To say the Edmonton Oilers’ season-opening loss to the New Jersey Devils was a letdown would be like saying Connor McDavid is pretty good at hockey; it’s an understatement. During their 5-2 loss to the Devils on Saturday in Gothenburg, Sweden, the Oilers looked like a team trying to figure out IKEA furniture instructions instead of the team that went 6-1 in the preseason.
The response was not good which is understandable, considering the Devils scored on their first shot, less than a minute into the game. Then, on New Jersey’s third goal, Cam Talbot looked like Ty Conklin handling the puck in Game 1 of the 2006 Stanley Cup Final. Their lethargic play was evident as the Oilers could scarcely generate a shot in the second period, and fans were justifiably angry.
A long break between that game and their second game, Thursday night in Boston against the Bruins, has only amplified concerns. But it is, as they say, only one game. Nonetheless, the Oilers need to win quickly and they have a lot to prove. With that in mind, here are three things to watch for as the team tries to improve on game one.
The Play of Goalie Cam Talbot
Talbot had the worst season of his career in 2017-18, posting a 3.02 goals-against average and a .908 save percentage. He is capable of better—as his 42-win 2016-17 season illustrated—and he needs to provide a steadying influence between the pipes again. He looked fine in the preseason, but his play against the Devils, surrendering four goals on 26 shots, opened up some old wounds.
Over his next handful of starts, the Oilers’ starting goaltender will have to stop the first shot (no matter how difficult) and weather any early storms from the opposition. He also needs to regain the trust of his teammates and avoid playing the puck when he doesn’t need to. Saturday’s circus behind the net wasn’t Talbot’s first misadventure when he attempted to stick handle through adversity. If he does handle the puck, he’ll need to be decisive and clearly communicate his intentions to his defensemen.
The Play of Connor McDavid
Okay…McDavid is someone to watch in every game. Despite his influence on the success of the Oilers, there are some additional reasons to pay attention to the superstar when the team returns to North America. He entered the season looking faster and more driven than ever before—a scary thought. When you consider that the Oilers need some bounce-back games, there’s more motivation for the captain to string together some stellar performances.
If that wasn’t inspiration enough, picture McDavid stewing about his team’s loss to the Devils and watching highlights of Auston Matthews scoring seven goals and 10 points in the Toronto Maple Leafs’ first four games of the season. Sure, McDavid is more interested in winning games and making the playoffs, but he’s also driven to be the best player in the game. He knows how to read a leaderboard and he wants to see his name at the top of it.
Puljujarvi Versus Yamamoto
After they came out flying in the preseason, neither Kailer Yamamoto nor Jesse Puljujarvi did much in the season opener, putting three shots on net between the two of them, but the Oilers need some stability at the right wing position.
Both players are still trying to show that they belong in the NHL and will be looking to make an impact early in the season. How they play during the Oilers’ first 10 games of the season will determine the calibre of their linemates, and whether or not they’ll be suiting up in Edmonton. For Yamamoto in particular, a trip to the American Hockey League (AHL) is a real possibility.
The Oilers may still be successful even if one of Yamamoto or Puljujarvi is not ready to contribute, but they need one of them to step up, and it needs to happen soon.
The Oilers Need Wins
No matter how these storylines play out, the Oilers need to find a way to register victories in a hurry. If that sounds desperate, it may be…but just a little. A few early wins will go a long way in restoring confidence in the team across the board. More ugly losses, and…Well, let’s not think about that quite yet. There’s still plenty to watch for.
Ian Wilson is a life-long hockey fan who was initially drawn to the sport by the Edmonton Oiler dynasty of the 1980s. He brings decades of journalism to the table as a former editor and reporter with the Calgary Sun.