The Edmonton Oilers are 2-4-0 through six games in a season where the playoffs aren’t the goal, but rather the expectation. Failure to reach the postseason could have long-term ramifications for an organization whose star players have grown tired of the constant losing. In a 56-game season, like we are in now, a slow start can be fatal.
That’s why, unfortunately, Dave Tippett will need to make tough decisions early. The fact of the matter is, the Oilers can’t really afford to wait things out and see how they develop. Reality is, doing that could put them too far behind the pack before they find stride.
There are two changes that make way too much sense that Tippett must, in my humble opinion, make. Neither is going to be popular for the organization, but in the famous words of Tony Soprano, “I’m not running a popularity contest here.”
Adam Larsson Comes Out, Evan Bouchard Goes In:
Larsson is a leader for the Oilers. He wears an ‘A’ and is the team’s top shutdown option on paper. I say on paper because Larsson has been anything but this season. In fact, I’d make the argument that Larsson has been a complete liability defensively.
Larsson’s pairing has been caved this season, regardless of who his partner is. He’s got a Corsi For of 41.06% in 83:19 of five-on-five time through six games. Although the Oilers have outshot opponents 38-37 while Larsson has been on the ice (50.67% of shots), they have been outscored 5-2, getting just 28.57% of the goals. Larsson’s expected goals for percentage doesn’t exactly paint a pretty picture either. He’s currently got a 47.34% xGF%.
A deeper dive shows that while the Oilers are outshooting opponents with Larsson, they are getting murdered when it comes to scoring chances. Edmonton has been out-chanced 46-25 (!) with Larsson on the ice at five-on-five. The Oilers are getting just 35.21% of the scoring chances when he is out on the ice. That’s not good, to say the least.
On top of that, The Oilers are getting 37.04% of the high-danger chances when Larsson is on the ice. Opponents hold a 17-10 advantage in that area.
When Larsson is healthy and on his game, he’s a strong top-four shutdown option. You don’t have to look too far back to see that, either. He was outstanding in January and February of 2020, helping the Oilers hit heir stride and force their way up to second place in the Pacific Division at the pause.
He’s just not that player right now.
Bouchard, meanwhile, could help Edmonton’s struggling powerplay. He’s a strong puck moving defenseman who shined in the second-half of his rookie season in the AHL in 2019-20. According to one source from a Pacific Division team in the AHL that isn’t Bakersfield, Bouchard is “ready to take that next step” to the NHL.
He’d give Edmonton more mobility from the blueline, more help on the powerplay, and could provide the spark Edmonton needs to get going.
Promote Puljujarvi, Demote Kassian:
When Zack Kassian is on his game, he’s a key component to Edmonton’s offense. Like him or not, and for that matter his contract, Kassian is a damn good player when he is engaged. He’s physical, has enough skill to score 10-15 goals a season, and can win puck battles. Unfortunately, none of that has been on display for a calendar year.
Kassian looked disinterested and disengaged during the summer’s ‘Return to Play’ series against the Blackhawks. That has carried over to this season, where he really hasn’t provided much of anything. Kassian’s most noticeable moment this season was losing a puck battle to Auston Matthews on Wednesday night that led to Toronto’s only goal. There was just minimal, if any, effort on the play and it led to a goal against.
There was a slight burst from Kassian after that play, but it faded on Friday night and he was promptly demoted by Tippett. That should be a permanent move. Kassian should no longer skate on the top line.
Jesse Puljujarvi, meanwhile, should. Although he has yet to score a goal this season, Puljujarvi has been engaged, has set up scoring chances and has created some chances of his own. He saw some time on the top-line on Friday night and excelled.
In 6:34 of five-on-five time together, the Nugent-Hopkins/McDavid/Puljujarvi line held an 83.33% Corsi For (15-3), outshot the Maple Leafs 6-1 (85.71%), had an xGF% of 78.18%, out-chanced them 8-3 (72.73%) and held a 1-1 high-danger scoring chance tie. The line tilted the ice when together.
When asked on Saturday if they would play together on Sunday, Tippett simply told reporters “we’ll see”. He should play them together, because the numbers suggest they are more effective than the previous trio on the top-line. This trio could give Edmonton the dynamic punch they have been looking for with the Draisaitl line, which looks primed to breakout in the coming games.
The changes seem obvious. Will Tippett go through with them? We’ll have to wait until tomorrow.