Ten Oilers Questions That Are Hard To Answer

Photo credit:Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Jason Gregor
3 years ago
  1. The 2021 NHL season will be unique and different to any previous NHL season. There will be four new temporary divisions, the schedule will include multiple games in one city on the same road trip and the rosters, either expanded, taxi-squad, or both, will be larger.
And of course the risk of COVID postponing games will be a major challenge. The NHL and NHLPA are still trying to iron out the exact details, and whatever they finally decide on will be lead to an unprecedented NHL season. While we wait for those details to be finalized, here are 10 questions pertaining to the Edmonton Oilers.
1. Who will be the other left winger in the top-six?
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is a lock to play left wing with either Connor McDavid or Leon Draisailt. He likely will play with both at some point this season, but who else plays there is a mystery. Tyler Ennis, Dominik Kahun and James Neal are the leading candidates. If RNH plays with McDavid to start, does Dave Tippett want Ennis and Kailer Yamamoto on the same line? Both are listed between 150-160  pounds. Both are skilled, with great hockey sense, but are they better apart than together?
Neal played 703 minutes at 5×5 last season. He played 42% (295 min) with Nugent-Hopkins, 32% with McDavid (225 min) and 9% with Draisaitl (65min). His 5×5 production wasn’t where he or the Oilers wanted it to be. He battled through a toe and ankle injury, which was a factor in his struggles, but in the playoffs he played mainly with Jujhar Khaira and Alex Chiasson and they were quite effective. Neal plays a much different style of game than Kahun or Ennis. He isn’t as fast as either of them, but offers more skilled size.
This is Kahun’s first season in Edmonton. Last year in Pittsburgh he played 596 min at 5×5 and over 50% was with Jared McCann. He played 125 minutes with Evgeni Malkin. He had no goals with Malkin, but had four assists, while he scored 6-8-14 with McCann. Then he was traded to Buffalo and in six games he played 59 of his 65 minutes at 5×5 with Marcus Johansson with Jimmy Vesey and Victor Olofsson, splitting the other wing position at a 65-35% ratio.
The previous season in Chicago he played the most (38%) with Alex Debrincat and Jonathon Toews. Kahun has high hockey IQ and is talented. Is he consistent enough to play in the top six against top players? In Chicago he played 39% of his 5×5 time against elite players, but last season he played the fewest minutes against elite, likely due to his linemates and not being in the top-six.
I don’t see a clear favourite to be the second left winger in the top-six. It very well could be all three at various times. Dave Tippett knows Ennis and Neal the most, and in a short training camp with no preseason games, that familiarity could give them the inside track to start in the top six.
2. Can Jesse Puljujarvi kill penalties?
To stay in the flow of the game every player needs to be on either the powerplay of the penalty kill. The Oilers first unit PP is set, and while Puljujarvi could be on the second PP unit, they won’t play very much. So will he get a look on the PK? He did play on the PK a bit in Finland this year, but with no preseason games, the young Finn will need to show the coaches during practices and scrimmages he can be trusted on the PK. Most players need playing time to succeed, and Puljujarvi will be no different. I suspect he starts the season on the third line with Kyle Turris, but he could move up or down depending on his play. Another question could easily be: how many points will he produce?
3. Who will be the fourth line centre?
Jujhar Khaira or Gaetan Haas. Among the 94 NHL forwards who played at least 100 minutes on the PK last season, Khaira had the best GA/60 at 2.39. He was only on the ice for four goals against, which was the fewest among NHL forwards with 100+ PK minutes. Cedric Paquette was on for five, while RNH and Sebastien Aho were on for seven. RNH was on for three more goals in 12 more minutes. With Riley Sheahan gone, I have to think Tippett starts Khaira because of his PK prowess. Special teams will be massively important early in the season, and due to the Oilers struggles at allowing goals at 5×5, my guess is Khaira starts the season as the fourth line centre, or fourth line LW due to his PK skills.
4. Do the Oilers have too much of the same?
I think it is accurate to say Ken Holland upgraded the Oilers skill level at forward. Ennis, Kahun, Yamamoto and Kyle Turris were not here at the start of last season. They all possess very good NHL skill. However, they are also all smaller players. Add in Gaetan Haas and Joakim Nygard and those are six smaller skilled players. Josh Archibald isn’t big, but he plays an aggressive style. In the regular season I don’t think it will be an issue, but in the playoffs, I think Tippett will need to mix in some skilled size to complement the smaller skilled players.
5. Who plays with Tyson Barrie?
Ethan Bear and Darnell Nurse played almost exclusively with one another once Adam Larsson was injured on opening night. Is it a guarantee they play this season together, or will Jim Playfair mix up his D pairs as the season progresses? So who plays with Barrie? He plays a lot 5×5. In the previous three NHL seasons, at 5×5, he has played the 35th most minutes among NHL D-men. He was 34th in total minutes played. Nurse played the second most at 5×5 and eighth most overall. He can handle a similar workload, but with no preseason will Playfair switch up the one pairing that played so much last season?
