Well, would you look at this. I’m back baby! Officially, the first blog I’ve written since January. I did post my season prognostications piece I had written before the season began, but the website still wasn’t back up and running at the time. Did you miss me? I bet you did. It’s not as if there are many other blogs you can read. I’m one of the very few going, so thankfully for your sake a professionally trained blogger such as myself is back in action…for one piece anyway.
5-0-0. Let me get this out of the way right off the bat. CALM DOWN OILERS FANS. They won 4 games that they should win and then caught Vegas with three of their top players (including their best player) out of the lineup. This shouldn’t be viewed as an accomplishment. I’m not saying you shouldn’t be excited, but it feels pretty over the top and premature from both the smarter fans and the media. I try not to be a homer (though I fully admit I still can be for them), yet I had the Oilers winning the division. The winner of this division is going to beat up on it. It’s awful. It’s not the Pacific, it’s the Pathetic. So let’s just calm down for the time being. 5-0-0 is fun and I’m not saying don’t enjoy it, but let’s not act like they’ve proven anything yet.
I led with that because most of what I have to say is pretty damn positive!
While I hated the prices Ken Holland paid this off-season, there was no denying that this was an improved team, a deeper team, a tougher team to play against, and we’ve seen all of those things play out thus far.
I have to put this at the top of the list of things that have me giddy. Coming into this season, it was the biggest question mark for me. I was adamant that they had three massive wildcards in Keith, Ceci, and Bouchard.
With Keith, it was whether or not he could get back to being a top 30 defenceman in the league again. He hasn’t been for a while now, but thus far he looks better than he has in years.
With Ceci, he has the talent to be a terrific top four guy and had a great season with the Pens after a rocky ending in Ottawa and a rough season in Toronto. He could be an even better D-man than Adam Larsson. He’s not THAT so far, but he’s looking better and better each game after some shaky showings during the exhibition schedule.
Then you have Evan Bouchard. And the question with Bouchard wasn’t whether or not he could play. It wasn’t even whether or not he could be a top-four. In my opinion, the Oilers need him to be a top pairing guy. Tyson Barrie played well with Darnell Nurse last season, but Barrie isn’t a top-pairing defenceman. Bouchard has that ability, and his game compliments Nurse’s game perfectly. In their limited time together, they look terrific. Add to that, it’s clear to me that once given the spot on the top PP unit, Bouchard will further improve this PP. You read that right. A PP that looks like it could be over 30% this season with Hyman being a big upgrade in the net-front role could improve thanks to having the absolute perfect piece on the back end. The very few flaws with this unit right now are mostly with Barrie. He’s not bad in the role, but for whatever reason, he’s a bit of a mess setting up their zone entries, and I’m not at all a fan of Barrie’s decision-making (more on him in a bit). Bouchard is a more intelligent offensive player with better vision, better creativity, and a better shot. And in fairness, I’m not intending to knock Barrie when I say that, it’s just that I believe they have something pretty damn special with Bouchard. Nurse-Bouchard has the potential to be the top pairing in the game if the Oilers choose to keep them as a pair long term, and could be among the best in the league by the time the playoffs roll around.
Hated the contract, but always loved the player. What I will say though is I’m not sure it’s the risk I believed it was in the summer. The way he’s fit, the next to no ego he brings to the room (from all accounts), the work ethic, I might have overrated the risk in that contract. I try to put a guy like Lucic aside being an Oilers fan, and I still think of guys like James Neal, Andrew Ladd, Corey Perry, Ryan Callahan, turning 30 for these types of players is similar to when running backs in the NFL hit that age where it seems like while they can be effective, they can no longer live up to the big contract. Hyman most reminds me of a guy who did though. A guy we all know extremely well: Ryan Smyth. Smyth got his big contract with the Avs at age 31, so Hyman will be the same age as Smyth was in the final season of their big deals. Smyth declined, but it was very gradual and he was still an effective player by the end of the deal. That’s all I ask. But as for this season, Hyman has been terrific.
