5 Observations From the Oilers’ First 5 Games

The Edmonton Oilers have only won two out of their first five games of the season and were shut out by the St. Louis Blues on Oct. 22. However, there’s no need to panic just yet. It’s still very early in the season and it’s only a matter of time before their execution improves and their offence starts to click. That said, here are five notable observations on the Oilers’ 2022-23 season so far.

Oilers Need Another Left-Shooting Defenseman

If the Oilers were to acquire someone later this season, it should be another left-shooting defenseman. The Oilers’ blue line on the right side is locked in with Cody Ceci, Evan Bouchard, and Tyson Barrie, and they’ve all had a decent start thus far.

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On the left side, Darnell Nurse, Brett Kulak, and Ryan Murray have played the most minutes. Nurse has played the most consistent of the bunch through the first five games. He’s tallied two goals and an assist and it appears the injury that nagged him throughout last season’s playoffs isn’t giving him issues as he looks more mobile.

Darnell Nurse Edmonton Oilers
Darnell Nurse, Edmonton Oilers (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Kulak has had a subpar season so far. He hasn’t registered a point through five games and he’s also had some notable errors. He blew a tire against the Calgary Flames on Oct. 15, which allowed Nazem Kadri to skate in and beat Jack Campbell. On Oct. 22 against the St. Louis Blues, he fell once again, awarding Jordan Kyrou a breakaway, and Campbell was forced to make a big glove save. Overall, Kulak hasn’t yet found the stable form that helped take his team to the Western Conference Final last season.

Murray is playing as the sixth defenseman, but in an ideal situation, he should be the Oilers’ seventh defenseman. Looking back to the Battle of Alberta on Oct. 15, his inability to play tough in front of the net contributed to the first and fourth goals against and there’s concern that this might continue to be a trend moving forward.

On that note, it only takes one injury to Nurse or Kulak for each blueliner to be punching above their weight. The Oilers also have Markus Niemelainen, who is on the rise, but he still has a lot of room to grow. Philip Broberg was expected to make the big club this season, but he’s been battling an injury and will remain with the Bakersfield Condors in the American Hockey League (AHL) for now.

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The Oilers need a big, physical veteran defenseman that can not only make a decent pass but also break up the cycle and be tough in front of their net. I can’t help but think of how good Adam Larsson would look on this Oilers squad; yet, a Seattle Kraken teammate of his might also be a good fit. Since last season and up until now, Oilers’ colour commentator Bob Stauffer has mentioned his preference for the Oilers to acquire Carson Soucy. He’s a 6-foot-5 and 208-pound physical defenseman from Viking, AB. This is something to look out for as a potential deal near the trade deadline.

No Sign of Sophomore Slump for Ryan McLeod

Ryan McLeod finished the 2021-22 regular season with nine goals, and 12 assists in 71 regular season games. He established himself as an NHL regular, capable of holding down the third-line center position. The emerging young forward took a big step in last season’s playoffs, recording three goals and an assist in 16 games, and scoring the game-tying goal in Game 3 in the Western Conference Final against the eventual Stanley Cup champions, the Colorado Avalanche.

The Oilers re-signed McLeod to a one-year extension worth $798,000 this past offseason. He helped his team be cap compliant by signing a contract with such a low figure, and he’s also betting on himself to have a big 2022-23 campaign and cash in next season. So far, he hasn’t shown any signs of a sophomore slump as he’s looked steady through the team’s first five games.

McLeod has scored two goals so far and in my opinion, he should remain the team’s third-line center moving forward. In his first chance to play 3C this season against the Carolina Hurricanes on Oct. 20, he scored a beautiful shorthanded goal and finished plus-1 on the night. His skating is so fluid, which enables him to transport the puck up the ice, but his speed also allows him to be the first forward back to defend as well.

Moreover, it appears McLeod is settling in with his new linemates, Jesse Puljujarvi and Warren Foegele on the third line. A 35-plus point season isn’t out of the question for the Mississauga, ON native.

Foegele, McLeod & Puljujarvi Are Forming a Solid Third Line

In the summer, I mentioned how the trio of McLeod, Puljujarvi, and Foegele had the potential to become a good third line. I based that on the limited viewing of them playing together in Game 2 of the Western Conference Final against the Avalanche. According to Natural Stat Trick, in 6:03 minutes together, they produced good underlying numbers — 66.67 Corsi (CF%), 60.20 xGF%, and 100 HDCF%.  

The trio finally got a look together this season against the Hurricanes. They were hard on pucks and provided sustained pressure in the offensive zone. Natural Stat Trick showed that they played 6:31 minutes together and almost generated identical underlying analytics to Game 2 against the Avalanche, producing 66 CF%, 82.58 xGF%, and 100% HDCF%.

