potentially even winning the Rocket Richard. Meanwhile, Draisaitl leads the league in assists, with 12A in 9 GP.
Of course, it certainly hasn’t been a two-man show, as multiple players beyond their two superstars have performed well. Here’s a look at four Edmonton players who’ve seen considerable improvement in the early stages of the 2022-23 campaign, alongside one player that needs to perform better.
*All stats via EvolvingHockey and Natural Stat Trick unless stated otherwise

Stuart Skinner

Last season, Skinner played 13 games for the Oilers, in which he posted a 91.4% save percentage, and saved roughly a goal above expected. Generally, he was above-average in net, and after posting a shutout against San Jose, he spent the remainder of his season in Bakersfield.
This year, he was projected as the backup goalie behind the newly signed Jack Campbell, but in the games they’ve played thus far, Skinner has been Edmonton’s best goalie. Campbell has somewhat struggled, with an 88.8% save percentage, and has allowed 2.8 goals more than expected to.
On the other hand, Skinner has an excellent 95.5% save percentage, with 128 saves on 134 shots. Skinner has saved a total of 7.7 goals above expected, which is a very impressive mark to achieve in just four games.
“I thought Stuart Skinner was exactly what I expected; confident,” coach Jay Woodcroft said after the team’s victory against Calgary on Saturday night. “I felt good about his ability to come in and help us win the game tonight. He made numerous big saves.”
Of course, he won’t sustain a 95.5 SV% for the entire season, but so far, it’s undeniable that he’s taken a step forward. He’s undoubtedly challenging Campbell for the starting position, and I wouldn’t be shocked at all if he becomes Edmonton’s full-time starter come playoff time.
“He’s given us a sense of calm,” said McDavid regarding Skinner. “He’s just stable in there, and solid, making saves that he should.”

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins

In 2021-22, Nugent-Hopkins was deadly on the power-play as he’s always been, but he wasn’t exceptional at 5v5.
So far, RNH is tied with McDavid for the team lead in 5v5 goals, and he’s seen an improvement in both goal and expected goal differential at 5v5 in comparison to last season. In total, RNH has five goals and twelve points in nine games, and has been one of the team’s top producers thus far.
It’s certainly been a strong start to the season for him, and hopefully, he continues to improve at 5v5 as the season goes on. He’s definitely in a suitable position to do so, as he’s been deployed as the team’s top left-wing alongside McDavid and Hyman in the past couple of games.

Ryan McLeod

In the past decade, the Oilers haven’t found a ton of success when it comes to drafting NHL players in the second round. One player seems to be breaking that trend, and it’s none other than Ryan McLeod.
McLeod played 71 games for the Oilers last season, where he posted strong underlying defensive results and excellent transition results, but he was unexceptional in regards to producing offence.
Thus far, McLeod ranks second among the entire team in expected goal differential. McLeod is also gradually starting to produce more offensively, with 3 goals in 9 games. Furthermore, McLeod is beginning to gain quite a bit of trust from the coaching staff. In spite of playing in the bottom-six, McLeod logged over 18 minutes in their 6-5 victory against Chicago on Thursday.
McLeod’s ceiling doesn’t seem exceedingly high, but he’s quickly emerging into a valuable and versatile two-way forward. It’s a shame that the team couldn’t sign him to a contract with more term.
He’s formed an excellent third line alongside Warren Foegele and Jesse Puljujarvi. The trio has out-shot opposition at a rate of 40 – 24 and out-chanced them at a rate of 21 – 7. Without a doubt, it’s one of the most effective third-lines the team has had in a long time. The strong performance from that line allows Nugent-Hopkins to play LW, opening up numerous possibilities for potential top-six line combinations.

Evan Bouchard

Evan Bouchard’s first full NHL season was in 2021-22, where he portrayed a ton of offensive potential. Bouchard’s isolated impact on generating scoring chances (RAPM xGF/60) ranked 4th among all defencemen; put differently, the team consistently generated high-quality shots and chances whenever Bouchard stepped on-ice. 
I’m not the biggest fan of using point totals for defencemen, but it’s certainly worth mentioning that Bouchard ranked 11th among all defencemen with a total of 31 5v5 points. Since 2007, only four other defencemen under the age of 22 have produced more than 31P at 5v5. 
However, the biggest question for Bouchard heading into this season was if he could improve his defensive play. While the team generated an extremely high amount of chances for with Bouchard, they also allowed a significant amount of chances the other way; Bouchard’s impact on suppressing scoring chances (RAPM xGA) only ranked higher than 6% of the league’s defencemen.
This season, Bouchard hasn’t been perfect by any means, but in general, he has seen considerable improvement. I dislike using goal differential in such limited samples, but Bouchard ranks first among Oilers defencemen in expected goals allowed per hour. He also ranks first among all players in expected goal and shot attempt differential, with a 61 xGF% and 59 CF%; in simpler terms, the Oilers are consistently tilting the ice with Bouchard at both ends.
Again, Bouchard hasn’t been flawless, and he still makes noticeable errors in the DZ from time to time. However, the simple fact is that the team is performing considerably better defensively with Bouchard on-ice as opposed to without him, and it’s an encouraging trend to note. 
To my eye, he seems much more active in the defensive zone, making entry denials and breaking up passes at a higher and more consistent rate. His major area for improvement is overall DZ coverage and making fewer errors, but he has taken steps forward this season in regards to his two-way performance.

The player that needs to improve; Tyson Barrie

Tyson Barrie is struggling quite a bit defensively, and this certainly isn’t something new for him.
On Saturday night against Calgary, Barrie was on-ice for 30 shot attempts and 12 scoring chances against in just 16 minutes at 5v5; note that this doesn’t include the two short-handed breakaways he was also on-ice for. No Oilers defenceman has been on-ice for more scoring chances than Barrie this season.
The major issue with Edmonton’s defensive core is finding a partner for Barrie. He formed a reliable third-pairing with Brett Kulak last season, but due to Edmonton’s current defensive depth, Kulak has to be the 2LD. This forces Barrie to either play in a top-four role, something he clearly can’t handle without hampering the team defensively, or it causes him to play on the third-pair with one of Murray or Niemelainen.
In the time they’ve played together, Barrie and Niemelainen have posted poor results, and Murray is quite awful at defending the rush as well, meaning Murray – Barrie would likely be a poor stylistic pairing. Consequently, Barrie is simply a poor fit on this roster.
At this stage of his career, he’s a superfluous PP specialist. A team with McDavid, Draisaitl, and RNH will always contain a dangerous power-play; they held the best PP in the league the season before signing Barrie. With a player like Bouchard on the team, he’s simply redundant, and doesn’t provide nearly enough value for his expensive $4.5M cap-hit. The most obvious player to move to create cap-space in my mind is Barrie, not Puljujarvi or Foegele.
At age 31, it’s essentially impossible that Barrie improves defensively, but the expectation for him should be at least to play somewhat decent on the third-pair.
The Oilers are on an encouraging four-game win-streak thanks to their offence and Skinner’s goaltending, but defence still remains the primary area for improvement, as the Oilers rank 26th in the league in xGA/60. Simply put, either Barrie needs to improve his play and handle a third-pairing role, or Edmonton needs to find an upgrade if they want to desire to improve defensively.
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