An Actual 3rd Line
It’s stealing a page out of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s book, which is never a bad thing to steal anything from that organization. Their 3rd line of Coleman-Gourde-Goodrow was key, and Foegele-Ryan-Kassian might not be that good, but they don’t look to be far off it. Foegele was just like Duncan Keith for me. Love the player, hated what it cost. But the difference with Foegele is that there is still upside. One of the moves I actually did love of Ken Holland’s was the Derek Ryan signing, but I saw him as a 4th line centre at this point. So far, however, he’s been terrific in the role. Then you have Zach Kassian. It was such a controversial extension that Holland signed Kassian to in January of 2020. Of course, there was no way to know that had he held off, Kassian likely gets signed for about a million less per season than he was signed for. Since signing that contract, Kassian had been terrible. But he has looked fantastic out of the gate. He’s playing with a ton of energy each night and embracing his role. The line as a whole is giving blueline’s fits on the forecheck and while it’s not the most skilled trio, when you create enough chances you’re certain to put a few in which is exactly what has happened.
Goaltending Even Better?
Can Mike Smith provide an encore from last season at 39 years old? So far, it looks like it (mind you, only two games, I can’t pin the numbers vs Anaheim on him as the team was allowing grade-A chances all night). So then the question becomes what will Koskinen give them? He’s looked great in three games and it won’t surprise me if this continues. We’ve seen too much good with Koskinen over his three seasons and seen him bounce back before when counted out, so it shouldn’t shock anyone that he’s 3-0-0 with a .943 Sv%. If it’s possible that they get a similar season from Smith (the jury is still out on this obviously, but it’s looking possible), and we see the 19-20 version of Koskinen, look out. The only issue that I worry about is if the goaltending is too good during the regular season. I don’t know if I trust either of these guys in the playoffs and strongly believe Holland needs to upgrade by the deadline.
Still More To Come
Ryan McLeod, Dylan Holloway, Dmitri Samorukov, Stuart Skinner, these guys are all very close. Holloway for example, obviously he’ll spend time in Bakersfield once he returns, and the question has always been how much offensive upside he has, but at worse, he’ll be an even faster version of what Foegele is. Samorukov could really solidify the bottom pairing once he gets his chance. I was baffled that Skinner didn’t get the start in Arizona on Thursday night, but he appears to be trending towards being full-time on the roster by opening night for the 22-23 season and should be fine if injuries force him between the pipes this season. And of course, McLeod was thought to be a lock to start the season. He didn’t stand out during camp, but more than that, I wonder if this is more about making sure he knows he needs to be more difficult to play against. This can go too far with Tippett (see how Caleb Jones was treated last season), but in this scenario, I don’t mind demanding more out of McLeod because the ability is there with the player. The book has always been that if he could learn to play inside and with more determination, he’d be a hell of a player. He’s an NHL player, just a matter of attempting to get the most out of him, and in this case vs Jones last season, they can afford to go this route with the player.
Of course, not EVERYTHING is going to go perfectly. Plus, I’m sure some see me as a pessimist by trying to keep things level-headed and realistic.
I hated the signing prior to last season when everyone loved it, not because he wasn’t good value, but because there was no need for it. The logic behind it (that seemingly every fan and member of the media got behind) was ridiculous. “You need him to replace Klefbom”. He doesn’t play the same side and is pretty much the exact opposite as a player. “You can’t put that kind of pressure on Bouchard to QB the PP”. A) Connor McDavid QB’s the Oilers PP, Klefbom has always just been a low maintenance player they needed in that spot to put the puck on the sticks of those who could create, and B) Why did Bouchard have to be on it?! Nurse (whom the PP had better stats with as the point man the previous season), Bear, Jones, there were a lot of options similar to what Klefbom was beyond Bouchard. So Barrie was similar to buying good cocaine on the cheap. You shouldn’t do it. It’s bad for you. But it’s so cheap, you have to buy it don’t you?! Nope. Walk away. Don’t do it. And they did it, and he put up terrific point totals but actually created very little and just lived off playing all night with McDavid. He was similar to what Ty Rattie was. So far this season he has been a nightmare. Now in fairness, he started terrible last season too. But to me, last season he looked lost in terms of figuring out the system. This season he looks like he’s out of shape. I believe that they are going to need to bring in a shutdown D-man on the right side by the deadline, and one of Ceci or Barrie will need to go to bring in that piece. Barrie is looking like the guy to move, but if he keeps looking like this, who will want two more seasons at 4.5 million per of THIS?!
