Oilers Outsider: 10 Thoughts Through 10 Games

There are two ways to look at the first 10 games of the Edmonton Oilers season: glass half full or glass half empty.

The half-full folks will highlight the record, first and foremost — 7-2-0-1, with 15 points that nobody can take away. That is good for first place in the Pacific Division and has Edmonton tied atop the Western Conference standings heading into today. They will also tout the much improved goaltending, the goals against in general, the power play and the penalty kill — with Edmonton’s special teams both ranking in the top five through 10 games.

The half-empty people will point to a team trending down over the last five games — 2-2-0-1 and getting outplayed in at least three of them, including the win over Philadelphia. They will also stress a favourable schedule to start — only facing two playoff teams from last season through 10 games and only four in total over 14 October games. Three of those four — the Islanders, Winnipeg and Columbus to come — are expected to take a step back and perhaps miss the postseason in 2020. That leaves Washington as the only true test against a contender in the opening month of the season, so tonight’s tilt could be viewed as something of a measuring stick in game No. 11.

Oilers forward Alex Chiasson
Alex Chiasson will look to get his first goal of the season tonight against Braden Holtby. (Perry Nelson/USA TODAY)

At risk of sounding too pessimistic coming off the latest loss in Minnesota, there is still a glaring lack of secondary scoring, with James Neal starting to cool off and Connor McDavid marred in a career-long three-game pointless skid that has surpassed 10 periods in total time (201 minutes 20 seconds). To no surprise but of significant concern, Edmonton has been shut out in two of those three contests.

Reality is, Neal’s shooting percentage was unsustainable and so were many of the advanced metrics, with the analytics and fancy stats suggesting Edmonton’s impressive start was “fake.”

However, the half-full crowd — and the bandwagon is filling up again in the present — will adamantly (and passionately) dispute that claim, noting that Neal is back to being The Real Deal and a good bet to net 25 goals this season. They will also remind everybody that McDavid and Leon Draisaitl remain in the top five of the league’s scoring race despite slowing down and that both are still on pace for more than 130 points. And they will surely spread the word of Ethan Bear’s emergence as another bright spot in the early stages.

Taking that all in, it’s difficult to determine whether the Oilers are for real — or fake — but the next 10 games could be more telling. It won’t get any easier in hosting Washington and Florida to close out this week, with reigning champion St. Louis coming to town before Edmonton visits San Jose for game No. 20 on Nov. 12. There is also next week’s three-game road trip to Detroit, Columbus and Pittsburgh before coming home to take on Arizona, followed by Taylor Hall’s return in a second meeting with New Jersey, as well as a first look at Dallas Eakins-led Anaheim on the road.

We’ll have a better idea of where the Oilers stand after that stretch, with the obvious goal of staying above .500 overall heading into game No. 21 against Colorado. The back half of November certainly has its challenges, facing Colorado, San Jose and Vancouver twice, with Dallas and Vegas as new opponents of note within the first 30 games.

For now, let’s focus on the 10 games that are in the books. Here are 10 thoughts from this Oilers Outsider through 10 games.

McDavid & Draisaitl Dominating, As Expected

McDavid already had 17 points through seven games — a stat-line only matched by Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux since the ’80s — and Draisaitl started the season on an eight-game point streak that stopped with consecutive shutout losses.

Those two are leading the charge, with McDavid overcoming his knee injury and Draisaitl continuing to prove he’s an elite talent — yes, better than Auston Matthews.

Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl
Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl have picked up where they left off last season. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson)

Goaltenders Exceeding Expectations

Mikko Koskinen is undefeated through four starts with a .934 save percentage.

Mike Smith has a .500 record through six starts but still boasts a .925 save percentage.

Combined, they have been consistent in giving Edmonton a chance to win every time out, which is all that can be asked of a goaltending tandem.

Expect Koskinen to be back between the pipes against Washington tonight. That will be the biggest test for the team to date — and for Koskinen in facing Alex Ovechkin, John Carlson and the high-powered Capitals, who will likely be backstopped by Braden Holtby for his annual homecoming game.

Edmonton Oilers Mikko Koskinen
Mikko Koskinen has been living up to his new much-maligned contract to start the season. (Sergei Belski/USA TODAY)

Expect the shared workload to continue going forward — at least until one of Koskinen or Smith falters. As long as both goalies are going strong, the Oilers plan to keep them fresh in a 1A-1B rotation. Dave Tippett has been leaning towards Smith as his 1A — based on six seasons of familiarity from Arizona — but Koskinen has been making a strong case thus far.

