The Edmonton Oilers have had a very surprising season, and the success of the team could hang in the balance of certain players and how much they contribute in the second half.
Related: Oilers: 5 Young Goaltending Trade Targets for Future Stability in Net
There are many names I could have included other than these three, but these players, in particular, should be watched closely. I also excluded certain names because they might be dealt before the season is over. Though the success hasn’t and doesn’t always run through these players, there is a lot to watch and analyze what they can and will hopefully do if the Oilers hope to make the playoffs.
Of course, Evander Kane has the most talk and hype about him, which will last a while as he starts to pick up his game and return to form. He led the San Jose Sharks in goals and points last season but has played just five American Hockey League (AHL) games and two NHL games with the Oilers in 2021-22.
All the off-ice issues he’s dealt with have taken his full focus away from training and getting into game shape. Now that all of that is in the past and he’s with the Oilers, he is ready to push this team over the top and be very competitive once they reach the playoffs.
The big thing to watch is how Kane slowly elevates his play as his conditioning and game are sharpened, and he gets back up to speed. In his first game, he was noticeably slower and a little sloppy with the puck. He also wasn’t accustomed to the proper breakout the Oilers like to do, but that will come with time. Regardless, he has and should continue to throw his body and be a physical presence all over the ice as well as start to use his dangerous shot more.
He is a two-time 30-goal scorer and has recorded six consecutive 20-goal campaigns. With half a season remaining, I’m not so sure he will be able to reach that mark again, but don’t count him out playing alongside Connor McDavid, given his playmaking ability and Kane’s shot and willingness to drive to the net.
Kane is no stranger to playing shorthanded minutes, and given head coach Dave Tippett’s recent usage of high-end players on a struggling penalty kill, don’t be surprised if Kane replaces someone sooner than later. His ability to score and use his size makes him a viable option on the power play as well. Lately, we’ve seen a number of options with the man advantage, including Jesse Puljujarvi, Zach Hyman, and even Kailer Yamamoto. Kane won’t be competing with Yamamoto for a spot, but we’ll see who’s more effective in front of the net. Puljujarvi is slumping, so Kane may get his opportunity in the next couple of games.
Speaking of Puljujarvi, he is snake-bitten of late, goalless in the past 11 games with just two assists, both from the same game. Since the Oilers got Ryan Nugent-Hopkins back, Tippett decided to shuffle his lines around and move Puljujarvi to Leon Draisaitl’s line. That combination proved very hard to play against in the offensive zone – when they’re on their games.
Puljujarvi has constantly been going to the right places but continues to be stoned by the constant stream of hot goaltenders on the other side (from “OILERS NOTES: Puljujarvi has been around net but pucks not finding ways in,” Edmonton Sun, 2/1/22). If his scoring drought continues, there may be a change coming. With all the talent available in the forward group, there’s no lack of options for him to play with and hopefully get him going.
Despite his slump, Puljujarvi has already scored 10 goals and 25 points, including six on the man advantage. As I mentioned above, he may be moved off of the power play if he can’t start to contribute, despite his solid positioning and ability to create Grade A scoring chances. However, a new look with someone who might have better luck could spark something on the top unit (from “Mysteries of the Edmonton Oilers Unsolved: Jesse Puljujarvi’s weird and not wonderful scoring slump,” Edmonton Journal, 2/2/22). The power play needs to get going while the five-on-five scoring has taken off. If the Oilers can fire on all cylinders, they will be dangerous in any situation the game throws at them.
In a contract year, Puljujarvi got off to a very nice start. He is due for a raise, either way, having already put up 25 points, but this slump could give management the edge come contract talks. As long as it’s over soon and the team gets the player we all know he can be back and producing, they can finally stop worrying about their depth scoring.
Ryan McLeod has had one of the most interesting seasons with the club. He’s been sent down to the AHL, played on almost every line, and has looked much more mature. He must be watching McDavid closely, as his speed and hands allow him to fly up the ice and either enter the zone cleanly or have a very effective dump and chase.
In the past two games with the new line combinations, the effectiveness of the fourth line has been very underrated. Centred by McLeod, he has been joined by Derek Ryan and Devin Shore, who can both play centre as well. The line has controlled the play in the offensive zone, wearing down their opponents. They have also been effective defensively as all three have centre’s mentality to help out down low.
McLeod drives that line, and it’s rare to have a player of his calibre available to control the puck on the fourth line. He may be there now, but he has and will most likely be moved up again this season as he isn’t restricted to playing in the middle. Speed and effort go a long way, and McLeod possesses both.
Though all three of these players are at different stages in their careers and provide unique talents to the team, the hope is that all of them will find their most effective place in the lineup and play their best hockey for an Oilers team that needs all hands on deck from here on out.