Game 1 between the Edmonton Oilers and the Calgary Flames on Wednesday night was one of the craziest playoff games the league has seen in some time. It was an extremely ugly performance for the Oilers, who appeared out of sync from the get-go and gave up nine goals on the evening. Admittedly, the Flames weren’t a whole lot better, as they gave up six of their own in the 15-goal affair.
One of many things that went wrong for the Oilers in Game 1 was the play of Leon Draisaitl, who is clearly not himself as he is attempting to play through a high ankle sprain. Another player who really struggled was Darnell Nurse, who hasn’t been his punishing self throughout the playoffs. Early on, it seemed as though he was just playing below what he is capable of, but reports have since come out that he is battling a serious core injury which may require surgery this offseason.
Should Oilers Sit Two of Their Top Stars?
Due to the serious pain the two are playing through, paired with their Game 1 performances, many have questioned whether they are helping or hurting the team at this point. Their willingness to compete is certainly admirable, but some, including one Oilers columnist in David Staples, believe they may be better off to rest the two moving forward.
“Would the Oilers be better off resting Darnell Nurse and Leon Draisaitl,” Staples asked in a tweet. “Starting to think so. Great players, determined warriors, but if you can’t go, you can’t go.
“I can see the argument playing them. Inspiration to teammates. At 50% better than other players. Can still help the team win. All have real merit. Also see argument for resting them. Let them get healthy. Ask other players to step up. Best chance of winning.”
As you can imagine, most Oilers fans didn’t take too kindly to the suggestion of sitting two of their team’s top players. Despite the reaction, it is a fair question to ask, especially given the fact that each struggled as much as they did in Game 1. Instead of sitting them, however, there are other options head coach Jay Woodcroft can do to keep both in the lineup, while also lowering their minutes.
Draisaitl & Nurse Need Limited Minutes
As he has been known to do plenty in the past, Woodcroft elected to go with eleven forwards and seven defencemen in Game 1. However, that wasn’t the real reason Nurses’ minutes were cut down, as the seventh defencemen in Kris Russell played just 5:20 on the night. It is clear that based on the course of the regular season as well as the playoffs, the Oilers bench boss doesn’t have much confidence in the shot-blocking veteran. What this means is that he should be looking at another defenceman who is able to come in for Game 2 and contribute more than Russell, which would help when it comes to Nurse seeing less ice time.
There are a few options the Oilers could consider if they want to replace Russell but still go with seven blueliners. One is Philip Broberg, who has suited up for one playoff game during this run and is a highly talented young player. The concern with him is that he isn’t a physical player, and could be pushed around often in this Battle of Alberta series. If physicality is what this team is looking for, then perhaps Marcus Niemelainen is the man for the job.
Despite only appearing in 20 games with the Oilers this season, Niemelainen quickly drew fan support from many thanks to his ability to throw the body at any given moment. At six-foot-six, there isn’t much worry of him being pushed around or intimated, and he would certainly add an element of physicality that was missing for this Oilers team in Game 1. The one concern here is his inexperience, but the bonus about having seven defencemen in the lineup is that he can be sheltered if he struggles early.
As for Draisaitl, he has shown at times that despite the bad ankle, he can still be very effective. His goal in Game 2 proved that when skating in a straight line, his speed is still there. The issue appears to be affecting his ability to make sharp turns, as well as stops and starts. He still managed three points in the loss, and should continue to produce moving forward.
One area where Woodcroft can try and help him is in terms of even-strength play. On the power play, he should continue to be thrown out on any and every opportunity, as his shot remains elite and he isn’t required to be moving around as often. At five on five, however, it may prove beneficial to limit his minutes at times and perhaps mix in different left wingers on McDavid’s side throughout the game, particularly when it comes to defensive zone draws. Not only will this cause less wear and tear on the German forward, but it will also prevent him from missing as many assignments defensively, something we saw on numerous occasions in Game 1.
Rest Seems Highly Unlikely
Heading into this series, Holland was asked if the Oilers would consider resting Draisaitl at any point, a notion which he shot down immediately. It seems likely that if he were to be asked that question about Nurse, the response would be the same. While it is a fair suggestion from Staples, these players would absolutely not be willing to come out of the lineup, and unless there is a risk of their injuries causing long-term damage, there is little to no chance the coaching staff chooses to sit them. Instead, it appears they are going to rely on them to grind it out and hope to head back to Edmonton with the series tied at one apiece.
Colton Pankiw is a former Jr. A hockey player who now provides his knowledge of the game through writing. He’s been a very active and reliable source for nearly two years at The Hockey Writers. He is a credentialed writer for the Calgary Flames but also does features on other teams throughout the league. Other writing contributions include: Yahoo Sports, Las Vegas Chronicle, Oil On Whyte, and Markerzone.com. Colton is also a co-host of both Oilers Overtime and Flames Faceoff podcasts. Any interview requests or content info can be made through him on Twitter. Take a look at his work here.