Neal Bouncing Back

Neal has nine goals through 10 games, including a league-leading six power-play tallies — tied with Buffalo rookie Victor Olofsson. Neal is second only to David Pastrnak (10) overall — still ahead of both Matthews (8) and Ovechkin (7).

Edmonton Oilers James Neal
James Neal has had plenty to celebrate in his early days as an Oiler. (Perry Nelson/USA TODAY)

Neal isn’t expected to contend for the Rocket Richard Trophy as the league’s leading goal-getter, but he should get 20 (barring injury) and very well could get 30. Neal is passing the eye test for the most part and has had enough chances to warrant his current total.

All things considered, Neal is rebounding in a big way with Edmonton. Remember, he only had seven goals over 63 games with Calgary last season. Six of those seven were also on the power play, but he’s likely going to double that total this season.

Ken Holland’s first trade as general manager of the Oilers will go down as a home run — with Milan Lucic still struggling for the Flames.

Secondary Scoring Still Main Concern

The Oilers have scored 30 goals through 10 games — averaging exactly three per game. How many of those 30 have come from the current bottom-six forwards? None. Zero. Zippo. Zilch.

Jujhar Khaira hasn’t scored in 10 games. Markus Granlund and Tomas Jurco are shooting blanks through nine games. Riley Sheahan has an empty stat-line after eight games. Alex Chiasson, Josh Archibald and Patrick Russell have nothing to show for seven games. Gaetan Haas didn’t score in his five games, nor did Colby Cave in his two.

For those keeping count, that is nine forwards with no goals over a combined total of 64 games — and a combined total of 730 minutes (and 21 seconds). That is a ton of ice-time with no results.

Making matters worse, Chiasson has played the past four games in a top-six role and has received seven minutes of power-play time to date — seventh most on the team and fifth among forwards, behind the top unit and Darnell Nurse.

Zack Kassian scored in each of the first three games — and was a big reason for Edmonton’s 3-0 start — but hasn’t scored in seven straight now and was taken off the top line when Tippett brought out the blender in Minnesota.

Zack Kassian Edmonton Oilers
Zack Kassian started strong but needs to ramp up his game again now. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Secondary scoring was the main concern coming into this season and remains a red flag as of today. Of the 30 goals to date, 20 have come from three players in Neal (9), Draisaitl (6) and McDavid (5). Kassian’s three is next best, with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins stuck on one — a power-play goal — despite hitting several posts. The fact Nugent-Hopkins has yet to score at even strength through 10 games is alarming and further emphasizes Edmonton’s dependence on that top line and the dynamic duo of McDavid and Draisaitl.

Right now, the Oilers are still a one-line team, with the bulk of Neal’s scoring coming on the power play. That has to change — and soon — for Edmonton to sustain this early success in the standings.

Tippett Making Immediate Impact

The good news is the goals against are way down — thanks to better goaltending and a new system that demands defensive structure from the five-man unit. Through 10 games, Edmonton has allowed only 23 goals — an average of 2.3 per game. And that includes an empty-netter against Chicago, so only 22 against a goaltender.

That is a marked improvement and much of the credit should go to the coaching tactics of Tippett and Jim Playfair.

Tippett has also impressed with his game management and deployment. There have been numerous examples, but these two stand out. The first came against the Rangers when the Oilers were clinging to a 2-1 lead in the third period and Smith came up with two clutch saves — stopping a Brady Skjei one-timer from the point, then Lias Andersson on a point-blank chance — resulting in a defensive-zone draw. Tippett sent out his top line for that D-zone start and Draisaitl made it 3-1 on the ensuing shift. That was a great call by the coach, to go back to his big guns and have them push back rather than send out a checking line to simply hold the fort with hopes of clearing the zone as a best-case scenario.

The second came Tuesday in Minnesota when Tippett left the top power-play unit out for the full two minutes in the third period. That was a now-or-never moment — trailing 3-0 when Luke Kunin took a delay-of-game penalty 3:36 into the final frame — and Tippett stuck with his go-to guys despite having to regroup in their own zone a couple times in the second minute of that advantage. Typically, that would be the time to change — when the opposition ices the puck after the first minute expires — but Tippett knows where his offence is coming from and wisely waited it out, albeit to no avail.

It’s little decisions like that — seemingly little — that are telling of how smart Tippett is as a coach and how good of a feel he has for the games as they are playing out. That comes with experience and so far, so good with Tippett.

Ken Holland, Dave Tippett
Dave Tippett is looking like the right choice as Edmonton’s head coach. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson)

Special Teams Have Been Special

Through Wednesday’s games, Edmonton’s power play is still tied for first in the league with Boston at 35.7 per cent. This, despite going three games without a power-play goal — going 0-for-2 against Detroit, Winnipeg and Minnesota for a combined 0-for-6 since going 2-for-2 against Philadelphia in last Wednesday’s 6-3 win.

