Tonight is the night!! The “Battle of Alberta” kicks off with not just one, but TWO extremely large games between two of the top teams in the NHL’s Pacific division! There is zero doubt that these are the two biggest games of the season to this point for both the Calgary Flames and the Edmonton Oilers!
Oscar De La Hoya should have had me hyping the Alvarez/GGG fight this weekend! Anyway, I’ll get right to it.
You have a lot of players on both sides of the BOA entering this season who could be deemed “X factors”. Jesse Puljujarvi, Curtis Lazar, Darnell Nurse, Mike Smith, Milan Lucic, Troy Brouwer. You can make a case that every single player on each side is an “X factor”. But to me, and I think to most, there is one guy on each side who stands out above everyone else.
I’ll start in Calgary, since I’m an Oilers fan and give them the love 95% of the time on this site.
Sam Bennett. I think at this point that it’s safe to say Bennett will play in the league for a long time. I don’t believe the jury is out on him anymore. Last season was a sophomore jinx for him though. He wasn’t overly effective last season, at either end of the ice. He bounced back and forth between centre and the wing, only put up 26 points, and I felt might have been more of a distraction for the Flames than a help.
Now, what I mean by that isn’t a knock on Bennett as a player or as a person. But when you’re trying to find out who a player is and where he fits, that can take it’s toll on a hockey club. The GM wants to make sure that player has every opportunity to develop (especially when it’s the first draft pick ever made by that GM), and the coach wants the same but it’s challenging when you’re needing the player to hit his potential and he’s struggling to do so. And frankly, what worries me with Bennett is the bi-polar nature in his game. I saw this with Sam Gagner in Edmonton. When Bennett is hot, he’s scorching hot. But when he’s cold, it lasts much longer than it should.
I don’t think it’s a must for Bennett to establish himself as a legitimate top nine centre this season. But that’s without a doubt the hope the organization has entering the season and would go a very long way for them.
If they could run Monahan, Backlund and Bennett down the middle all season it would be massive for this club. I question whether or not Backlund can repeat the offence he put up last season, but he was only six points better than his 15-16 campaign. No doubt it’s the peak of his career, but the point I’m trying to make here is that I believe a 40-45 point season is more realistic.
And is that really too much of a stretch? Just a 14 point improvement, only four more points than his 15-16 season. But I think for the Flames, it’s vital that this point total comes from him playing the middle and being a kid who Glen Gulutzan can trust to play some tough matchups. I realize they already have Monahan and Backlund who can handle those roles, but you have a situation where you can simply roll your top nine and don’t have to worry about sheltering anyone, it can take your team to another level, perhaps that of a serious contender.
The biggest thing that would help Bennett out is gaining strength. No, I’m not going to harp on the pull-ups or lack there of, but it is obvious when you watch him play that he doesn’t have the strength he needs to play the style he does. He has all the tools, but he doesn’t do anything well enough to overcome his lack of strength. Once he gets it, he’ll improve a lot below the dots, he should gain an extra step in his stride, and he should improve greatly in the dot. Sound like another centre up the highway?
What a segue!
I did hit on a lot of this with RNH in my last piece, but it’s definitely the biggest thing in my mind that holds him back, and I really believe that his game will eventually go to another level. He seems to be too committed and has too much talent to not get there. But it’s frustrating as hell waiting for it to happen.
I talked a lot about how much an increase in strength will help his skating ability which will have a trickle down affect with the rest of his game. He’ll be able to get into better positioning to strip players of the puck, of course he’ll then have an easier time stripping players of the puck with added strength, he’ll be tougher on the puck which should present more opportunities to get shots off or find passing lanes, it just has so many benefits.
But maybe the biggest thing they need from RNH is to improve his faceoff ability. Man, he has been so awful in the dot to this point, it’s completely unacceptable. 45.7% is his career high. How do you take nearly 6,000 faceoffs in this league and never improve your percentage to AT LEAST 47%?! And that’s still not really an acceptable number in my mind, but you can live with it. And I know analytics will tell you that faceoffs don’t matter, but man, you can’t convince me it wouldn’t lead to more success.
If RNH is going to be the third line centre the Oilers badly need this season, he’s going to have to greatly improve in the dot. McDavid and Draisaitl already have enough of a burden on their shoulders, and Letestu simply doesn’t have the game to see tougher matchups every night. Add to that, this team’s best LH shooting faceoff man this season was Draisaitl and he was only 49% last season. All three of McDavid, Draisaitl and RNH need to improve in the dot this season for this team to go to another level, but RNH specifically should be a 48-50% guy in the dot at this point. I know, I’m the guy who just the other day tried to hammer home the point that he’s still only 24 years old. But these numbers are just too damn low.
So what do they need out of RNH this season? They need him to be along the same lines as Nazem Kadri was for the Leafs last season. 30 goals and 60 points? No. But 20 goals and 50-55 points would be massive. We know he’s not going to see time on the top PP unit, which would mean a lot of those points would come at five on five. Kadri was also 48% in the dot. If Nuge can get to 47-48% I think it would go a lot further than people believe. It would help with those point totals, and would help greatly when facing the tough matchups Todd McLellan him to see. And they need him to tilt the ice more than he has been. When McLellan has spoke about him being too cautious offensively, I believe this is part of his thinking. If RNH takes more chances offensively, he’ll be better defensively simply by tilting the ice.
I don’t believe any of this is a big ask. RNH is already capable of being this player without gaining the strength I’ve talked so much about.
With both players, they’re already good. But they’re capable (and in Nugent-Hopkins case, paid) of being so much more. If they can either get to those levels or at least move towards that level of player this season, both the Flames and the Oilers are going to be serious threats in the West this season.
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