If you type into google “Edmonton Oilers accountability,” you’ll see a number of headlines pop up.
And as you scroll through the pages you’ll find a common theme: the Oilers holding their players accountable for their actions on the ice. I mean, it makes sense, right? The Oilers players are the ones on the ice every single night giving it their all to try and help the team win every game.
But accountability needs to fall on other aspects of the organization, too, and there’s a common theme that has surrounded the team for a long time: their issues managing young players.
For me, it goes back over a decade to when Sam Gagner was drafted and came in to play top-line minutes in his rookie season — a role he was probably in over his head for. Same thing with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who I staunchly remember coming in as a teenager and getting matched up with against the Pavel Datsyuk’s and Joe Thornton’s of the Western Conference on a nightly basis. Now, these players ended up flourishing in their roles (likely because they were more complete players coming out of the draft) and turned out fine in the long run, but that hasn’t always the case.
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What about Nail Yakupov, who came into Edmonton as an 18-year-old offensive superstar but then got sent to the depths of the Oilers bottom-six and had Derek Roy and Teddy Purcell to play with all the while asking him to play a checking role.
And don’t get me started on Jesse Puljujarvi, who was given the exact same treatment as a rookie in Edmonton. His most common linemate over his first three years was the boat anchor that was Milan Lucic.
I understand there’s the need for young players like them to develop a 200-foot game in the NHL and be able to be responsible for plays all over the ice, full stop. But Edmonton didn’t do a good job in allowing them to flourish in the aspects of the game that they succeeded in — putting up points.
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The Oilers have now seen Puljujarvi flourish as a player who has been able to develop his 200-foot game, but that happened back home in Finland and not in Edmonton. Hindsight is 20/20, but Puljujarvi should’ve gone back to Finland for another year or two post-draft.
Nonetheless, he’s arrived back in Edmonton and looked tremendous.
Ethan Bear and Caleb Jones play into this story, too. Both benched after the Oilers got shelled 5-1 against the Montreal Canadiens. Bear found his way back into the lineup against Toronto, while Jones is still on the outside looking in.
Evan Bouchard, meanwhile, sits in the pressbox twiddling his thumbs awaiting his chance to show what he can do as he watches as other 2018 drafted defencemen in Alexander Romanov, K’Andre Miller, Noah Dobson, Ty Smith, Quinn Hughes and Adam Boqvist take regular shifts in the NHL.
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This all brings me to my long-winded point: when are the Oilers going to hold veteran players to the same standard they hold their young players to?
Let’s start with Puljujarvi, then we’ll work our way to Bear, Jones, Bouchard and the backend. Six games into the season, he’s easily been the most impressive Oilers player so far. He’s much more engaged physically than in the past and he’s learned how to play with his body. He’s protected pucks, laid hits, and most importantly, back checked and looked solid in his two-way game.
Through six games at 5×5, here’s posted a +3.55 cf%Rel and a +1.75 xG%Rel all while playing the most minutes with Kyle Turris and Josh Archibald, who have tanked both of those numbers for Puljujarvi.
Last night against the Leafs, Puljujarvi got a bump in the lineup and took a few shifts alongside Connor McDavid and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. In total, they played 2:30 together at 5×5 producing eight shot attempts and six scoring chances. And he looked good doing so.
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Meanwhile, Zack Kassian, who kick-started his four-year, $3.2-million, has been a boat anchor on the Oilers top line with McDavid and Nugent-Hopkins. He’s not engaged, he’s not playing physically, and he’s not generating the offensive chances anyone needs to play on that unit.
So how much longer of a leash will Kassian get considering his overwhelming lack of production to start the season? You have a young player in Jesse Puljujarvi who is showing night in and night out that he deserves to be on the top line and that’s he’s re-committed himself to playing a complete game.
And what about the Oilers backend? Edmonton has garnered riches there with young players like Bear, Jones and Bouchard, but the Oilers seem reluctant to trust those players. When the former two have faltered, they got sent to the press box and Jones hasn’t even gotten back into the lineup.
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Meanwhile, Adam Larsson, who is supposed to be the Oilers key shutdown defenceman to limit the opposition, has done just the opposite. He handles pucks like a live grenade and last night coughed up a horrible turnover in the Oilers own zone that led directly to Jimmy Vesey scoring the 2-1 goal.
Larsson’s numbers, too, show he’s far from being a defensive defenceman. At 5×5, he’s posted a 41.06 CF% and an xGF% of 47.34 and Edmonton’s been outscored 5-2 with him on the ice.
Bear, meanwhile, leads Oilers defencemen this year at 5×5 with a 52.90 CF% and a 58.08 xGF%. (William Lagesson in his one-game posted a 61.54 CF% and an xGF% of a 62.52).
Jones, meanwhile, has had a shaky start to the year in his own right but has shown the ability to be a strong skater and puck carrier cradling it more like a newborn baby than the aforementioned live grenade. He was great for the Oilers in the return-to-play and had a solid season last year. He needs more game action.
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And lastly, Bouchard’s a naturally gifted offensive defenceman who lit up the American Hockey League last year scoring 36 points in 54 games as a 20-year-old rookie.
In my eyes, the Oilers need to put Kassian and Larsson in the press box for a game or two. They need to bump Puljujarvi up the lineup alongside McDavid and Nugent-Hopkins while giving Bouchard a chance to get some NHL games under his belt.
If the Edmonton Oilers want to continue to grow the young talent in the organization they need to hold their veteran players to the same standards they hold their young players to, especially when the latter are outplaying the former.
Zach Laing is the Nation Network’s news director and senior columnist. He can be followed on Twitter at @zjlaing, or reached by email at [email protected]
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