The biggest question marks for the Edmonton Oilers before opening night

Photo credit:© Walter Tychnowicz-USA TODAY Sports
1 year ago
With a win against Seattle last night, the preseason is over for the Edmonton Oilers, and opening night for the 2022-23 regular season is just four days away.
Edmonton is expected to use a roster with 21 players for opening night, as they’re exceedingly tight to the cap. Multiple players have been placed on waivers as a result, such as Dmitri Samorukov and Mattias Janmark. More players will be placed on waivers / sent down to Bakersfield in the coming days.
With an appearance in the Western Conference Finals last season, the Oilers are expected to contend for the cup this year. However, there are some question marks and uncertainties heading into 2022-23 that must be answered.

How will Edmonton’s forward core look?

With Dylan Holloway having an excellent preseason performance, he will begin the season in the top nine, and there’s a very solid possibility that he starts in the top-six.
My preferred top-nine would look something like this:
  1. Kane – McDavid – Puljujarvi
  2. Holloway – Draisaitl – Hyman
  3. RNH – McLeod – Yamamoto
Last season, Kane – McDavid – Puljujarvi out-scored opponents at a rate of 10 – 1 at 5v5, alongside a superb 57% expected goal differential
Kane is a lock to start the season at 1LW with McDavid, and Puljujarvi is the best fit for those two. On that line, Kane is the primary shooter and goal-scorer, McDavid is the primary offensive play-driver and playmaker, while Puljujarvi is the complementary piece that helps defend, forecheck, and retrieve pucks for Kane and McDavid. Puljujarvi ranked first on the roster in d-zone puck retrievals per hour and forecheck pressures per hour. 
I don’t see much reason to play Yamamoto higher in the lineup. As I wrote in this article, Puljujarvi produced at a superior PPG pace over Yamamoto in each of the past two seasons, alongside posting significantly better defensive results. 
Largely due to the limited sample, preseason performance is typically an unreliable tool to evaluate players, but I also don’t want to discount Holloway’s strong play. He deserves a shot in the top six, and I’d like to see what he could do over an extended period of time playing with McDavid or Draisaitl. A Holloway – Draisaitl – Hyman line seems like a fine idea.
A trio of RNH – McLeod – Yamamoto is likely one of the best third lines in the league, but you can also swap RNH or McLeod for Holloway on the second line. Swapping Yamamoto for one of the top-six RWs to spread out the lineup is also a viable option, but currently, Puljujarvi and Hyman are the better players.
As for the fourth-line; with Janmark on waivers, Derek Ryan has secured a spot on the NHL roster (the decision to sign Janmark continues to confuse me, as Edmonton could have used that money to sign McLeod to a contract with more term).
Meanwhile, Brad Malone is currently the projected 4C due to Edmonton’s tight cap-situation, as every dollar counts, and playing Shore at 4C means Edmonton would not be cap-compliant. Shore is expected to go on waivers, and James Hamblin will likely go on waivers as well due to Malone’s slightly cheaper contract.
This leaves Warren Foegele at 4LW. Foegele can be an adequate third-liner, but Edmonton has 9 (arguably 10) forwards superior to him. At a pricey cap-hit of $2.75M, moving him remains the most sensible way to clear cap-space.
As stated previously, Edmonton will run be forced to run a roster with 21 players, meaning Edmonton will not carry a 13th forward.

Can the defence perform well?

Last season, Edmonton finished 19th in the league in even-strength goals allowed per hour. In the playoffs, no team allowed more even-strength goals per hour than Edmonton did.
On the bright side, no team in the postseason scored more goals at a superior rate than Edmonton, and this includes both Colorado and Tampa. Offence isn’t an issue, and with the potential emergence of Dylan Holloway, the Oilers shouldn’t have a ton of issues with putting pucks in the net. The primary area for improvement heading into 2022-23 is keeping pucks out of their own net.
Edmonton didn’t add any notable defenceman this off-season. Duncan Keith retired, and Brett Kulak is expected to replace him in the 2LD role. Keith is a superior passer to Kulak, but he was one of the league’s worst rush defenders; he allowed chances off the entry at a rate higher than 99% of the league. Meanwhile, Kulak’s zone denial% and controlled entry against% rank atop the team by a notable margin. With Kulak playing more minutes as 2LD, there will be defensive improvement in that area.
Nurse – Ceci is projected to be the top-pairing. That duo was excellent under Woodcroft last season, playing nearly 50% of their TOI against elite opposition. However, this is likely unsustainable over an entire 82 GP season, so the second pair will need to face heavier deployment. Kulak and Bouchard should be able to handle it. In the past four seasons with Montreal and Edmonton, Kulak’s 5v5 goal differential against elite competition is at a ratio of 51 – 41.
Ceci played exceptionally well on the top-pair under Woodcroft, but can he replicate this performance over an entire season? Will Bouchard improve his play in his own zone? How will Nurse perform in his first season making $9.25M? These questions will play a significant role in regards to if Edmonton will limit their total goals against.

Who will be Edmonton’s 3LD?

