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Oil Check: COVID Cancellations, Injury Updates, Thru 20 Games  

A natural evaluation point, the quarter-way mark of the season, has coincided with a variety of injury updates as the Oilers get set for an early December that will be spent at home, for the most part. Coach Tippett spoke to the media yesterday (nov. 29th) in regards to some of the injury situations on the team, but things have continued to change since then.


First, Cody Ceci has been placed on the COVID list and practice has since been cancelled for precautionary reasons, most definitely the prudent course of action in this case. As we’ll get to, the Oilers already have a lot of regulars out of the lineup which does limit the amount of leeway before things get dire. We’ll be hoping that no one else on the team gets sick and that Ceci can get well and return soon. Given that COVID is making a resurgence in North America, including the fact that the Senators and Islanders have already had their seasons delayed, the sense of security the Oilers and NHL at large have been able to foster over the past few months may come to a head, and it might not be long until a full season or the Olympics themselves start to come into question.


Trying to refocus on the Oilers, Markus Niemelainen was called up from AHL Bakersfield. This is his 5th pro season, 2nd in the AHL, and at 23 years old it’s a good story to see him rewarded. We’ll see if he finds his way into game action, which would be his NHL debut, but the former 3rd round pick has the skating abilities and defensive mindset (and is 6’6) to potentially become a solid bottom pair defender. His goal is probably to show his skills can translate to the next level so that he can start making a case for more NHL time down the road. It’s no guarantee he sees much or any game action, but he can still make a strong impression whether in a game or practice. He’s a bit older and more experienced than fellow defence prospect Samorukov is at this point, who is likely the next name on the depth chart.


There were more vague updates on the various injuries throughout the Oilers lineup. We know the prognosis for Nurse, as his broken finger carried a 2-3 week recovery, which puts him returning somewhere between the 3rd and the 11th of December. Tippett said yesterday that Nurse and Keith seemed closest to a return, but today Keith was placed on IR. Assuming Keith misses roughly another week, this roster move could be purely cap based rather than suggesting a setback. Perhaps Tippett meant to include Shore in the earliest-to-return group as he said he expects the forward to return to the lineup between December 6th and 11th as well.


Mike Smith appears to be progressing and has been skating on consecutive days. Given the nagging nature of groin injuries and the fact that he’s already had a setback it’s best not to rush him. Skinner and Koskinen have held down the fort admirably which helps as well.


Dylan Holloway has been skating too, coming back from a wrist injury, although Tippett said he doesn’t expect a return before the Christmas break. Holloway is probably the most NHL ready prospect in the Oilers system, but having missed so much time it might take a while before he’s able to position himself for the jump. Ryan McLeod has been running with the opportunity to centre the 3rd line which takes the pressure off of rushing Holloway.


So far the Oilers have been playing well despite the regulars missing from the lineup, which will be tested even further now that Ceci is out. The veteran right-hander had been relied upon heavily, especially recently paired with call upon and top prospect Philip Broberg. Broberg has really impressed, logging big minutes and using his passing and skating skills effectively. Tippett made sure to note that injuries are still the primary reason he has this opportunity, and that he is likely headed back to Bakersfield if and when the Oilers can get healthy. At this point, I’d say it’s been a very successful and promising experience for Broberg, and that he will be a factor for the Oilers when he gets another chance at NHL action. For now he’ll look to continue impressing in his first chance in the league.


As for how the lineup shakes out over the next week or so it’s hard to say. With so many moving parts settling in already the added wrinkle of Ceci’s absence only put things in a more fluid state. One thing we haven’t seen is a defender switch from the right side to the left, but all options could be on the table. For now the best guess is probably keeping the Russell—Barrie pairing together (likely a pair when everyone is healthy) which is a pretty solid top pair with all the absences considered. Perhaps we’ll wait treated to a Broberg—Bouchard pairing, which would be a lot of fun, but it’s more likely we’ll see Lagesson—Bouchard stick together while Broberg takes on a smaller role next to Niemelainen than he did in his stint with Ceci. As Niemelainen is a lefty, someone will have to play their weak side, but whichever pairs start on Wednesday night could be switched as soon as 1 shift into the game.


If everything goes according to plan and Nurse and Keith return on the 11th, the Oilers will have played 5 games between now and then. That means this ragtag group of a blueline will get a decently long look together, including games against Penguins, Kraken, Kings, Wild, and Bruins before taking on the Hurricanes on the 11th.

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