Oilers Outsider: First Place After First Month

It’s official, the Edmonton Oilers will finish October on top of the Pacific Division.

The Oilers are guaranteed to be in first place when the calendar turns to November — regardless of Vegas’ result tonight, thanks to last night’s 4-1 road win in Columbus to stay ahead of the pack.

It’s scary close at the top of a surprisingly strong or at least fast-starting Pacific, with Vancouver, Vegas, Anaheim, Arizona and Calgary all hot on Edmonton’s heels, and San Jose likely to pick up the pace as the season progresses.

How close, you ask? Had Edmonton lost in regulation in Columbus, with Vancouver and Arizona winning on Wednesday and Vegas victorious tonight, the Oilers would have technically fallen to fourth place to end the opening month. Vegas would have pulled ahead by a single point, with Vancouver and Arizona pulling even in a three-way tie for second but both holding two games in hand on Edmonton. And if Calgary won tonight, the Flames would have joined Anaheim just one point behind Edmonton under that scenario, which would have seen the Pacific’s top six teams separated by two points heading into November.

That goes to show how huge the win over Columbus was for Edmonton as far as the standings go — not to mention avoiding a three-game losing skid for the second time within a week, having lost four of the previous five, but now back in the win column in a big way.

Leon Draisaitl Edmonton Oilers
Leon Draisaitl scored twice, including what stood up as the winning goal, in Columbus. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

There is no leeway for a letdown going forward, but the Oilers are in an enviable spot today with 19 points from a 9-4-0-1 record through 14 games. That includes a 7-2 record against the Eastern Conference and wins over three of the four playoff teams from last season that they have faced thus far — earning seven of a possible eight points in those games, with the lone loss coming in a shootout at Winnipeg. Edmonton is also 5-1 at home and has come from behind in six of nine victories to date. That is all good news and the glass has to be considered half full in Oil Country for the time being.

Now comes November, with another playoff team up next in Pittsburgh on Saturday. The Penguins are getting healthy again and are expecting to get back Evgeni Malkin for that matinee — featuring another Connor McDavid versus Sidney Crosby showdown between the NHL’s two best players. Superstars get up for those matchups, as witnessed a week ago against Washington when Leon Draisaitl and Alex Ovechkin both scored twice, with McDavid totally taking over that game to get Edmonton the win — and the two points.

There was a time, not too long ago, when Malkin was in that “best player” discussion with Crosby and Ovechkin, but now Draisaitl belongs in the conversation — as evidenced by his league-leading 12 goals and 25 points. As dynamic duos or one-two punches go, McDavid and Draisaitl have surpassed Crosby and Malkin, but the stage is set for that debate to surface again on Saturday.

In the spirit of Halloween, here are the three biggest treats and tricks for the Oilers coming out of October.

Treat No. 1: Neal’s Scoring

James Neal netted 11 goals in October, including a league-leading eight power-play goals. His total of 11 is tied for third overall with Ovechkin and Toronto’s Auston Matthews, trailing only Draisaitl and Boston’s David Pastrnak with 12.

To see Neal among the league’s top-five goal-scorers is a real treat — especially since he only tallied seven goals all of last season over 63 games with Calgary. He’s rebounded with Edmonton and it’s clear that Ken Holland tricked Brad Treliving in that trade for Milan Lucic.

Edmonton’s franchise record for goals in the month of October is 13 — Wayne Gretzky accomplished that feat twice, in 1981 and 1983 — with Draisaitl’s 12 ranking second and Neal’s 11 good for third all-time in the Oilers’ record books (tied with Gretzky and Glenn Anderson).

Treat No. 2: Quality Goaltending

Goaltending wasn’t supposed to be a strength for Edmonton this season. Most pundits felt it would be among the weaknesses preventing the Oilers from making the playoffs. So far, those pundits — yours truly included — would be wrong.

Mikko Koskinen has an impressive .922 save percentage over six starts and seven appearances. His record is 5-1, suffering his first loss of the season in Detroit on Tuesday — a 3-1 setback that included an empty-net goal for the Red Wings. Even there, Koskinen made several stellar saves in stopping 25-of-27 shots to give the Oilers a chance to rally for the win. He is a perfect 5-0 at home and has been a treat thus far in earning his much-maligned $4.5-million contract while silencing his critics through the first month.

Edmonton Oilers Mikko Koskinen
Mikko Koskinen and his glove hand have been a bright spot for Edmonton. (Sergei Belski/USA TODAY)

Mike Smith has had some shaky moments over his eight starts but has been mostly solid, including his 23-save performance in backstopping the latest win over Columbus. That brought his save percentage back up to .919 and improved his record to 4-3-0-1. Smith’s goals-against average of 2.29 is slightly better than Koskinen’s 2.39.

Edmonton’s platoon system is panning out as hoped, with both goaltenders being a treat in exceeding the outside expectations. Smith has logged 446 minutes to Koskinen’s 401 and that shared workload should continue as long as both are giving Edmonton quality starts.