To connect with the previous question; who plays 3LD? With Samorukov on waivers, Edmonton’s options include Ryan Murray, Philip Broberg, and Markus Niemelainen.
In a limited sample last season, Niemelainen’s entry defence results were exceptional. He uses his aggressiveness and physicality to deny entries and rush chances against at a solid rate. However, as of now, it’s likely that Niemelainen will be sent down to Bakersfield.
Murray played 3LD against Seattle last night; has he won the 3LD role for opening night? It looks like he might have, but at the very least, he’ll be on the roster. As for Philip Broberg, his preseason performance has been somewhat underwhelming.
So far, Broberg is on a similar trajectory to Oscar Klefbom. After being drafted 19th overall, Klefbom played his first two seasons in Sweden, and rotated between the NHL and AHL in his third season, just like Broberg.
In his fourth season, Klefbom played 60 NHL games primarily as a top-four defenceman, as he averaged 22 TOI per GP.
When it comes to young defencemen, patience is needed, but it’s fair to expect Broberg to do the same; expecting a former 8th overall pick to develop into a solid 2nd-pairing defenceman in their DY+4 season is a very reasonable expectation. In a couple of months, he should be challenging Brett Kulak for the 2LD role, but I’m not entirely sure how probable that is.

Can Jack Campbell stay consistent?

The most significant change the Oilers made this season to their roster was revamping their goaltending tandem. After three straight years of a Smith/Koskinen duo, the Oilers signed Jack Campbell in free agency, with Stuart Skinner backing him up.
To say the least, Campbell’s results have been up and down in the past few seasons.
Campbell was excellent as a backup in 2018-19 for Los Angeles. In 2019-20, his overall results were below-average. He started off strong with Toronto, and played at a Vezina-caliber level in the first half of 2021-22, even making it to the All-Stars.
However, he fell off the face of the earth in the second half of 2021-22, with a 0.893 SV%, and allowed 21 goals more than expected. Some of that performance was due to injury (although he still had substandard results after returning from injury), some of that was simply regression to the mean.
Campbell’s most significant weakness is high-danger shots. In 21-22, his high-danger save-percentage was 0.786, which ranks fifth last among all goaltenders, while his HDSV% in prior seasons ranks 42nd out of 73 goaltenders. He’s a considerable improvement on Smith when it comes to low-danger shots; put differently, Campbell is more reliable at stopping the shots he should. However, his struggles with quality chances are a concern, and Edmonton isn’t spectacular at suppressing high-danger shots.
Overall, Campbell’s GSAx (Goals Saved Above Expected, a stat that places emphasis on shot quality unlike regular SV%) ranks 33rd in the past two seasons among the 65 goalies that faced a minimum of 1000 unblocked shot attempts. That isn’t bad by any sense, but for a projected starter making $5M? It’s reasonable to expect better.
Note that Campbell has yet to play over 50 games in a season, so there’s no guarantee that he can excel as a full-time starter. On the bright side, his preseason performance thus far has been quite good, and so has Stuart Skinner’s. I think Skinner will provide competition for Campbell throughout the season, and may even end up outperforming him.
A lot of us were frequently frustrated with Mike Smith and his wild inconsistency, including myself. With that said, in the past two seasons, Smith finished with a 0.918 SV%, which ranked 6th among all goaltenders, while his GSAx (Goals Saved Above Expected) of 15.1 ranked 8th among all goaltenders. 
Smith struggled in the playoffs, he was undeniably inconsistent, he often allowed weak goals, and his general performance was an emotional roller-coaster. However, regardless of what metric you use, his overall regular-season results, in the end, were well above-average. If Edmonton desires to reduce the rate of goals they allow in comparison to prior seasons, their goaltending tandem should at the very least replicate their prior performance, if not improve upon it.
Can Campbell save more goals above expected than Smith did in the past two seasons, and place top 6-8 league-wide in that regard? Goaltending tends to be quite random and unpredictable, so there’s not much certainty of anything.
Only time will tell.

Will the Oilers finish first in the Pacific Division for the first time?

The Oilers have won the Smyth Division six times in their history, but they have never ranked atop the Pacific Division; will this be their year?
Edmonton’s biggest threat in the division is Calgary, who certainly had a very eventful offseason. Calgary’s notable departures include Johnny Gaudreau, Matthew Tkachuk, Sean Monahan, and Erik Gudbranson, while their notable additions include Jonathan Huberdeau, MacKenzie Weegar, and Nazem Kadri.
The Flames did downgrade in regards to their offensive core. Using EvolvingHockey’s Wins Above Replacement model in the past two seasons, Huberdeau and Kadri were worth a combined 5.3 wins, while Gaudreau and Tkachuk were worth a combined 7.9 wins. Gaudreau (3.13) has a higher 5v5 Points/60 than Huberdeau (3.01), while Tkachuk (2.73) has a higher 5v5 Points/60 than Kadri (2.49). Not to mention, Calgary also lost Jarnkrok and Monahan.
However, there’s a case to make for Calgary having a top 2-3 defensive core in the league. MacKenzie Weegar is an excellent defenceman, with the ability to reliably play both LD and RD. He ranks sixth among all defencemen in 5v5 points in the past two seasons, and his entry defensive metric rank top-five in the league; his zone denials per 60 ranked second, and his zone denial% ranked fifth. Weegar’s primary weakness is his play without the puck in the DZ, but this is something that Chris Tanev excels at, making a Weegar – Tanev pair very well-rounded. Hanafin and Andersson are also solid second-pairing defencemen.
I think Edmonton has a higher chance of finishing first, but as stated before, it will heavily rely on the state of their defence and Campbell’s consistency. There’s a very legitimate chance that Calgary wins the Pacific for the second year in a row.
Los Angeles is expected to take a step forward with improvement from their younger players, while a healthy Vegas team could be dangerous if they obtain adequate goaltending. However, barring unforeseen circumstances and significant injuries, I personally think it’s very likely that the top-two spots in the Pacific Division will consist of both Alberta teams in some order. 
*All stats via EvolvingHockey, Natural Stat Trick, and AllThreeZones unless stated otherwise
What are your main questions for the Oilers heading into 2022-23?
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