Oilers’ Lack of Physicality Costing Them Games

The Edmonton Oilers have been struggling to hold a lead and finish games, losing four in a row and four of the past six games after regulation where they should dominate. The team’s play in overtime or the shootout isn’t the issue, it’s the play throughout the game that has led them to this point.

The Oilers have been lacking physicality with a group of the most physical players on the team out of the lineup. Evander Kane missed the last game, Vincent Desharnais has missed three in a row, Klim Kostin has missed three of the last four, and Dylan Holloway has been out for two in a row. These are all big, physical players who have missed time for several reasons.

Evander Kane Edmonton Oilers
Evander Kane, Edmonton Oilers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Kane missed the game against the Colorado Avalanche due to an upper-body injury, and the Oilers lost 6-5 in overtime. He is not expected back against the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday. Desharnais has missed three games in a row due to an illness and was sent down to the American Hockey League (AHL) in order for the club to stay cap compliant after the return of Kailer Yamamoto (from ‘Oilers notebook: Resolving the roster mess and managing Philip Broberg’s spot,’ The Athletic, Feb. 19, 2023). Holloway was sent down for the same reason but only missed two NHL games. Unfortunately, he was injured in his game in the AHL and will be out for a month.

Kostin was only in the lineup for the shootout loss to the Detroit Red Wings but missed the game before that against the Montreal Canadiens and the two following against the Rangers and Avalanche. Having these four bodies out of the lineup isn’t helping Edmonton hold their place in the standings.

Oilers Lineup Missing Desharnais, Kostin, Holloway and Kane

The Oilers went on an 11-game point streak, including nine wins, starting with Desharnais’ first game in the NHL. The team has been far more successful with head coach Jay Woodcroft running 11 forwards and seven defensemen. Despite being the seventh defenceman, without Desharnais in the lineup, the team hasn’t been able to run that system. The Oilers have, unfortunately, had to run with 11 forwards and six defencemen for cap reasons and due to injuries.

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Kostin and Holloway, who have provided offence and physicality, have left the Oilers two depth pieces short that also disrupted the chemistry. Kane already missed enough games this season, and the Oilers struggled because of it, unable to get much scoring outside of their top players. One of their toughest and best offensive players is missed every time he isn’t in the lineup.

Vincent Desharnais Klim Kostin Edmonton Oilers
Vincent Desharnais and Klim Kostin, Edmonton Oilers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Oilers’ penalty kill collapsed in the three losses to the Canadiens, Red Wings, and Rangers, after allowing six goals on nine attempts. Desharnais missed the second and third games but also wasn’t present when the Oilers went 4/4 on the penalty kill against the Avalanche. He isn’t on the first penalty-killing unit, which was out for both Rangers’ power-play goals. After his three-game absence, he was recalled to the Oilers on an REE (roster emergency exception) since the team had fewer than 18 skaters for the past two games. His cap hit won’t count against the salary cap, which will, at least, allow the Oilers to run with 11 forwards and seven defencemen. They are 9-1-2 with him in the lineup and should be better able to hold the lead.

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Jesse Puljujarvi and Cody Ceci may lead the Oilers in hits, but they have also played 54 games or more this season. Kane has played 24, averaging 2.75 hits per game, the most on the team. Kostin is ranked third on the team in hits and second in hits-per-game among Oilers who have played in the NHL this season (excluding Markus Niemelainen). Holloway is fifth on the team in hits as well, with 83. Against the Avalanche, the team was missing all four of Kane, Desharnais, Kostin, and Holloway, so they couldn’t play as physical a game as they would have liked, allowing a three-goal lead to slip away.

Holloway should be back within a couple of weeks when the Oilers’ cap situation is figured out, whereas Kane will not join Desharnais back in the lineup against the Flyers on Tuesday, but may be ready after that. Kostin is also dealing with an illness that has kept him out the past two games, so he should be back soon. The Oilers are getting healthier with the deadline approaching, so this mess should soon be resolved to set the team up for their stretch run.

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