You really couldn’t have scripted a better start to the season for the Oilers. They are 8-1-0 to kick off the 2021-22 campaign and have outscored their opponents by 16 goals. This is just the second time in franchise history that they’ve won eight of their first nine games. There are a lot of reasons to be both impressed and surprised with what we’ve seen from this hockey club. Here are nine things that have stood out to me:
1 – 97 & 29
We all knew that McDavid and Draisaitl would be very productive but I’ll be honest, I didn’t see them starting the season like this.
They’re both producing at a historic rate and aren’t really showing any signs of slowing down. They’re scoring when they’re on the same line, when they’re apart, when they’re on the powerplay, and at even-strength. It’s just been complete dominance from the Oiler’s dynamic duo on a nightly basis.
At the beginning of the year, I was worried that the talk about McDavid potentially getting to 150 points was setting him up to fail. Now? I think both Oilers stars have the potential to hit that mark.
2 – Holy Goaltending!
I had a little running joke on some of our podcasts this year that September was always the time when Oilers fans convince themselves that Mikko Koskinen is going to be better. I really had little confidence in his ability to be anything more than just an average backup goaltender. Well, he’s been miles better than what I expected and I would imagine that most Oilers fans have said that exact same thing a few times.
He’s now 6-1-0 with a 2.18 GAA and a .934 SV%. Among goalies that have played in at least five games this season, he is top-ten in both of those categories. Mike Smith was solid when he was healthy and that was surprising in its own right. When he went down, I was really worried that the Oilers might be in trouble but boy has Koskinen ever come through and helped them bank some important points early in the season.
Koskinen will regress but at the same time, I’m less convinced that the Oilers will need to go get a goalie at the trade deadline. They may have bigger holes to fill.
3 – I Told You About The Powerplay
When we were asked to give out some bold takes for the season on Oilersnation Radio (new episode drops later today) I said that I thought the Oilers powerplay could finish the year around 40%. I was laughed at and eventually backed off my prediction because I’m a coward, but I did say that I think they would set the single-season record for powerplay percentage, which is 31.9%.
They’re currently sitting at 46.4% through nine games. That is incredible.
Do I think they’ll slow down? Yes. Do I think that my initial projection of around 40% is out of the question? Absolutely not.
They’ve looked borderline unstoppable and considering how much natural talent that unit has, I don’t think they’ll go through any prolonged cold streaks this year. They might just keep producing at a historic clip.
4 – The New Forwards
Oct 13, 2021; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers forward Zach Hyman (18) and Vancouver Canucks defensemen Quinn Hughes (43) chase a loose puck during the third period at Rogers Place. Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
Zach Hyman has made a big impact on the powerplay as well. No disrespect to Alex Chiasson, but Hyman is a much more impactful player and when he gets chances, he buries them. On top of that, he helps out more on zone entries and is much better at keeping plays alive than Chiasson was. He is a big reason why their powerplay has taken a step forward.
At even-strength, Hyman has been a great fit as well. Whether he is riding shotgun with McDavid or playing with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins on the second line, he’s been driving play, forechecking hard, and producing. You rarely ever get bargains in unrestricted free agency, but Hyman’s $5.5 million cap hit is looking like a good deal for the Oilers.
The other big addition to the forward group was Warren Foegele. I still don’t love that the Oilers gave up Ethan Bear (look at how well he’s fit in with the Hurricanes) but there’s no denying that Foegele was a perfect addition to the Oilers’ bottom six. He’s scored twice now and brought a really good mix of speed and size to their third line.
5 – Kass is Back
I’m not sure if there was any Oilers player facing more pressure to perform this season than Zack Kassian. He had a really bad 2020-21 campaign and watching him bounce back the way he has early in the year, especially after battling through a head injury in the preseason, has been great.
He’s doing everything that made him the fan favourite back in 2017. The big hits have been there, the antics have been there, and the offence has been there. He and Foegele have given the Oilers a third line that can be relied on. The Oilers desperately needed that.
6 – The Nuge’s Apple Tree
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins currently leads the NHL in assists with 13 but he hasn’t found the back of the net once this year, so the question is: this a hot streak or a slump for Nugent-Hopkins?
Really though, Nugent-Hopkins has been very impressive through nine games this year. His play on the penalty kill has been solid, he’s played some centre and some wing for Dave Tippett, and the production has been fantastic. Some of the passes he’s made that have directly set up goals have just been incredible. Here’s my favourite:
His down year in 2020-21 allowed the Oilers to get him signed long-term for just over $5 million and that’s looking like a great deal right now. He brings a lot of value in a lot of different areas.
7 – Boouuuuuchhhh
I thought there was a chance that Evan Bouchard could work his way onto the team’s top pairing by February or March. I did not think that he would be playing 20+ minutes a night on a regular basis by the second week of the season but here we are.
Over the summer, Dave Tippett told The DFO Rundown that Bouchard was a key member of their blueline. I was worried that there was a little bit too much pressure being put on a young player that hasn’t even played half a season in the NHL before. Nonetheless, Bouchard has taken that pressure, and the role he’s been given and thrived.
Have there been rough points? For sure. But for the most part, Bouchard has been confidently handling top-pairing minutes early in the season and that is damn impressive.
8 – They Still Need a D-Man
Ken Holland is a GM who will spend future assets if he thinks his team has a legitimate chance to win a Stanley Cup. He’s said that himself. Well, how could he not be looking at the way his team is playing right now and saying “this group has a chance”.
If Holland does decide to move a big asset at the deadline for immediate help, I think he should go out and get a left-shot defenseman who can handle top-four minutes.
This isn’t a knock on Duncan Keith or how he’s played this year, but if they had another top-four LHD who could take some of the pressure of Keith and Darnell Nurse, it could really turn this blueline into a strength.
I know that they might want a goalie, but if they’re in a position to win the division at the trade deadline, it’s probably because the goaltending has been good. Also, there might not be a quality upgrade on the market come March.
If there is a solid LHD available at some point this season, Holland should be calling.
9 – Attendance Woes
I don’t love talking about this and this isn’t an issue that’s exclusive to the Oilers, but the attendance has been troubling this year. The Oilers have now had four straight games where the announced crowd has been under 15,000 and they haven’t had a single sellout yet this season. The attendance for the game on Wednesday against Nashville was very light. They announced just over 14,000 but I would guess that there was only 12,000 there.
There are a lot of reasons for this. Tickets are expensive, a lot of people are still hesitant to be in big crowds (which makes sense), and a lot of people just got used to watching games at home. And to be fair, the Oilers weren’t selling out very many games in the months leading up to the pandemic either.
While I understand why the crowds are small, it is a little sad to see the Oilers getting big wins with a crowd that’s well below capacity. Maybe this will spark the Oilers to revisit their ticket prices as well. Either way, hopefully the COVID situation in this province gets better and Rogers Place can start rockin’ once again.