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Oilers Gameday: December 14th vs Toronto

A lot of seats throughout the Oilers organization are getting hotter as the team has now lost 5 games in a row, all in regulation, good for 0 out of a possible 10 points in that span. Of course that’s nowhere near good enough for a team with hopes of qualifying for the postseason, let alone contending for a championship. If the poor results continue it’s anyone’s guess as to what changes might happen, needless to say the Oilers should be equal parts desperate and focused with another strong opponent in town.

From the outside of the team looking in it’s easy to be cynical about the present state of the organization, as the Oilers losing skid has begun to draw attention of many league wide, prompting a lot of ideological team building discussions. Essentially, everything outside of McDavid and Draisaitl’s play is being thrown into questioning and analysis, from the rest of the forward group, to the blueline, to the goaltending, to the coaching, and ultimately to the management level.

Despite all this, things at ice level have postured themselves more optimistically, with messaging from players and coaches focused more around how they’ve felt they’ve been playing better, just not getting results. It’s an old adage that goes something along the lines of how when you’re on a long streak, winning or losing, it usually continues past the point of when your play has changed. Towards the end of their season-opening winning stretch the Oilers probably got away with a few wins they shouldn’t have, and seem to be arguing that it’s been the reverse as of late.

We shall see if the Oil can add to their point total tonight, in their way a Maple Leafs team that sports a 19-8-2 record on the season. It’s true, the concerning play we’ve seen from the Oilers lineup recently exists, the results have not been good enough, and the higher questions being brought up are warranted, but I’ll point out that the Wild-Bruins-Hurricanes-Leafs is as tough a 4 game stretch as the team will face until the Olympic break, at least on paper. The goal was always to be firmly in that echelon of teams, but at least early into the season the Oilers are falling short.

We’re expecting to see Campbell and Koskinen in net for their clubs, although Mike Smith appears to be close to a return.

KEYS TO THE GAME

Edmonton:
Breakouts. I feel like I’ve been highlighting this area of the game all season, and feel somewhat vindicated that Tippett said it would be an area of focus on a rare practice day. Hopefully we see all 5 Oilers skaters more in sync when it comes to defensive puck battles and strong support as they transition to the attack.
Penalty Kill. Winning the special teams battle is always crucial for the Oil, and their hands will be full with a Leafs power play that is playing it’s best in nearly a year.

Toronto:
Contain the top line. This might go without saying, but especially on the road everyone has to be aware when McDavid and Draisaitl are on the ice. Force someone else to beat you.
Start on time. Getting ahead early has been key for many against the slow starting Oilers.

EXPECTED LINEUPS

Edmonton: Hyman is a game time decision, which would drastically alter the lines. Keith returns. Mike Smith may return. McLeod is a late addition to the COVID list.

Draisaitl — McDavid — Kassian
Foegele — RNH — Puljujarvi
Benson — Turris — Yamamoto
Shore — Ryan — Sceviour

Nurse — Bouchard
Keith — Ceci
Niemelainen — Barrie

Koskinen
Skinner

Toronto: Marner and Sandin are on IR. Ritchie is day to day. Spezza is suspended.

Bunting — Matthews — Kase
Kerfoot — Tavares — Nylander
Engvall — Kampf — Mikheyev
Clifford — Seney — Simmonds

Reilly — Brodie
Muzzin — Liljegren
Dermott — Holl

Campbell
Mrazek

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Edmonton: There is definitely an element of change headed into tonight’s game, particularly up front. The Oilers need Kassian and Foegele to start producing more, and moving them up is at least worth a try. With Connor and Leon together Kassian should be in a good spot, while the stress on the 2nd line living up to expectations might be on Puljujarvi. It wasn’t too long ago that Tippett moved him to the 3rd line to see if he could be the primary play driver on a line, and now it seems like he’ll need to blossom into that role even higher in the lineup. Having Nuge definitely helps, but such a development would be huge for the Oilers, especially when Hyman returns, who could slide in for whichever of Kassian or Foegele plays worse.

