10 games into the 2022-23 NHL season, the Edmonton Oilers are 7-3-0. They started out a bit iffy on home ice, but since then, have rattled off five-straight wins and a perfect road record. They’re scoring in bunches and the defense is staying above water, but offering up opponents a few too many chances. Overall, things look good.
Specifically, the defense and goaltending have been the question mark for the team, while some aspects of both areas have been great. The road has often been bumpy and that’s something the team will want to work on moving forward. Let’s take a look at each player on the team’s blue and their two main goaltenders. I’ll offer up some grades based on their early performances.
The Oilers on Defense
The knock on Edmonton was that their defense might not be good enough to go farther than the Western Conference Final. It might still be true that the team will need an upgrade prior to the NHL Trade Deadline, but so far, they’ve held their own and improved. They are leaking too many chances against and giving opponents Grade-A looks. That needs to be addressed.
Cody Ceci: A
This is now the second season for Cody Ceci in Edmonton and he’s quickly proving that last season was not a fluke. Ceci surprised many by how well he played in a second-pairing role, replacing the minutes that departed when Adam Larsson went to Seattle. He’s a well-rounded defender who isn’t perfect, but he does a lot of things right.
He can score, he can play sound defense, he plays over 20 minutes per night, blocks shots, and leads the team in short-handed time on ice this season. By the way, he’s doing all of this for $3.25 million per season. It’s what he brings and the value of that at his price tag that earns him an A.
Darnell Nurse – B+
Darnell Nurse is looking light years better than he did last season, one he spent most of his games playing injured. He’s leading the team in ice time with an average of 23:37 per game and he’s producing on offense with two goals and six points. He’s playing physically, he’s not making some of the glaring mistakes he made last season, and you can tell he’s rejuvenated simply because he feels better.
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Nurse is overpaid. That’s a reality that fans can’t ignore. At the same time, he’s giving a lot for the money he is being given on his new contract and there are defensemen out there making more and producing less.
Evan Bouchard – B
Evan Bouchard is turning into a stud defenseman. At the same time, he’s still prone to lapses on defense and costly turnovers where he’s got to pull off an incredible play defensively to save a goal. In other words, he’s got immense skill, a ton of poise, and a booming shot, but he often unnecessarily creates his own chaos.
Surprisingly, Bouchard has no goals yet on the season, but he does have five assists. Part of that is because he’s not been given the top spot on the power play yet. That might come as a shock to some, but Tyson Barrie hasn’t relinquished that job, which is a good thing. Bouchard is only getting started.
Tyson Barrie – C+
Some fans called for Tyson Barrie to be moved this offseason. It’s probably a good thing Ken Holland didn’t listen to those critics. Despite the propensity for fans to continue ragging on the player, Barrie has been solid so far this season, potting a goal and four assists in 10 games and playing close to 20 minutes per night. Some will knock his reputation for being strong on offense but not a defensive specialist, but there aren’t many instances where he gets caught out of position or walked five-on-five. At least, no more than the average top-four defender in the NHL.
If there’s a knock on him this season, it’s that he gets caught on the power play being too deep or giving 2-on-1 short-handed opportunities to the opposition. That could be as much about the set-up or the confidence the Oilers have when up a man as it is about Barrie himself.
Brett Kulak – C+
Kulak has struggled a little in the elevated role he’s been asked to play. On a couple of instances, he’s been caught flat-footed and actually biffed it on the ice, leading to grade-A chances against. The good news is, he’s still a plus-minus +7 and he’s done an effective job on the second pairing when he had little experience playing his many minutes in the past.
He’s a good value contract and it’s not necessarily fair to be overly harsh this early in the season. He’ll get more accustomed to the role, and get more comfortable with his playing partners and this grade should go up.
Markus Niemelainen – C
It might be too early to grade Niemelainen fairly, simply because he’s played two fewer games and is only averaging about 10 minutes per night. Still, the one thing he brings that not a lot of the defenders on this Oilers team does is physicality and the desire to lay in the big hit. Niemelanen forces opposing players to keep their heads on a swivel and that’s kept him in the lineup.
He’s been solid in the shifts he’s played and made a nice rush, jumping into the play against Nashville on Tuesday. He will get on the board here soon enough but he’s got no points in eight games.
Ryan Murray: D
Murray is only being asked to play a depth role and he’s not an NHL regular, seeing only seven games so far this season. When he’s in the lineup, however, it can be a bit messy. He’s been less than reliable in his own zone and that could be why he’s not been slotted in regularly. He’s going to need to show more consistency if he’s going to play more frequently.
The Oilers In Net
Jack Campbell and Stuart Skinner have taken the starting and backup roles this season and while Campbell has been ok, Skinner has really stood out as a pleasant surprise. Unproven in the NHL, he’s showing early that he’s got the goods and that’s great news for the Oilers moving forward.
Stuart Skinner: A+
It’s hard to give Skinner anything but an A+ at this point. He leads the NHL in save percentage at .955 and he’s getting more games than most would have imagined this early into the season. He’ll be making his fifth appearance in 11 games and few would have guessed he’d be splitting time evenly with Campbell. Some will argue that’s on Campbell, but I don’t agree. Skinner has just been that good. He’s earned every opportunity he’s been given.
Skinner looks poised, steady, unshakable, and like he’s been in the NHL for ages. He’s only got 18 games on his NHL resume. What else can the Oilers ask of him?
Jack Campbell: B-
Campbell has been receiving a lot of criticism in Oil Country, but his work isn’t indicative of the negative reviews he receives. For example, fans have ragged about the fact he allowed four goals versus the Predators, but let’s take a look at those goals. Goal #1. The forward didn’t cover the trailing defender and the puck bounced off the defender’s stick. There was almost no chance for Campbell to make the save. Goal #2: Bouchard didn’t have a stick on Ryan Johansen in front of the net on the power play. Tipped home. Again, no chance for Campbell. Goal #3. A strong one-timer from Filip Forsberg resulted in a goal. Campbell didn’t get over quick enough and would probably say he’d like that back, but that’s a tough shot to stop. He did get a piece of it and that was a 50/50 save at best. Goal #4: Another tip in front by Nino Niederreiter.
Many of his goals against have been like this and that’s attributed to a lower save percentage. In fairness, Campbell has let in a couple of stinkers and it’s fair to critique that. Keep in mind, he’s made some incredibly timely saves that have kept the Oilers in games. The numbers don’t necessarily show the importance of when he’s made key stops.
Jim Parsons is a senior THW freelance writer, part-time journalist and audio/video host who lives, eats, sleeps and breathes NHL news and rumors, while also writing features on the Edmonton Oilers. He’s been a trusted source for five-plus years at The Hockey Writers, but more than that, he’s on a mission to keep readers up to date with the latest NHL rumors and trade talk. Jim is a daily must for readers who want to be “in the know.”