This is not to say that any of these players had a down year in 2021-22, but regardless, the Edmonton Oilers will need better seasons from them to improve on their Western Conference Final appearance. The team is now strong all the way through, but here are a few players that need to step up in 2022-23.
Jesse Puljujarvi, if he remains with the Oilers, is going to need to bounce back in a big way. He will be rewarded with more money in arbitration if it makes it that far, and has to prove he can help the team offensively. Last season started off very well and we saw an improvement even upon the prior season. He deserved his spot on the top line as the right wing scored six goals and 13 points in the first 11 games of the season.
Puljujarvi hasn’t sustained the type of production that makes me think he can be that point-per-game player but also isn’t as bad offensively as he showed in the latter half of the season either. He may not be a top line winger, but he is a middle-six one. As the Oilers have a very good forward group and six-plus players who can play in the top six next season with chemistry, head coach Jay Woodcroft will likely bump him down to the third line with the hopes that he can find his game again.
The defensive side of Puljujarvi’s game along with his forechecking ability may be best utilized in the bottom six while he regains confidence and does the little things that are impactful but go unnoticed by some. A consistent 35-40 point campaign by him will definitely warrant the Oilers keeping him around, as that would be on top of the other things he brings to the table that I just mentioned.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is one of the Oilers’ best two-way forwards, but he has shown obvious signs of regressing offensively over the past couple of seasons after a couple of stellar ones. He recorded back-to-back 60-plus point campaigns in 2018-19 and 2019-20 playing on the wing with either Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl, as he is most effective when he is on the wing nowadays with one of the Oilers’ top two centres. But when the top line is loaded up with both of them, Nugent-Hopkins is tasked with running his own.
Nugent-Hopkins isn’t very good in the faceoff circle and if he would be an option to shift down to the third line, it would be an expensive move. Over the past two seasons, his point production at even strength has also been average at best as 43 of his 85 points have come on the power play and he has only scored 14 even strength goals in his past 115 games.
It’s one thing to score on the power play with one of the consistently best groups in the NHL. But Nugent-Hopkins needs to contribute more goals at even strength, especially beside two of the best players in the game who are very skilled passers. He likely won’t be playing much at even strength with McDavid, but Draisaitl, his likely linemate, had recorded over 50 assists in four consecutive seasons. With seven years remaining on his deal, Nugent-Hopkins must start contributing more offensively at even strength and in the goal department for the amount he’s being paid and how tight the Oilers are and will continue to be with cap space.
The Oilers haven’t seen Jack Campbell play yet for their team, but it is going to be a very important introduction. To gain the confidence of his team early, the goalie will have to play well to start, even if things tail off a bit after that. Too many times have the Oilers chased games. Fortunately, that trend did change for the better under Jay Woodcroft’s coaching, but many of the team won’t forget the goaltending they’ve had to play in front of over the past two to three seasons.
Whether it was getting scored on by the first shot or within the first five minutes, it’s deflating and both goaltenders of the Oilers were partially to blame for that. Campbell had an incredible start for the Toronto Maple Leafs last season and was named an All-Star, as he posted a .925 save percentage (SV%) prior to the All-Star break and a .894 SV% afterwards. He bounced back near the end of the season once his injuries cleared up and was solid in the playoffs. His record and stats within his division were excellent as well, posting a 7-1-2 record with a .928 SV%. That is going to be key next season as it is likely the Oilers will be battling with three to four other teams in their division for positioning and must get through them to advance back to the Western Conference Final again.
During the second half of last season, it was a blip in an otherwise strong career thus far for Campbell. It was not only he who struggled, it was also Petr Mrazek and the entire team defence. Woodcroft helped turn Mike Smith’s and Mikko Koskinen’s season around when he took over, so imagine what he can do for an even stronger goaltender. There is some familiarity and excitement from Campbell and the rest of the team since the Oilers finally have their guy in net. As has many of the years since McDavid and Draisaitl came into the league, their season will hinge on if they can get good enough goaltending.
If the Oilers can get improvements and sustained success by each of these three players that should be most in question to begin 2022-23, there shouldn’t be any issues and the team can build off of last year’s stellar second half of the season.