The Edmonton Oilers sit one point out of a playoff spot at the Christmas break after losing another game they should have won to the Vancouver Canucks. There have been a few of those games as of late and it has allowed a few teams to gain some ground on them. With 47 games remaining in the season, they are primed to finish strong once again and qualify for the playoffs for a number of reasons.
McDavid Will Play Even Better Down the Stretch
It’s hard to imagine Connor McDavid getting even better than he is right now, but that’s what most people thought after his performance in the playoffs last season. He has now decided he wants to score and is on pace for 70 goals at Christmas with 30 goals in 35 games. He has 100 more points than anyone since entering the league, and second just happens to be his teammate Leon Draisaitl.
McDavid also has a career 1.46 points per game but is playing at a 1.89 points-per-game pace so far this season. Down the stretch when the playoff push is on, he elevates his game to a whole new level every season. He had 15 goals and 44 points in the last 24 games in 2021-22 as well as 11 goals and 41 points in the final 17 games in 2020-21. So his scoring pace is only ramping up right now to carry the Oilers to the postseason once again.
Nugent-Hopkins’ Career Year Is Helping Drive Play
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is without a doubt having the best season of his career. He is playing wherever is needed and still producing at five-on-five and on the power play. 2021-22 was considered a down year for the 29-year-old as he scored just 11 goals in 63 games. He still managed 50 points last season, but he is really racking up the goals and points in 2022-23.
Nugent-Hopkins has 18 goals and 41 points in 35 games this season, toppling his marks from last season already. He looks like he has so much confidence right now and has been centering two players (Mattias Janmark and Klim Kostin) who started off in the American Hockey League (AHL) this season. That line has been very effective and has even been used as the third line.
Kane’s Return to the Lineup
As it is, the Oilers are already starting to look much deeper up front since Ryan McLeod and Warren Foegele have returned to the lineup. But the final big piece they have been missing is Kane since the 14th game of the season. He’s now been out 21 games and the Oilers have felt his loss. Many times they’ve scrambled for someone to play in the top-six, and oftentimes it has been someone like Janmark or Jesse Puljujarvi who shouldn’t be playing that high in the lineup.
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Kane had five goals and 13 points in 14 games before his injury. He more than proved himself last season as well once he signed with the Oilers. Last season he combined for 35 goals in 58 games between the regular season and playoffs. That kind of scoring is very hard to come by and has really been missing from the lineup. Kane logs 19:30 of average ice time per night. His absence has caused players who aren’t used to or shouldn’t be getting more ice time to have to step up and play more.
Klim Kostin’s physicality has been welcomed since Kane has been out of the lineup, but his absence is still felt because he plays significantly more and against better opponents. His return will definitely help the Oilers win more tight-checking games and more games in general.
Unsustainable Play by Kings and Kraken
The Los Angeles Kings and Seattle Kraken are the two teams I have focused in on since their play is either unsustainable or they shouldn’t be as high as they are in the standings.
The Kings are horrible in net this season. Cal Petersen was sent down to the AHL in the first of his three-year, $15 million deal because he couldn’t stop a puck. His save percentage (SV%) in the NHL is .868 in 10 games and the goalie they kept up, Jonathan Quick, isn’t much better, as he has a .885 SV% in 22 games. They have luckily received great goaltending from journeyman Pheonix Copley who is 6-1-0 with a .910 SV% (from “Column: Poised goaltender Pheonix Copley is the surprise Christmas gift the Kings needed”, Los Angeles Times, Dec. 21, 2022). How long can that keep up? There is a reason he has started 26 career games at his age. It’s a matter of time before that Cinderella story is over.
As for the Kraken, they aren’t much better. Martin Jones was holding the team together for a time while Philipp Grubauer was injured, but Jones’ play has plummeted. In nine of his 21 starts, he has allowed at least four goals against and he had a stretch of three games in which he allowed 17 goals and won all three. That is a testament to the offence this season for the Kraken, but how long can that keep up? Jones sits at a .888 SV% but is somehow 14-5-3 while Grubauer has a .882 SV%. That is not a recipe for success unless the Kraken are planning on setting the goals-per-game record by the end of the season.
Neither the Kings nor the Kraken have any real stars on their roster and they aren’t getting back a player like Kane to increase production even more. The Oilers have a sustainable offence while also having a goaltender who can actually put up good numbers.
Forward Depth Looks Much Better
I touched on this in the section about Kane briefly, but when a number of the Oilers’ regulars got injured for a period of time, it forced the depth to step up and be tested. Players like Dylan Holloway, Janmark, Kostin, James Hamblin, Derek Ryan, and Devon Shore were all given more of an opportunity to play and produce.
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Janmark and Kostin weren’t even playing in the NHL before Kane got injured due to the Oilers being right at the salary cap, so they got real chances with the team for the first time. Both have earned their place on the team permanently and have climbed into the top-nine. As far as depth goes, they are starting to score and produce points. Janmark should have been in the NHL from the start if there was room and Kostin brings a combination of speed, physicality, and shot that only Kane possesses.
Holloway has really found his confidence in the NHL lately as he’s not afraid to carry the puck up the ice and make moves to get around defencemen. He’s stuck in the bottom-six right now, but his level of play will earn him more playing time at some point.
The Oilers placed trust in Ryan from the start and kept him in the NHL to begin the season over Janmark. He has been a steady veteran presence in the bottom-six and has started to lead the way in terms of depth scoring. The 35-year-old has three goals and five points in his last nine games after two goals and four points in his first 25.
The last two players I brought up, Shore and Hamblin, aren’t likely to stick around once Kane returns unless the Oilers clear some cap. Even then, Hamblin has had a nice run and the Oilers have gotten a look at the prospect who impressed in training camp. With a healthy roster, neither will get in the lineup very often, if at all.
All signs point to the Oilers being able to continue the strong play they’ve displayed in recent games and get better as the season goes along. McDavid’s crazy hot streak is set to come at the same time every season for the playoff push, secondary scoring has picked up, and other teams ahead of them are likely to start faltering. It will be a fun ride and a battle until the end for playoff spots, resulting in the Oilers once again making an appearance in the postseason.