It also seems like a big opportunity for Tyler Benson, as McLeod has looked pretty strong defensively (now missing the game Turris steps into this spot), and along Yamamoto playing lower in the lineup might be the change of pace needed to get some strong momentum going for 3 of the Oilers younger regulars. All of the top 3 lines should be interesting to watch tonight, and some strong play could help the Oilers morph into a form that’s stronger in the long run.

Meanwhile things are almost back to normal on the blueline, as the top 4 is back in place. Keith isn’t the same caliber as when he was at his peak, but he remains the Oilers best option at LD behind Nurse, and as such should make a difference tonight if he’s up to speed.

Toronto: Ondrej Kase has been stellar all year alongside Kampf, but his play has been reward with this promotion to the first line and top power play unit. It’s a shame he lost so much time to injury over the years because he is such a nice blend of skill, rambunctiousness, intensity, strength, and smarts. He and Bunting (who is a bit of a disturber) should be a capable compliment to Matthews despite Marner’s absence. Nylander, for my money, is just as good as Marner and has been fantastic with Kerfoot and Tavares. Mikheyev makes his season debut after another hand injury, and with Engvall provides a ton of speed and an underrated amount of skill beside a strong checking centre in Kampf. Simmonds has still got it, and takes shifts throughout the lineup, and still has enough speed and skill to make some zone entries and finish in tight.

The top pair of Brodie and Reilly remains consistent, while shaky play and injuries have forced some changes behind them. Liljegren is just starting to come into his own and has a great deal of attributes to work with, and I have faith that he can put together a 5+ year run as a solid top 4 defender. He has a good stick, enough strength to take the body, the passing skills to stretch the ice, and the tools to be a really strong skater. He looks to have almost fully outgrown some of the awkwardness he displayed at the NHL level in the past, in my estimation thanks to poise, experience, and improving balance. His promotion is in part due to strong play, but no doubt accelerated due to the play of Justin Holl. He still has some strong traits, but to get roughly 2 years out of him as a top 4 defender after making his NHL debut in his late 20s has been a great story for him and the team. He may be dealing with an injury as well, but perhaps a new role would suit him well for the rest of the season. Dermott looks to be returning to the lineup as well, no doubt a strong enough partner for the 3rd pair, and it’s helpful for Holl that he’s played a lot with both Dermott and Sandin in the AHL.

GAME NOTES

As someone who follows both these teams closely (well, I try to follow everyone closely) it’s impossible not to think of the ways they’ve been compared to each other, in a number of ways. Having been in long rebuilds around the same era, paying top dollar to the talent at forward, their being in Canada punctuated by their time as division rivals, not to mention their lack of success in the postseason, so many angles are almost begging to be compared and contrasted. In a narrative sense both are expected to have improved their roster, turning prior years regular season success into something more. What’s more is that Holland and Dubas were hired in 2019 and 2018 respectively, taking over teams with star talent and high expectations.

At this point, given the state of the Oilers it’s interesting to use the relatively similar circumstances of the organizations to measure how each front office has tried to build around its high priced talent. I’d say that the Leafs have a much deeper team, and though some of their stars don’t provide as much dollar for dollar value as McDavid and Draisaitl do, this season Dubas has outperformed Holland when it comes to using the remaining cap space to fill out the roster.

If I’m going about evaluating Holland’s time with the Oilers so far there’s definitely been some good and some bad. When he first came to the organization the team wasn’t even qualifying for the playoffs, so I believe some credit should go there. I think the best part of it was in that first season how he didn’t do much, being calm and patient with some of the youth as opposed to a lot of Chiarelli’s riverboat style. In continuing to value drafted talent I think he’s done a good job in not moving the Oilers top prospects both in the past with Bouchard and Puljujarvi, and now with McLeod, Broberg, Holloway, Bourgault, Lavoie, and Samorukov. I would sign off on the idea of adding both Hyman and Ceci, and Mike Smith has been good especially on a per dollar basis. Keeping Nurse and Nugent-Hopkins was important.

