I, as much as anyone, was excited about the Edmonton Oilers‘ three games this week against all California-based teams. With the Oilers having a record of 8-2-0 vs Pacific Division opponents and coming off back-to-back wins, all signs were pointing to a fun week ahead of the Christmas break.
With the NHL shutting down early after a rise in COVID cases, the games vs the Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings, and San Jose Sharks were postponed and will likely be made up during what was supposed to be the Olympic break. With the Oilers hot on the tail of the Ducks, that matchup will have to wait.
It’s never ideal to have an interruption right when a team starts to get hot and play well, but it’s the better option than having a ton of NHL regulars on the sidelines while half of the American Hockey League (AHL) team is called up. Against a team that has a significantly less number of players in COVID-protocol, it creates an unnecessary unfair advantage for the other team.
Too Many Key Players on COVID-Protocol
Though players have gotten a chance to step up, a fully healthy team is what needs to be iced every night if possible. With a number of new faces, sometimes chemistry takes time to form, and it can’t when players are in and out of the lineup missing chunks of games.
The Oilers have seven players in COVID-protocol: Jesse Puljujarvi, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Devin Shore, Ryan McLeod, Darnell Nurse, Duncan Keith, and William Lagesson (“Oilers place defensemen Darnell Nurse, William Lagesson in COVID-19 protocol”, The Athletic, Dec. 20, 2021). This is on top of the already five injured players that have played games for the team this season in Zach Hyman, Kyle Turris, Kris Russell, Markus Niemelainen, and Mike Smith.
That makes six forwards, five defencemen, and one goalie who would’ve been unavailable for the Oilers in important matchups against divisional opponents. They are in a tight race at the top of the Pacific, and it’s not going to get any easier. As much as we’d all love to see players like Seth Griffith, Cooper Marody, Raphael Lavoie, Philip Broberg, and Dmitri Samorukov get a look or more of a look in the NHL this season, they aren’t ready and will likely be outmatched by opponents.
Mike Smith Gets More Time to Fully Recover
The most significant injury that the Oilers have sustained this season has been the injury to their goaltender Mike Smith. Ken Holland was confident enough that he could bring Smith back and he would provide great value for what he is being paid like he did last season.
After an injury in the third game of the season, Smith suffered a setback when he was inching closer to returning and it landed him on the long-term injured reserve (LTIR). He is very close to a return, and this extra break until the expected startup of the NHL again on Monday, Dec. 27 may provide him with enough time to be ready for a return to the lineup.
Along with a healthy defence in front of the Oilers’ goalies, a return of the projected starter will really help the team prevent more goals than they have been allowing every game, giving them that extra edge on nights where it’s harder to score.
Mikko Koskinen was holding down the crease for a time when the goal support was there every night. But once the goals stopped going in seamlessly, allowing a goal on the first shot of the game or early in the first period continued to be a killer for the Oilers. Playing from behind is always tougher mentally just knowing you have to take more chances to get that extra goal.
Pushing Koskinen back into a backup role where he seems to play better with less pressure every night should help him get some rest and settle in again this season. The Oilers’ young goalie who has been a welcomed addition to the team to provide some help for Koskinen is Stuart Skinner. He’s played well and he looks like a promising option in net for the Oilers next year or down the line, but the best course of action is to let him play every night in the AHL and get the reps and confidence up.
Oilers Can’t Risk Losing McDavid or Draisaitl
For the last couple of games, the Oilers have managed without key players like Nugent-Hopkins, Puljujarvi, and Hyman, but they can be considered great complementary pieces on this team. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl have played every game this season and will need to continue to in order to give the Oilers the best chance every night.
If one or both of them have missed a game under normal circumstances, Nugent-Hopkins is called upon to shift back to centre where he just hasn’t been able to create offence with his line. This is also a problem as to why Dave Tippett is always wary about playing Draisaitl on a line with McDavid. It loads up one line, but the second line struggles to score like they should.
Despite how a player may feel if he tests positive for COVID-19, he is forced to miss time. While Draisaitl has managed to stay healthy throughout his career and McDavid has just suffered two freak accidents that have caused him to miss time, they will both do whatever to play and get the Oilers as far as they can go.
The Oilers would probably be outmatched if either of them were out of the lineup, especially at a time when others are missing time too. The intimidation factor of matching up with two of the best players in the world who play over a combined 40 minutes a night also goes away.
Hopefully by the time play resumes at the beginning of next week, a number of Oilers will have been given the time to recover and be ready to continue to push the team forward and stay in the win column.
Rob Couch is a THW freelance writer covering mainly the Edmonton Oilers and Philadelphia Flyers. He covers everything you need to know about fantasy hockey. He will also keep you up to date with the NHL Stat Corner and trade talks from around the NHL.
You can find more of his work here.