Edmonton’s power play had scored in six straight games — totalling 10 goals over that span — and has only been blanked four times, with the other 0-for-2 showing in the season opener against Vancouver. Yes, 10 of the 30 goals on the season have come on the power play and that weapon needs to strike on a regular basis for Edmonton to be successful.

The Oilers also need to draw more penalties in order for the power play to be more successful — two per game isn’t enough, as evidenced by the results besides the Philly outlier. In six of 10 games — more than half of the games to date — Edmonton has only earned two power plays. They also cashed in one of their two chances in beating the Rangers, but more opportunities should result in more success.

Winnipeg Jets vs Edmonton Oilers
Connor McDavid, James Neal, defenceman Oscar Klefbom and Leon Draisaitl comprise Edmonton’s top power-play unit with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (not shown). Tomas Jurco, second from left in this goal celebration, hasn’t been getting much power-play time.

Edmonton’s penalty kill is tied for fourth with Vancouver at 88.2 per cent. That is where the bottom-six forwards have been earning their keep and providing value in killing off 30 of 34 penalties to date. Edmonton has only surrendered a power-play goal in three of 10 games thus far — the opposition is 4-for-34, with Philadelphia scoring twice on six opportunities, while Los Angeles went 1-for-5 and Minnesota went 1-for-3 to account for the other goals against. Philly’s second goal came on a 5-on-3 advantage during garbage time of that blowout and L.A.’s goal occurred 32 seconds after a 5-on-3 turned into a 5-on-4 situation. Minnesota scored six seconds into a power play when a lost faceoff for Edmonton led to a one-timer goal for one-time Oiler Brad Hunt.

The glass is half full on the penalty-killing front, though Edmonton has yet to score a shorthanded goal after netting 10 shorties last season — approximately one every eight games. But scoring isn’t the responsibility of the penalty-killers — that is a bonus whenever it happens — and Tippett would gladly take this percentage over 82 games without any shorthanded goals to speak of. The lack of shorties also speaks to less time on the penalty kill for Draisaitl, who led the team with three last season, and McDavid, who also had one of those 10 goals. Nugent-Hopkins, Kassian, Chiasson and Khaira had the other singles among current Oilers, with Kyle Brodziak and Drake Caggiula rounding out those contributions. Again, that is a bonus — not an expectation.

Bear the Biggest Revelation

Bear is leading Edmonton’s defence in goals with two — Oscar Klefbom, Darnell Nurse and Brandon Manning have one each — but his all-around game has been surprisingly stellar. Bear has been strong on the puck, solid on the penalty kill, and the best at executing Edmonton’s new up-the-middle breakout. He’s now averaging over 20 minutes per game (20:50) — exceeding 21 minutes in five consecutive contests and topping out at 25:32 against Winnipeg. He has taken as many as 31 shifts, with 25-plus in five straight.

Ethan Bear #74 of the Edmonton Oilers
Ethan Bear has been all smiles this season, albeit with longer hair. (Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

Conditioning and confidence have gone hand in hand for Bear. He showed up in shape and has made the most of his opportunity since Day 1 of camp and Game 1 of the season. He’s been getting better by the game and showing no signs of slowing down. His play could sag at some point, but Bear is looking like a legitimate top-four defender in the present. And as that confidence continues to grow, Bear should continue to contribute offensively since he made it to the show by being an offensive-minded blueliner.

Defence Holding Up Without Larsson

Losing Adam Larsson in the season opener — sidelined at least two months with a broken bone in his right leg (fibula) — could have been a death blow for the Oilers, but they are surviving just fine so far.

Larsson’s shutdown ability has been offset by Bear’s puck-moving ability. The plan was to pair Larsson and Nurse, matching them against the opposition’s top lines with a heavy dose of D-zone starts and penalty-killing time. Bear has been able to fill that void, by and large, while improving the transition game.

Edmonton’s defence, as a whole, had been contributing more offence through eight games, but those numbers won’t look as promising in comparison to last season at the 10-game mark due to the two shutout losses concluding that segment.

Oilers defenseman Oscar Klefbom
Oscar Klefbom is tied for seventh among league leaders in defence scoring with nine points through 10 games, including eight assists. (Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY)

Klefbom continues to log the most ice — averaging almost 25 minutes (24:57) — and Nurse isn’t far behind (23:36) as the thoroughbreds of Edmonton’s back end. Kris Russell (19:19) and Matt Benning (13:41) — and even Brandon Manning (11:45) over the last week — have been unheralded workhorses. Good for Manning to get in there and prove he’s still an NHL-calibre defender after some trying times last season.