If he keeps Nurse/Bear together, then one of Caleb Jones or Kris Russell plays with Barrie. Jones is likely more suited to play more minutes, and Playfair could play Russell with Adam Larsson in a pure defensive role. However, today’s NHL is about puck movement, and I don’t think you want Larsson and Russell in the same pairing regularly. So Russell starts with Barrie and Jones with Larsson, or maybe Playfair plays Nurse and Barrie as he top pairing unit, and plays Russell with Bear?
The D pairing options are very intriguing to me.
6. Who is the other top-six right winger?
Yamamoto will play with Draisaitl. They like playing together and Tippett likes them as a duo, but just like on the left wing, the other RW spot is up for grabs. Zack Kassian likely has the inside track as he’s played there for much of the past year season and a half. Kassian adds size and speed to the top-six and his 27 goals at 5×5 the past two seasons have him tied for 77th with the likes of Blake Wheeler, Matt Barzal, Evgeni Malkin, JT Miller, Tomas Hertl, Filip Forsberg, Eric Staal, Patrice Bergeron, Evgeni Dadonov, Logan Couture and Gabriel Landeskog.
They all have more points than him and are more more offensive-minded players, but my point is Kassian has been quite productive when given the chance to play with McDavid. He skates well, he is physical and he will stand up for McDavid at the drop of a hat. Archibald took his spot at times last season, and in the playoffs, when Kassian wasn’t as involved as you’d like, so maybe we see a rotation again this season between those two. Or maybe Puljujarvi plays his way into the top six? If Kassian can chip in offensively like he has, and be consistent he’d be my choice to play with McDavid to start.
7. How many games will Adam Larsson play?
When healthy, Larsson is a very valuable asset for the Oilers. He is their best defensive defender and is very good at stopping the cycle and retrieving pucks from the opposition. And he does it while playing against top players. Larsson, like many Oilers, didn’t have a great playoffs, but it is important to remember how well he played after returning from his opening-night injury.
Darcy McLeod (Woodguy) posted this on twitter yesterday. This chart is from January 1st to the end of the regular season.
Larsson played top-four minutes and outscored the opposition 25-20. Only Jones (21-13) was better. (They could make a very solid pair to start the season). Larsson isn’t flashy, but when healthy he is very effective. I see his back injuries as more of a factor when it comes to determining his next contract, than I do his ability to play sound defence this year. If Larsson can play the majority of this season, the Oilers chances of winning increase, especially if his back issues don’t flare up.
8. Can the Oilers play better against Toronto?
The Maple Leafs have dominated the Oilers the past three seasons with a 5-1 record and outscoring the Oilers 24-15. Edmonton will face the Leafs nine times in a 56-game season and eight times in a 48-game campaign. Edmonton will need to play better against the Buds, especially at 5×5. Toronto outscored them 16-9 at 5×5 over the past three seasons. It wasn’t their top guys who feasted on the Oilers, as William Nylander led them with seven points, but they got production all through the lineup. Edmonton will need to be more committed defensively against the Leafs and play faster. In a short season, with so many games against the same opponents, Edmonton can’t afford to get dominated by one club.
9. Who will play more in goal?
Mike Smith started 37 games last year while Mikko Koskinen started 34. Add in the three playoff starts for Koskinen and one for Smith and it was 38-37 in favour of Smith. It was as close to an even split as you could get. Koskinen had a better Sv%, GAA% and 5×5 Sv%, but Smith won more games. Some will argue wins aren’t as important, but for coaches they are. With the potential of more back-to-back games and three games in four nights, both goalies will play and the Oilers will need both to play well. But one will play more, but who?
I’m leaning towards Koskinen based on his stats from last year and his age, but Smith is highly competitive and he feels he has something to prove. He moved to Kelowna in the off-season to work with a new trainer (Adam Francilia), to improve his core movement and hopefully reduce the plays where he ends up sprawled out on his stomach. He is coming to camp to compete for the starter’s job. You want competition, and while my head says Koskinen will be the starter, I’m very curious to see how the new off-season training regime impacts Smith’s game.
10. Who will be the surprise performer?
Last year Ethan Bear was a pleasant surprise for the Oilers. No one in the organization, in the media or fanbase expected he would play 21 minutes a night. He took advantage of an opportunity when Larsson was injured and Bear flourished. It is difficult to predict surprise players, since if we are expecting it, then technically it isn’t a surprise. I see one player capable of playing a larger role than most expect.
Caleb Jones. I really like his overall game. I believe he is going to benefit a lot from watching how Barrie joins the rush. Jones is an excellent skater, and he has the ability to not only get up in the rush, but to make plays when he does. Being able to watch Barrie, who is one of the best D-men in the NHL in activating into the rush, will be a big benefit for all the Oilers defenders, but especially Jones and Bear. With Oscar Klefbom likely out for the season, Jones has a similar opportunity to what Bear had last season. Jones won’t have to replace Klefbom on the PP, but he will have a chance to take a big bite out of his EV and PK minutes.
Share your answers below.


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