Oilers Gameday: March 28th vs Coyotes

Arizona (20-40-5) at Edmonton (36-25-5)

 

As we all know the Oilers are coming off of a performance that both players and fans alike would rather forget. The good news is twofold, with the stretch run coming into focus the Oilers still have some chances to put their best together, and that begins tonight with a beatable opponent, the Arizona Coyotes. Sure, the clouds above are thick from the battle of Alberta gone up in smoke, but as the living we’re challenged to find a silver lining.

 

The Coyotes and their fans certainly have some experience in the search for said silver linings. For most of the past decade, at least, the Coyotes have been mired in an endless stream of bad news and uncertainty. That isn’t to say that there isn’t at least a path out, a chance that the sun will rise in the desert once more.

 

For now, with a new (and intimate) arena in a better location looming in the future, the Coyotes have a bevy of draft capital to work with, not to mention a roster that isn’t completely devoid of promise. For the Coyotes the remainder of the season will be about players positioning themselves for spots next season. Changes are certainly on the horizon and management will have a lot of options for how to go about moving forward in a more positive direction.

 

As for the Oilers the objectives and concerns are much more tangible and immediate. Tomorrow is promised for only a short while as the playoff race tightens. Scoreboard watching is in full effect, but the most important truth is the one that lies within. If the Oilers can continue stabilizing into the high level they’ve shown under Woodcroft and take care of business on a game to game basis it won’t matter much what the other teams do. On the other hand if they instead regress into the inconsistencies that saw Tippett fired it won’t matter much if they manage to stumble into a playoff spot.

 

Sure, it’s a bit much to expect Koskinen to continue posting career numbers, and there should be some worry about how the team will hold up when that drop off comes. It’s hard to take too much from the loss to Calgary but it’s not a performance that inspires much confidence for anyone. Part of the solution is undoubtedly to continue increasing the level of defensive play as a whole. Part of the solution is likely to get some wins when Smith gets the net, as is expected tonight, while Vejmelka gets the nod for the Yotes.

 

KEYS TO THE GAME

 

Edmonton:

  1. Intensity. The Oilers are the better team at every level. Hockey is chaotic and random, but the Oilers have not afforded themselves the luxury of taking any opportunity for points lightly. They need to be the more competitive team in measure of will, from there their winning advantage could come from any and every phase of the game.

 

Arizona:

  1. Penalty Kill. Yes they will need goaltending, perhaps some timely, fluky, or opportunistic goals as well. At the end of the day it all might not matter much if the Coyotes aren’t able to put up a respectable effort against the Oilers man advantage.

 

 

EXPECTED LINEUPS

 

Edmonton:

 

Kane — McDavid — Puljujarvi

Hyman — Draisaitl — Yamamoto

Brassard — Nugent-Hopkins — Archibald

Foegele — McLeod — Ryan

 

Nurse — Ceci

Keith — Bouchard

Kulak — Barrie

 

Koskinen

Smith

 

Arizona:

 

Keller — Galchenyuk — Schmaltz

Crouse — Boyd — Kessel

Maccelli — Hayton — Carcone

Ritchie — Beagle — Eriksson

 

Gostisbehere — Mayo

Dineen — Stralman

Capiobanco — Kolyachonok

 

Vejmelka

Korenar

 

 

PLAYERS TO WATCH

 

Edmonton:

 

As much as Yamamoto was working on McDavid’s wing it is inevitably Puljujarvi who reclaims the spot that has brought out the best in both he and McDavid. The duo is as solid a foundation for Kane as any across the league. This has all the makings of an endgame McDavid line.

 

Yamamoto slides back onto Draisaitl’s wing, a spot he’s logged a lot of time in. Yes, the goal scoring streak is a nice surprise, but the foundation of Yamamoto’s game is his tenacity more than a dangling offensive archetype. As long as he gets to the net front and wins puck battles, a game more reminiscent of his linemate Hyman or Brendan Gallagher than say Clayton Keller of the Coyotes, he’ll be an effective player. Especially with such great linemates the offensive numbers will take care of themselves from that point.

 

Nugent-Hopkins is about the only thing that is keeping me from listing this line 4th, arbitrary almost thanks to the Oilers depth, although Brassard has fit in nicely on his wing during their very short time together.

 

Perhaps Brassard is the impetus for keeping McLeod, Ryan, or Foegele off RNH’s wings, to give the veteran a stable shot at a top 9 role. Regardless, this fourth line is very capable, and we could see circumstantial juggling based on the situation tonight.