It seems head coach Jay Woodcroft has confidence in this big and quick third line. Former Oiler Jason Strudwick spoke of the trio after the game against the Hurricanes on the “Got Yer Back” Podcast, saying, “I love how Jay Woodcroft empowered the Foegele, Puljujarvi and McLeod line, starting the second and third period.” He added, “He’s saying, you guys, I like what you’re doing, and I’m trusting you here. And they did not disappoint.”

Jesse Puljujarvi Edmonton Oilers
Jesse Puljujarvi, Edmonton Oilers (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

A typical third line is supposed to check and grind opponents down while still generating a reasonable amount of offence. Moving forward, the Oilers should give the trio of McLeod, Foegele, and Puljujarvi a longer look together because they have the size (all above 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds), speed, and offensive acumen to put points on the board.

At the same time, playing on the third line could be beneficial for Puljujarvi. He’ll likely play less against the opposition’s top defensive pairings, but also, it might allow him to be more creative because he’s not limited to just getting the puck to Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl every time he touches it.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins Should Stay on the Wing

As previously mentioned, I feel McLeod should be the Oilers’ third-line center moving forward, due to his effortless skating ability. On the other hand, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins started the first three games this season at the 3C position, but couldn’t generate much offence, and also had defensive lapses that contributed to goals against.

Nugent-Hopkins moved to the wing against the Carolina Hurricanes and played his best game of the season, scoring a goal and adding three assists in 21:37 of ice time. His goal was scored at 5-on-5 when Zach Hyman was hard on the forecheck. Hurricanes’ goaltender Frederik Andersen got caught trying to play the puck, Hyman won a battle and passed it to Nugent-Hopkins who buried it into the open net.

Additionally, The Athletic’s Allan Mitchell made a case for Nugent-Hopkins, Hyman, and Draisaitl to be a regular second line. He noted that Woodcroft first used the trio together this season against the Buffalo Sabres on Oct. 18 when his team needed a spark. The line went 6-1 in shots, and 4-0 HDSC in only three minutes (From “Lowetide: Did the Oilers Find the Right Fit for Winger Zach Hyman,” The Athletic, 10/19/22).

Related: Oilers’ Special Teams Once Again Paving Way for Success

Nugent-Hopkins is a special team’s ace — he’s an important piece on the Oilers’ top power-play unit with his soft touches and has been an integral member of the penalty kill. Yet, at 5-on-5, with the emergence of McLeod, Nugent-Hopkins’ best days of driving a line at center might be behind him. At this point in his career, it’s probably best for him to play wing in the top six.

Jack Campbell Has Come as Advertised

When the Oilers signed Campbell to a five-year deal, they knew they weren’t getting an elite goaltender; however, what they did know is that they were getting a player that was capable of keeping them in the fight. Campbell has improved in each of the four games he’s played and aside from the one against the Flames when he was pulled, he’s made key saves that have given his team a chance to win.

Campbell gave up three goals against the Canucks on Oct. 12 and two nights later, the Flames put four past him in the first period. Since then, he’s settled in and bailed out his defensemen on numerous occasions.

Against the Hurricanes, Andrei Svechnikov snuck three past Campbell with his heavy shot, but overall he made the stops when he needed to. On one sequence, Bouchard gave away the puck, and Campbell shut the door with a sprawling save, making three stops on the play alone. With the Oilers up by one late in the game, he also made a big save off of Ceci’s giveaway and stopped Sebastian Aho to preserve the lead. Two nights later against the Blues, Campbell gave up only one goal and made highlight reel saves off numerous Grade A chances.

Hockey insider Elliotte Friedman was on the “Oilers Now” show and spoke of Campbell’s performance thus far:

You (Edmonton) picked your guy (Campbell), you don’t have one of those absolute difference makers, but you’ve picked on someone you’re betting on, and all you need is for them to make one more save than the other guy. And Campbell did that last night, and I think that’s the way it’s going to be for the Oilers. You don’t need him to be Vasilevsky but you need him to be better than the guy at the other end.

– Elliotte Friedman

Campbell has posted a 3.82 goals-against-average (GAA) and a .889 save percentage (SV%) through four games. If you looked at his numbers alone without tuning into the games, you’d assume he’s not living up to expectations, yet that’s simply not the case. He’s battled, had one bad game and he’s made spectacular saves to keep the games close.

The Oilers have one game left on their six-game homestand, and they’ll look to even up their record when they host Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins on Oct. 24 at Rogers Place. It doesn’t get any easier after that for the orange and blue, because they take off for a three-game road trip with dates with the St. Louis Blues, Chicago Blackhawks, and the Calgary Flames.

Are there any other notable observations you’ve noticed in the Oilers’ first five games? Have your say in the comments below!

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