Oilers (18-12-0) at Devils (11-15-5)
Game 1 back from the COVID pause, a 4-2 loss against St. Louis, has reignited concerns across the fan base, as the Oilers have continued their downward trajectory of 2021. The team is falling to the bottom 10 in most flow of play metrics (like shots for % and expected goal %) and falling back into the pack of the wildcard bubble. Tonight marks a chance to end the calendar year on a stronger note in an early game against the Devils.
The good news is that several key players appear to be working their way back into the lineup, particularly Darnell Nurse, whom this lineup dearly misses. Mike Smith is slated to start again tonight, his 2nd since a long injury layoff.
On the other side is a New Jersey squad that, unfortunately for the Oilers, bare some similarities. The Devils are a bit earlier in their journey, but there is a strong core of high draft picks looking to rise to prominence, and falling short of preseason optimisms.
In another sense the Devils have been quite opposite to the Oilers, in that their offensive totals and special teams have been lacklustre. That doesn’t mean the Oilers can afford to take their opponents lightly, as the Devils have the talent to make plays, starting in net with expected starter Mackenzie Blackwood.
KEYS TO THE GAME
- Control play. The biggest concern of mine is the team’s regression in this area. Breakouts have been an area of focus, but the Oilers need to find their stride against a team they should be better than.
- Contain Hughes. No, I couldn’t leave this until my lineup breakdown. The truth is any season-long analysis of the Devils doesn’t include their best player. Hughes is just coming into his own as a dynamic offensive force and changes the upside of the group completely. I think they were smart to sign him long term when they did, at a number that could be the most team-friendly deal since Draisaitl’s when it comes to young centres.
- Special teams. With unspectacular efficiency numbers so far, the Devils will need to bring their best to have a shot a besting the Oilers tonight.
- Checking. Not necessarily their reputation, but the teams that give the Oilers the most trouble focus on their play without the puck, particularly on the forecheck and through the neutral zone.
Edmonton: Nurse, Puljujarvi, and Lagesson appear to be returning.
Foegele — McDavid — Puljujarvi
Nugent-Hopkins — Draisaitl — Hyman
Perlini — McLeod — Yamamoto
Sceviour — Ryan — Shore
Nurse — Bouchard
Keith — Ceci
Lagesson — Barrie
Zacha — Hischier — Boqvist
Sharangovich — Hughes — Bratt
Johnsson — Mercer — Kuokkanen
Studenic — McLeod — Bastian
Graves — Hamilton
Siegenthaler — Severson
Smith — Subban
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Edmonton: With players coming back the lines will change, and due to the early start I may not guess correctly. That being said I believe this is close to what we’ll see, though I might be hoping in some areas. I’m assuming Puljujarvi returns to McDavid’s wing, it’s his best spot and quite frankly the team’s best fit at LW1. We’re still throwing up a prayer that Foegele gets some positive results here. Hyman slots down to the Draisaitl line, replacing an underwhelming Yamamoto. Perhaps Yamamoto can find some success with McLeod, as if the pair can bring the best out from each other they might cement the foundations of a long term unit.
Bouchard isn’t perfect, but he needs to play more than he did against the Blues. He and Nurse have been good, I don’t think that should be taken for granted. Keith and Barrie are proving to be the worst case scenario, with inefficient cap hits and limited strengths. I think Lagesson will slot in instead of Koekkoek, although both have been able to contribute this season.
New Jersey: Boqvist is getting a shot in Tatar’s usual spot, thinning out a top line that is probably slotted a bit higher than they should be. I really like Hischier, and Zacha is showing some growth still, but it’s not quite enough to match against the top units on most playoff teams. Jesper Bratt has been great this year (development is not always linear) and I would expect this line to be the teams most dangerous. Sharangovich has speed and offensive skills, and shows great chemistry whenever he’s with Hughes, who is a great talent, taking over games with huge offensive performances in his limited time this season (due to injury). Mercer has some serious Konecny/Marchand vibes, equal parts small player with skill, and a fierce and fiery competitor. Even in this, his rookie season, he’s able to get under the opponent’s skin and pick the top corner on a bad angle shot on the same shift. Yes, this is McLeod-bowl, with the brothers facing off.
Graves has been a strong partner for Hamilton, as he was for Makar last season, although the pair has seen their icetime decreased since the season’s opening. I am a long-time Siegenthaler booster, dating back to his U20 Switzerland days, a strong defender, who has stabilized a pairing with Severson, who seems to be having a bit of a bounce back year. Sure, Subban won’t be winning any more Norris Trophies, and $9 million is quite a bit rich, but he’s been effective in a lesser role with the young Ty Smith, a first round pick with good offensive skills. Overall this blueline is sneaky-good, and probably superior to the Oilers group.
It’s been a while since the jersey was thrown onto the Edmonton ice (during play! At least wait for a whistle folks!) but the desire for change across many levels or the Oilers staff is festering within the fan base. If the Oilers keep plummeting in the standings the heat will continue to turn up on both Tippett and Holland. Look, I do believe that there have been some positive moves throughout their tenures here, and credit can be given in certain areas. The special teams are strong. The top prospects have not been traded. Recent draft picks are developing well.
That being said I believe that the Oilers would be justified in making a change in both roles, especially if the team continues with these poor results. Of course we’ve seen coaching changes have profound impacts on a team’s level of play in Vancouver and Chicago. It’s also true that we see every game how the Oilers are not as deep as their opponents on forward or defence.