Santa’s making a list and checking it twice, trying to determine who is naughty and nice this holiday season. The Edmonton Oilers have paused for the holiday break after mixed results through the beginning third of the season. With all the ups and downs, now is the perfect time to figure out which of the Oilers’ players and staff performed well enough to deserve to make the nice list and which ones performed poorly and deserve a spot on the naughty list this Christmas.
Oilers’ Nice List:
The long-term extension Nugent-Hopkins signed with the Oilers in the offseason seems to have taken a load off the former first-overall selection, who is enjoying a bounce-back season. He put up 16 goals and 35 points in 52 games during the shortened season, including 20 on the power play. Those numbers were good enough for fifth in team scoring, although two defensemen – Tyson Barrie and Darnell Nurse – outpaced his offensive production.
This season, he’s already up to 25 points through 25 games, although only three of them are goals. He continues to be an instrumental part of the Oilers’ potent power-play unit and is already up to 14 power-play points. This is the type of play the organization expects from Nugent-Hopkins, especially because he can provide secondary scoring behind Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. He is an elite passer and makes players around him better, and if he remains on pace, he should produce closer to the 69-point season he had in 2018-19.
The 23-year-old goaltender finds himself in the good books this holiday season because his play is a welcome surprise. Before the season, the expectation was Skinner would be the starting goaltender for the Bakersfield Condors in the American Hockey League, while Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen handle the NHL duties. However, due to Mike Smith’s ongoing injuries, Skinner got thrust into a more prominent role.
He is beginning to find his stride after a very successful showing in the minors in 2020-21, recording a 2.38 goals-against average (GAA) and a .914 save percentage (SV%) with 20 wins in 31 games. He is proving he can handle the NHL with a 4-5-0 record in nine starts this season and a 2.70 GAA and .916 SV% despite that Koskinen is handling most of the starts. Skinner is still showing some growing pains as he blunders from time to time, but his ability to push through those errors and maintain his focus is reassuring. His large 6-foot-4 frame, athleticism, and poise show his potential and fans and management should be excited to watch him grow.
The young blueliner is enjoying the breakout season everyone was waiting for. The Oilers took their time with Bouchard’s development, and it looks like their patience is paying off. He has impressed since the beginning of the season with his well-rounded, defensive game, despite being known as an offensive defenseman. He quickly worked his way to the team’s top defence pairing, displacing Tyson Barrie as Darnell Nurse’s blue line partner.
He dominated in Bakersfield in 2020-21, producing seven goals and 36 points in 54 games as the team’s minute-eating defenseman. He’s maintained that strong play in the NHL this season with 18 points through 29 games and operating at that clip with minimal time on the power play, which is even more impressive. He is not a defensive liability and worked his way into a role on the team’s penalty kill while averaging 21:28 of ice time. He is trusted by head coach Dave Tippett and proved that he can be a number one defenseman when Nurse went down with injury earlier in the season. He should be very high on the nice list this year, and there should be no argument if he gets lots of presents under his tree from Santa.
Oilers’ Naughty List:
Up first on the Oilers’ naughty list is Kailer Yamamoto, which is no surprise. The winger’s production is decreasing with each passing season, and he looks nothing like the player from 2019-20 when he scored 26 points in 27 games. Despite his second-line role alongside Draisaitl and Nugent-Hopkins, two of the team’s top-three scorers, he only recorded five goals and seven points through the first 29 games this season.
That level of production is nowhere near what’s expected of a player on the second line, especially on a team with playoff aspirations. He can be effective at times because of his tenacity, despite his small size but what is concerning is his inability to generate shots and scoring chances, highlighted by a seven-game streak when he failed to register a shot on goal. The Oilers will need to actively find a replacement on the trade market to improve and likely look to move him in a corresponding deal. He’s been a disappointment, especially for a pending free agent, and unless he can turn it around soon, he will likely be pulling coal from his stocking this Christmas.
Despite Ryan’s limited role, he is still performing below expectations. He signed with the Oilers this offseason at a $1,250,000 cap hit over the next two seasons and was supposed to take over the third-line center role. He has yet to come as advertised. Through 26 games, he has two goals and two points and lost his third-line role to Ryan McLeod (who is also not playing well).
Even though he is an active member of the penalty kill and solid in the faceoff circle, his minus-10 rating is proof that he is failing to deliver on defence. He is probably better suited to a fourth-line role moving forward, however, considering that in today’s NHL, teams need contributions from multiple lines in order to be successful, there is no doubt that the Oilers want more from him. With another season left on his deal after this one, his contract and his play are subpar and the reason for his exclusion from the nice list.
The Oilers general manager can’t call this his team, given that he inherited some signings and players that still linger from the previous management; however, Holland made some questionable moves in the offseason that are doing more harm than good. Re-signing Mike Smith stands out because, despite how good he was in the 2020-21 season, he is nearing 40 years old with a well-documented injury history. Smith has only played three games this season before going down with an injury and landing on long-term injured reserve. His two-year, $4.4 million deal now seems one year too long and one that Holland pivoted to as a last-ditch effort after the goalie market depleted quickly.
Of course, there is the Derek Ryan deal that looks to be another bad investment, but there’s also the Duncan Keith trade. Keith is another ageing player who Holland acquired for too high a price despite having leverage in the situation. The former Norris Trophy-winner and three-time Stanley Cup Champion is battling injury troubles this season and comes with a monster $5.5 million+ cap hit until the end of the 2022-23 season. That’s a lot of money invested in an older defenseman that could be allocated to other assets. It also limits the flexibility of the team to make moves closer to the trade deadline.
Overall, it feels like all the moves Holland made were a mirage, and you could argue that he failed to improve the team, especially in goal, nor did he make the Oilers any deeper than they were a season ago. Despite that the team is back on track after navigating through a six-game losing skid, Holland will need to be creative with his deadline additions and asset management to give Santa and the fans a reason to pull him off the naughty list this Christmas.
Oilers, It’s Never Too Late to Be Nice
At the end of the day, it is the holiday season, and everyone deserves a second chance and time to make things right. If those Oilers on the naughty list can turn the page heading into the New Year and begin to perform or, in Holland’s case, make smart acquisitions to bolster the team, maybe, just maybe, they will get their names onto the nice list by season’s end.
I am a graduate of Seneca Colleges Civil Engineering Technology Program and have turned my obsession for sports into a lifestyle. I cover the Edmonton Oilers and Los Angeles Kings here on The Hockey Writers but have been a diehard Maple Leafs fan since birth. I love fantasy sports, collecting sports memorabilia and when I’m not watching the Toronto Raptors, Blue Jays, or Pittsburgh Steelers; you can find me playing for my ball hockey team, playing video games, or listening to classic rock with a cold one or a coffee in my hand.