There have been some negatives which were circumstantial, Klefbom’s health, the expansion draft, the pandemic shutting down any chance of trade deadline buying paying off. There’s always things that could’ve gone either way, or a whole lot of ifs in free agency, that is perhaps a bit unfair to really judge the management team on. Not to mention the flat cap and the general change and uncertainty amidst COVID. Maybe they could get creative, bending the rules of the cap (like the Leafs), or build out and modernizing the front office as a whole. Maybe between all the goalie carousel-ing the Oilers could’ve found a way to solidify their crease. Maybe they shouldn’t have traded Bear. Some of these are worth asking, but there’s only so much that it’s fair to use these lines of questioning when it comes to evaluating Holland’s work.

What we can clearly say though is that the Oilers used up almost all of the $30 million plus they had in cap space, greatly limiting their flexibility in-season, and perhaps farther into the future as well. Despite this the team seems to have plateaued. Many of the questions we had about the roster when Holland was hired remain, easy to say when it still seems everything outside McDavid and Draisaitl is not good enough.

The good news for the Oilers is that the cap appears to be going up again soon, and some undesirable contracts start to come off the books in the next year or 2. With the aforementioned prospects en route there is help on the way already. The point is the opportunity to upgrade the roster is present, and a shrewd move or 2 could go a long way towards improving the team.

That being said there is not much room for the additions, meaning I don’t think you can afford to acquire anyone ideal, you’ll have to find a discount. For example, if we wanted to add a top 6 forward, a top four defender, and a goalie who’s at least as good as Smith and Koskinen, which would almost certainly make this team good enough to contend on paper, it would cost a lot. Only using names I’ve heard might be available, let’s say DeBrusk up front, or Fleury in net, the Oilers can’t afford any of the obvious fixes.

I bring this up because he is said to have asked for a trade this summer, but perhaps Ilya Mikheyev, or someone similar, could be an interesting option up front. He’s at least an upgrade on the 3rd line wingers like Foegele and Kassian, so even if he doesn’t form chemistry with any of the Oilers stars he would improve the lineup, but has a much smaller cap hit than a bigger name like DeBrusk. For that reason the Leafs probably aren’t dealing him, but finding an option that checks the same boxes could ignite the offence. Especially if Holloway is able to make the jump to an impact NHLer this season, the Oilers forward group would be deep enough that they wouldn’t have to rely on 97 and 29 so much.

Given the terms on their deals, it’s probably ideal to find a way to move off of Barrie and Kassian. Barrie in particular as he slides to the 3rd pair, with other strong offensive options on the team, a high cap hit, and his power play role in jeopardy at the next sign of trouble. It might even cost you some draft picks, but I’d rather be giving up mid round picks than mid level prospects at this point (well unless you think you won’t be able to sign them a la John Marino). Keith is probably better at this point, and his contract is shorter, it’s probably ok to let him ride out his deal, despite the higher cap hit. Last year there was talk that Ekholm might be available, and though he’s not this year someone of that caliber would be huge. The best hope for internal improvement is that Broberg and Samorukov can be regulars in the lineup next season, but personally if I could make one add it would probably be for a legit top 4 LD.

The situation in net is perhaps the most complicated. I would describe Smith and Koskinen as unconvincingly good enough, while Skinner seems close, but likely best slotted as a true backup for the time being. It’s not absurd to think that both Smith and Koskinen could be in their last year as an Oiler, for different reasons, so no doubt the general future is in question. It’s likely too costly, or at least cumbersome, to add a legit starter without one of Smith or Koskinen off the roster, meaning picking up Khudobin off waivers doesn’t really make sense, even if you think he’s slightly better than both Oilers goalies (which is very debatable at this point). When Koskinen’s deal ends this season it will be a chance to get the right upgrade, but until then I’m skeptical about the chances of seeing a move in net.

The thing is that those cap space type of moves are only worth it if you then spend the money on something better. That might be the most telling metric of how to evaluate a GM, the confidence that they’ll make the right move next time.

Ultimately, it’s nothing personal. There’s no doubt those who are more harsh than I in their evaluation of the GM, and even the Coach. Even if both could be doing a better job, the answer might lie in supporting their operations rather than outright replacing them. One thing is for certain, that no one will last forever.

P.P.S. more and more players across the NHL, and the North American population at large, have been testing positive for COVID. Buckle up folks, as things might be changing soon.

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