 

My only comment about this configuration is that McLeod should be somewhere within the top 9, and being able to put together 3 (at least) strong lines is the foremost requirement for playoff success up front. I quite enjoy the idea of both RNH and Hyman on a third line, and provided McDavid and Draisaitl are afforded adequate support it should give the Oilers an advantage over almost any opponent’s forward group. Could McLeod-Draisaitl-Yamamoto hold up? I think so.

 

Despite recent results the defence stays the same. Nurse has played with all three right defenders, whichever pair he’s on is the number 1 pair. Ceci has been good all year as well. It will be interesting to see if the two are spread to different pairs going forward. The advantage for Ceci is that in the playoffs mitigating mistakes becomes much more crucial for one reason or another. He is, in some ways, much less prone to gaffes than either Barrie or Bouchard. He’s been an addition that even the harshest of GM Holland’s critics would have to concede has worked out wonderfully, at least until now.

 

 

Arizona:

 

Am I allowed to call them mangy? Ok, it’s not all doom and gloom for the Yotes, but by any measure it’s been a rough year. The Coyotes will have to spend the rest of the season deciding on what to do with the remaining pieces on their roster. At the deadline they notably held onto Chychrun, who is out with injury tonight, and I think I agree with hanging onto him.

 

It can be extremely difficult to pull out of a scorched earth rebuild, and although tanking can have its moments building a winner requires a lot more than draft capital, of which the Coyotes have a lot. A greater focus, in my opinion, is creating a program that instills belief and empowers development in players. It’s an environment which may have a multitude of recipes, but ultimately requires a high level of competition that can only be accessed with a strong record.

 

Keller is a star player, hidden because of his team’s poor record, a first line scoring winger who would deserve a spot in any team’s top 6. One would think he should be a part of the Coyotes future. His linemates however are more in question. Galchenyuk and Schmaltz both have tremendous talent but have had various degrees of difficulty in translating it into on ice impact. Schmaltz is the more regarded of the two at this point and has been scoring at a torrid pace of late.

 

Travis Boyd has been the Coyotes most consistent centre, playing in the top 6 virtually all season. Yes, it’s a sign that the centre situation is lacking, but it’s always nice to see someone hold up in overextended circumstances. He’s been a responsible presence for many of the Coyotes scoring wingers over the year, Kessel the current iteration. Crouse has continued to develop and although he’s not quite a top 6 forward in terms of impact yet he has made strides. A player of his skillset and physicality is rare and sought after, thinking of Josh Anderson, and no doubt the price of acquiring him will be higher this summer than last.

 

A key area to watch down the stretch is this Maccelli-Hayton combination. Both are some of the Coyotes higher rated prospects and could inspire a lot of hope with some strong play from here on out. They might be overmatched most nights, as they have been, but positive signs will build a platform going into next season. Hayton in particular, because of his draft pedigree and position, is of particular importance. As a prospect he reminded me of Jonathan Toews, a two way centre with deceptively good hands on the rush, but clearly he hasn’t lived up to the lofty standards in the pros. He might never get there at this point, and that’s ok. It might however be reasonable and exciting to think about him surpassing Galchenyuk and Boyd’s on ice impact.

 

On defence, Gostisbehere has shown that he has still got game. After clearing waivers and running out of favour in Philadelphia last season he’s proved a lot of the league wrong by being effective, albeit limited, in a top role. He’s a fun player as a high octane defenceman, pairing nicely with Mayo over a long stretch here.

 

Dineen, although relatively unheralded, has some skill as well. He and Stralman have been logging more minutes than the Gostisbehere pair over the past few games.

 

Kolyachonok is a bit of a surprise to even be in the league this early into his career. Yes, it’s aided by the thin rebuilding blueline of the Yotes, but it’s a testament to his play that he’s earned a spot and held up so far. Like Hayton up front he doesn’t need to dominate, but getting his feet wet in the league and showing positive growth will be a boon going forward.

 

There’s been some talk that Vejmelka has a weak blocker side. I’m not sure how much I believe in scouting reports like that for goalies but it’s worth keeping an eye on. Regardless he’s done well, coming out of nowhere to lead the Coyotes in starts this season. Perhaps it means that he’s so good everywhere else that once he gets his blocker sorted out he will be a high level goaler.