Joel Persson was still getting his bearings in North America when Andrew Shaw and Zack Smith knocked him out of the lineup following the Chicago game. Persson hasn’t brought much offence yet — pointless in his five games, averaging 16:04 (including 30 seconds of power-play time per game, totalling 2:28) — but he’s been poised with the puck at both ends and appears to be an NHL-level talent based on that small sample size.

With Persson on the shelf — presumably with a concussion, but listed as upper-body — fellow Swede William Lagesson has been called up but has yet to make his regular-season NHL debut. That could come tonight against Washington or Sunday against Florida, but there are no guarantees he’ll draw in with Manning doing a passable job in the No. 6 role. Persson was only projected to miss about 10 days, so he could be back sooner than later, but those “upper-body” injuries can be indefinite.

There is still more than a month to go without Larsson — that much is for certain — so the Oilers will need these early-season success stories to continue on the blue line.

Euro Imports Out of Lineup

The hope is Persson will slot back in with Klefbom in the coming games and continue to progress towards solidifying Edmonton’s top four in Larsson’s absence. That would allow Kris Russell to return to his strong side on the third pairing with Benning, which had been a strength at the bottom end of the lineup through the first six games. Persson has certainly warranted a longer look once he’s healthy again.

Joel Persson Edmonton Oilers
Joel Persson is a heady player that should keep getting better. (Perry Nelson/USA TODAY)

Joakim Nygard is also hurt at the moment — he could miss a couple more weeks with a rib injury, presumably sustained in that same Chicago game — and the Oilers have missed his speed up front. Nygard has the only other goal from a forward, scored in a 4-on-4 situation. It’ll be interesting to see where he slots in going forward. Nygard was just starting to develop chemistry with Granlund in forming a potential third scoring line, but Edmonton still hasn’t found a second-line fit for Nugent-Hopkins and Neal, so if that hole isn’t filled in the meantime, Nygard could get another look there with a little more leash to stick in the top six.

Haas, the third import that Edmonton signed from Europe this offseason, wasn’t panning out through five appearances — only getting the one assist on Nygard’s goal over 39:19 of total ice-time (averaging just 7:52 per game) — and wound up getting demoted in favour of Sam Gagner. Haas has an out-clause in his contract to return to Switzerland if he gets stuck in the AHL, but the onus will be on the 27-year-old to work his way back up from Bakersfield. The odds might be in favour of him heading home, barring more injuries in Edmonton. But two out of three ain’t bad — if Persson and Nygard do pan out over the course of the season.

Oilers Outsider

Looking back on last week’s second edition of Oilers Outsider, I would have won my bet on Gagner getting recalled before Cave. I fully expect Gagner to make his season debut tonight and my money is on him flanking Nugent-Hopkins and Neal. That is where Gagner was slotted from the opening day of training camp and I expect that trio to get a few games together now. I like Gagner’s chances of creating more offence than Chiasson or Jurco, who didn’t make the most of their opportunities in that spot. Gagner could be a catalyst and I wouldn’t be shocked to see him show up on the scoresheet tonight — assuming he draws in somewhere.

Edmonton Oilers Sam Gagner
Sam Gagner will be pumped to pull on the Oilers’ jersey again. (Tom Szczerbowski/USA TODAY)

I stand by Khaira as my whipping boy — he may have been the worst player on the ice in Minnesota and clearly didn’t get my message. The more I watch him plod along, the more I feel like Khaira may not be long for Edmonton or the NHL in general. He’d be the guy coming out of the lineup to make room for Gagner if that decision were up to me.

Meanwhile in Finland, Jesse Puljujarvi is continuing to score at a nice clip — and he’s been scoring some nicer goals lately — so those trade talks could be heating up for Holland. The deadline is December 1 for that deal to go down and for Puljujarvi to sign a new contract, which would pave the way for his return to the NHL with a new team. It still doesn’t sound like a return to Edmonton is a possibility, but Holland is holding out for what he feels is full value on the fourth overall pick from 2016. The little bit that I’ve seen of Puljujarvi in Finland — and it’s been mostly highlights, not full shifts or full games — it appears he has been taking advantage of the bigger ice. Even the nicer goals aren’t necessarily goals that will translate back to North America — and to the NHL — where there is less time and space on the smaller ice surface. Time will tell, of course, and that time could be coming.

Edmonton Oilers Outsider

If you have topics that you’d like me to tackle in future editions of Oilers Outsider, leave a comment here, track me down on Twitter (@LarryFisher_KDC) where I’ll be sharing my thoughts all season long following most games and often at the intermissions, or shoot me an email at larry.fisher31@gmail.com.