Killing the Depth
I want to say that I believe in a lot of ways, Dave Tippett is one of the best coaches in the game. His lineup decisions are an absolute killer though. Nobody is saying that you can’t use McDavid and Draisaitl together at certain times in a game (catching a tired group on the ice after an icing, final minute of periods, etc). But even on home ice, I don’t get it. And this team finally has depth up front, and Tippett is doing everything he can to kill that depth. Hyman-McDavid-Puljujarvi has the ability to be one of the top lines in the game. RNH-Draisaitl-Yamamoto we know can be one of the best second lines in the game. Why in the bloody hell would you look to hurt that second line only to marginally increase your first line?! And as most have figured out by now, the trade off of McDavid and Draisaitl being so dangerous offensively is that both players tend to not bother playing in their own zone. Three great lines, or two great lines with one ok line? I know it might seem small to most, but in my opinion, it hurts the team and for no reason.
Not out of the realm of possibility that Barrie greatly improves from how he’s currently playing and that Tippett sees the light with the line configurations. If that were to happen, do they even need to do anything or are they just going to cruise to the Cup? Don’t be stupid.
Trade Deadline Targets
I know this is months away, but in looking at some of the players who’ll possibly be on the move at the deadline, they’d fit terrific for the Oilers needs. As good as things look, I still don’t know that they are anything beyond a very good team. Call me crazy, I want to see the Oilers become legitimate Cup contenders. And I believe that Holland can add pieces to move them into that category of team.
I’ve ironically been on this train since the middle of last season, and now Bob Stauffer is loudly hinting at the teams interest in him. For me, it was looking around the league for someone who could eventually pop as that hard to play against power forward, similar to a Josh Anderson. One thing I laughed at though and would be LIVID at is the notion that giving up Ryan McLeod for him is a good deal. Tyler Benson makes all the sense in the world. I believe you’d need more than Benson, but Benson gives AZ a more skilled player, cheaper, a year younger, and more team control (AKA more RFA years remaining, which I believe is five years difference between the two). Would Benson and Marody do it? Benson and Niemelainen? Benson and Kemp or Kesselring? I feel like that is close. If you’re doing McLeod for Crouse, AZ better be kicking back one of those five 2nd round picks they own in the 2022 draft and/or taking back Kyle Turris. No doubt though he’d be a great add. 4th line winger with upside is intriguing.
He’s not what he was, but this would still be an excellent addition, not to mention that we know his ties to the organization. An impending UFA, as I said earlier you’d need to move out one of Ceci or Barrie to not only make the money work, but also create the spot in the lineup for him. This is your Adam Larsson replacement. As for the cost, I would try like hell to avoid giving up Samorukov, but that does feel like a great fit of a return for the Ducks. If it’s me, I’d try hard for it to be a pick or picks and a forward prospect (Savoie?) For Manson though, I’d have a tough time saying no if the Ducks were adamant the return be Samorukov. If Barrie or Ceci could either go in the deal or be dumped elsewhere, it does open up the possibility to re-sign Manson.
I’ve been beating this drum since Fleury went to Chicago. Final year of his deal, I wouldn’t be shocked if Bowman “owes Holland one” for the Keith deal, and what a chance this would be for Fleury to get back at the Golden Knights going back to the Pacific division. It makes too much sense. Fleury does hold the cards with his NTC, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Penguins make a run at him, but I believe he makes the most sense for the Oilers to at least be their top target. As for making it fit, the Hawks aren’t going to have an issue by the time they decide to move him (assuming they continue playing terrible) eating half of his contract and taking back Koskinen to run out the season with.
Call me nuts, but I think this trio is a very possible deadline haul for the Oilers. Holland has opened the window. They’re a serious buyer now. That kind of haul makes the Oilers very legitimate Cup contenders this season. As long as you’re not needing to completely blow up the system to do it, you do it.
Great start for the Oilers! Just keep in mind that it’s only a start, it doesn’t mean much, and they haven’t been truly tested yet. There is reason to believe that despite the bad prices paid by the GM that he at least built a team that is only a couple moves away from moving into that elite status every team in this league strives for.
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