The Edmonton Oilers open the 2021-22 season on Wednesday (Oct. 13) when they host their Pacific Division rivals, the Vancouver Canucks, at Rogers Place.
Hopes are high in Oil Country this season, and rightly so. The Oilers have a duo for the ages in forwards Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid, who are just entering their prime and have been bolstered by several offseason additions from veteran blueliner Duncan Keith to multi-faceted winger Zach Hyman.
Understandably, fans are also a bit wary. After all, the Oilers have had strong regular seasons in both 2019-20 and 2020-21, only to crash and burn in the postseason.
But the playoffs are 82 games away, and Edmonton, like every team, has those uncertain factors that will be critical to their success in the months to come. Here are three burning for the Oilers in 2021-22.
What is Realistic to Expect of Brendan Perlini?
Perlini was Edmonton’s surprise star of the preseason, leading the team with six goals in six games. What’s more impressive is that he did all his scoring while playing in the bottom six and almost exclusively at even strength.
Whatever expectations were for the 25-year-old, Perlini blew them out of the water. Consider that the 6-foot-3 winger was out of the NHL last season, left to ply his trade in Switzerland’s National League before the Oilers signed him in August to a one-year, two-way contract that guaranteed Perlini nothing more than a spot in the American Hockey League (AHL) for the next several months.
So did Perlini catch lightning in a bottle for two weeks? Or is it reasonable to think he could push to score 20 goals, or even more, for Edmonton this season? His history suggests the latter might not be out of line.
Perlini was drafted 12th overall by Arizona in 2014, after a season in which he scored 34 times in just 58 games for the Niagara IceDogs of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL). Over his final three OHL seasons (2013-14 to 2015-16), Perlini pumped in 85 goals over 158 games, an average of 0.54 per game. Once he entered the pros, Perlini spent only 17 games in the AHL, racking up 14 goals (0.82 per game) in 2016-17.
Over his first three NHL seasons, Perlini scored at a clip of around 20 goals per 82 games. His 82-game rate was 20.14 as a rookie in 2016-17 (14 goals in 57 games) and 18.84 (17 in 74) the following season. He started the 2018-19 season slow, scoring just twice in 22 games for the Coyotes, but after being traded to the Chicago Blackhawks, he produced at a rate of 21.39 goals per 82 games (12 in 46).
After scoring just one goal in 40 games between Chicago and the Detroit Red Wings in 2019-20, Perlini went unsigned by NHL teams. He scored nine times in 21 games for HC Ambri-Piotta overseas last season.
Except for his miserable season two years ago, Perlini has consistently scored at every stop throughout his career. The caveat in Edmonton is that he’s likely going to play in the bottom six, which doesn’t lend itself to 20-goal campaigns. But considering his contract carries an average annual value of just $750,000, Perlini might provide Edmonton the best bang for its buck in 2021-22.
Does Mike Smith Continue to Defy Father Time?
Smith played fantastic in net for the Oilers last season, silencing doubters who had suggested that the veteran goalie receiving a one-year, $2 million deal might be the worst signing of free agency.
In 32 appearances, Smith went 21-6-2 while posting a 2.31 goals-against average (GAA) and .923 save percentage (SV%). The Oilers rewarded Smith in the offseason with a two-year, $4.4 million contract to remain in Edmonton.
That raised more than a few eyebrows, considering Smith will celebrate his 40th birthday in March and turn 41 before the end of the deal. In the expansion era, there have only been eight goalies (Ed Belfour, Martin Brodeur, Gary Cheevers, Dominik Hasek, Curtis Joseph, Roberto Luongo, Dwayne Roloson, Tim Thomas) to play more than 40 games in a season in which they turned 40 or older. Of that group, only Brodeur backstopped his team to a Stanley Cup Final appearance, with the New Jersey Devils in 2012, and none won the championship.
Smith showed no sign of breaking down last season, but that was during an abbreviated schedule in which he only logged 1,847 minutes. The key to Smith maintaining a high level of play could hinge on not overtaxing the multi-time All-Star, who hasn’t played more than 2,400 minutes in a season since 2017-18.
To that end, the strong preseason from Smith’s partner between the pipes, Mikko Koskinen, is encouraging for the Oilers. Koskinen struggled for parts last season and started just 13 of Edmonton’s final 43 games (30%). To keep Smith sharp, Koskinen should play at least closer to 40% of the time in 2021-22.
Eventually, Father Time catches up to everyone. The Oilers hope that in the case of Smith, that doesn’t happen for at least one year, preferably two.
Will Kailer Yamamoto Bounce Back?
Yamamoto broke out in 2019-20 and was stamped as a major piece of the Oilers’ future after he notched 11 goals and 15 assists in 27 games following his recall from the AHL’s Bakersfield Condors just before New Year’s. He played primarily with Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, forming a line that was for a period as hot as any in hockey.
But the winger didn’t take an anticipated step to stardom last season when he had eight goals and 13 assists in 52 games. Yamamoto’s offensive production regressed significantly as the season wore on, with just 15 points in his last 45 appearances and one goal in his last 25 games.
A restricted free-agent, Yamamoto re-signed to a one-year, $1.175 extension in what is accurately described as a “prove-it contract.” The 23-year-old had one goal and a plus-two rating in four preseason games and looked to be starting the regular season on Edmonton’s second line with Hyman and Nugent-Hopkins.
The Oilers have greater depth on the wing than last season, which is a blessing and a curse for Yamamoto. If he’s under less pressure, it also means the 2017 first-round draft pick is more likely to see a diminished role if he doesn’t produce.
At the end of the season, the only questions that matter will be, “How many points do the Oilers have?” and, “Where did Edmonton finish in the standings?”
If Perlini lights the lamp often enough, Smith continues to belie his birth certificate, and Yamamoto rediscovers his form of 2020, there’s a better chance the answers are ‘more than 100″ and “near the top.”
Brian is an Edmonton-based sports writer and broadcaster. His experience includes working as a sports reporter for the Edmonton Sun, where he covered the Edmonton Oil Kings 2013-14 Memorial Cup championship season.