Oilers’ 3 Early Christmas Gifts for 2021-22 Season

The Edmonton Oilers have certainly had a very up-and-down season so far. Despite falling a bit recently, there is still a lot to be thankful for in this organization as we are now 28 games into the season and things look to be on the verge of being turned around in a big way soon.

The Oilers have two of the best players in the world, one is the leading goal-scorer in the league, and they are number one and two in the league in points per game. The team brought back Ryan Nugent-Hopkins on a very team-friendly deal, Jesse Puljujarvi is massively underpaid this season, and the team was starting to get back to full health injury-wise before COVID started affecting them.

The Oilers are in a playoff spot and have battled hard through a lot of adversity this season. There’s still a long way to go but here are some early standout gifts the organization has received this season so far.

Bouchard’s Early Breakout

A couple of moves were made this offseason to account for Evan Bouchard being developed enough to be a full-time NHLer this season. A steady development after starting the season on the third pairing is what everyone had hoped for but he has fast-tracked himself onto the top pairing alongside Darnell Nurse.

Bouchard has produced offensively despite not being given top power-play time. He’s currently second among defencemen in points on the team with 16, one behind Tyson Barrie, who gets the time on the best power play in the NHL. Bouchard has been very efficient for what opportunity he’s been given to put up points, recording 14 at even strength.

Evan Bouchard. Edmonton Oilers-Oilers' 3 Early Christmas Gifts for 2021-22 Season
Evan Bouchard, Edmonton Oilers (Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images)

A combination of Bouchard’s great play and Barrie’s poor play, at least five on five, has allowed Bouchard to take over and form chemistry with Nurse. It doesn’t look like Bouchard will be getting demoted anytime soon, especially with the emphasis needed for the Oilers to be better in front of their goalies.

There was a point where Bouchard was one of the more veteran and relied upon defenceman on the Oilers’ blueline with all the players out. He is still one of the pairings sent out to kill penalties as well as finish off tight games, whether it’s holding a lead or trying to tie the game up.

With one year left on his entry-level contract at $863k, the Oilers are able to take full advantage of an impact player making much less than he will once he comes off his first contract. They were hoping by the time Bouchard was in need of a new contract, he would come into his own and start competing for top-line minutes but that came to pass before game 15 of the season.

Oilers Prospects Performing Well at All Levels

A Few Standout Prospects in the Organization

Markus Niemelainen has been the most impressive defensive prospect recalled from the Bakersfield Condors, Edmonton’s American Hockey League (AHL) team. During the stretch of time when the entire left defence of Nurse, Duncan Keith, and Slater Koekkoek were out, Niemelainen was one of the young defencemen tasked to step in and fill the void.

Along with Philip Broberg and William Lagesson, these three players with less than 50 games of combined experience, slotted into a depleted Oilers’ defence. Once the NHL regulars started returning to the lineup, Niemelainen was the player who stayed in the lineup over the other two due to his physicality and hard play. Broberg was sent back down to the AHL, while Lagesson has been serving as the seventh defenceman.

Related: Oilers’ Brendan Perlini Taking Advantage of Second Chance in NHL

Niemelainen is much further ahead in his development than many would’ve even hoped and the opportunity to get time in the NHL may have just fast-tracked his career.

Matvei Petrov may be one of the biggest steals of the 2021 NHL Draft. Selected in the most recent draft in the sixth round at 180th overall, he has gone back to the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) and completely dominated. In 29 games, Petrov is third in the league in points (49), tied for second with 20 goals, first in power-play assists (15), tied for second in power-play points (19), and ranked seventh in the OHL with a plus/minus of plus-18.

The Oilers haven’t been as fortunate as other teams in drafting players who turn out to be very good in later rounds. They’ve had to rely on higher picks. But Petrov could be a player that breaks the norm and is someone to keep an eye on.

Xavier Bourgault is the player chosen in the first round by the Oilers in the aforementioned 2021 NHL draft, 22nd overall. He ranked near the top of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) this season, his third in the league. Just as impressive as fellow Oilers’ prospect Petrov in the OHL, Bourgault ranks ninth in points with 42 in 24 games, despite playing fewer games than the players above him. He is third in the QMJHL in goals with 22 and paces everyone with 13 power-play goals and 22 power-play points.

Not only is he lighting up juniors, but he will also be a part of Team Canada at the 2022 World Junior Ice Hockey Championships. Canada is a tough team to make with all the talented players available, but he was a lock with the season he is having. Looks good for the Oilers who seemed to have hit with multiple draft picks in the latest draft.

Tyler Tullio is the third name that appears from the 2021 NHL draft class of the Oilers among the prospects who are playing very well in their respective leagues. The Oshawa Generals captain scored the first hat trick of his OHL career, a natural hat trick at that, and continues to dominate this season as well.

Tullio may not have as many points as Petrov this season but his 34 in 25 games is good for 14th in the league. Tullio also matches Petrov in power-play points with 19, second place in the OHL. He is showing early signs of being a shooter, something the Oilers would love to see transfer to the NHL on the wing.

A Couple Names to Keep an Eye On

Raphael Lavoie finally breaks through in the AHL, scoring five points and finishing with a plus-five rating in the Condors’ last game. He previously had three assists in 18 games with a minus-seven rating. Sometimes one game to get the confidence up is all that players need.

Ilya Konovalov has gotten a lot more playing time in the AHL this season due to Stuart Skinner being recalled to the Oilers for all but two games. In the long run, it will be good for both Konovalov and Oliver Rodrigue to get as many starts as possible. In his last four games, Konovalov has posted a .946 save percentage (SV%), a possible sign of starting to get going after finding his footing in the AHL.

Special Teams

The Oilers have the No. 1 power play in the league at 31.5 percent, 0.9 percent ahead of second-place Toronto Maple Leafs despite struggling a ton on their recent six-game losing streak. Leon Draisaitl is leading the league with 13 power-play goals while the Oilers also have three players in the top-five in power-play points. Connor McDavid leads the NHL with 22, Draisaitl is second with 20, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is tied with three other players with 14 which ranks fifth.

The team also has a good penalty kill at ninth in the NHL at 82.8 percent. Anything better than 80 percent is typically considered above average. The penalty kill numbers also suffered a great amount when McDavid was called for a five-minute major and the Los Angeles Kings scored three goals on the man advantage, a call that didn’t even warrant any supplemental discipline. An underrated aspect of their penalty kill has been the offensive chances they have gotten on a regular basis, especially from the duo of Zach Hyman and Nugent-Hopkins who lead the team in shorthanded points with two apiece.

There’s not much more you can ask for with your special teams’ units other than a top-10 in each. Special teams can win games and the Oilers know better than anyone that their power play has done just that (“The Edmonton Oilers’ special teams thrust into a new-age role as “enforcer”: 9 Things”, Edmonton Journal, Oct. 17, 2021). If the Oilers are able to get going at five-on-five, this team would be deadly.

There are only four other teams that are in the top-10 on both the power play and penalty kill: St. Louis Blues, Anaheim Ducks, New York Rangers, and Calgary Flames. Two of those teams are ahead of the Oilers in their division.

Pick your poison, whether it’s a young defenceman killing it and exceeding all expectations this early in his career, many prospects dominating in their leagues, or reliable special teams that is at the top of the NHL once again. There is much to be happy about and gives this fanbase hope for great things to come.

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