Treat No. 3: Bear’s Emergence

Ethan Bear wasn’t expected to crack Edmonton’s roster out of camp — he was a long-shot and an afterthought for the projected lineups — but now he’s leading all NHL rookies in ice time, averaging 21 minutes 16 seconds per game. That ranks ahead of Vancouver’s Quinn Hughes (20:27), Nashville’s Dante Fabbro (19:21) and Colorado’s Cale Makar (18:32) — three fellow defencemen that were expected to play top-four roles, if not contend for the Calder.

Bear may not be getting any trophy talk — mainly because he hasn’t been as offensive as Hughes and Makar — but he’s been a treat for Edmonton in looking like a legitimate top-four blueliner and largely filling the void left by Adam Larsson’s injury in the season opener.

Ethan Bear
Ethan Bear has been a revelation, forming an effective pairing with Darnell Nurse. (Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

Bear does have two goals and four points — all at even strength, with limited power-play time. Makar is already up to 10 points but only has one goal with six of his nine assists coming on the power play. Hughes had three more power-play helpers on Wednesday, giving him eight assists of that variety and nine overall among his 10 points, with his lone goal also scored on a man advantage. Fabbro has two goals and three points with his plus-6 rating being the best of those four. Bear is the worst in that category at minus-4, with Hughes at plus-1 and Makar managing an even rating. But Bear hasn’t been bad defensively by any means, occasionally getting beat wide off the rush but otherwise holding his own in all situations, including on the penalty kill.

Trick No. 1: Favourable Schedule

Edmonton made the most of an “easier” schedule to start the season, which is one of the reasons why some analysts went on the record in calling out the Oilers’ early success as fake — or a trick, in this case. As mentioned and as has been well documented, Edmonton has only faced four playoff teams from last season through 14 games — albeit, going 3-0-0-1 in those games by beating the Islanders (5-2), Capitals (4-3 in overtime) and Blue Jackets (4-1), while dropping a shootout to the Jets (1-0). Edmonton has only played five teams from the Western Conference — with a 2-2-0-1 record — and hasn’t faced a Pacific Division foe since defeating the Canucks and Kings in the first two games of the season.

That will change in November, with 12 of 14 games against Western Conference opponents, including eight games against Pacific peers that will prove pivotal. Edmonton has Arizona and San Jose twice each on the November schedule, plus first meetings with Anaheim and Vegas as well as second encounters with Los Angeles and Vancouver. The Oilers will also take on reigning champion St. Louis in addition to Dallas from the Central Division, with Pittsburgh and New Jersey the only Eastern Conference opponents in November.

That is eight of 14 games against playoff teams from last season. And of the six games against non-playoff teams, only New Jersey and Los Angeles aren’t occupying playoff spots as of today — with Vancouver, Anaheim and Arizona appearing much improved thus far.

Trick No. 2: No Secondary Scoring

With a seemingly tougher schedule on the horizon, the Oilers are going to need more than one line in November. That will be the trick to sustaining success since the numbers don’t lie and, reality is, Edmonton was a one-line team in October. Math isn’t my forte but McDavid, Draisaitl and Zack Kassian have been on the ice for 21 of 29 even-strength goals to date — that equates to 72 per cent of the even-strength offence coming from one line.

Leon Draisaitl, Connor McDavid
Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl have been carrying the offence. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson)

As for the other eight goals? Three from Neal (two in the same game against the Islanders), one from Jujhar Khaira (in the final game of October), one from Joakim Nygard (in a 4-on-4 situation), and three from defencemen: Darnell Nurse from Tomas Jurco against L.A., Oscar Klefbom from Ryan Nugent-Hopkins against the Rangers, and Bear from Neal and Nugent-Hopkins against Philadelphia. That’s it, that’s all — and that’s a cause for serious concern.

Much has been made about the lack of offence from the bottom six, but it’s really become a bottom nine for Edmonton. In saying that, the Oilers still don’t have a 5-on-5 goal from a forward playing in the bottom six since Khaira was playing a top-six role on the second line with Nugent-Hopkins and Sam Gagner when he finally found the back of the net for his first goal and first point of the season against Columbus on Wednesday. That fact is almost unfathomable after 14 games.

Nugent-Hopkins has played all 14 games but remains among 10 forwards without an even-strength goal this season — he’s stuck on one goal, which came on a power play — with that list also including Riley Sheahan and Markus Granlund over 12 games, Alex Chiasson, Tomas Jurco and Patrick Russell over 11 games, Josh Archibald over eight games, Gaetan Haas over seven games, Sam Gagner over four games, and Colby Cave over two games.

The bottom-six struggles aren’t shocking, considering Archibald and Granlund weren’t qualified by their former non-playoff teams, while Gagner, Jurco, Russell and Cave spent parts or much of last season in the minors (AHL), with Nygard and Haas in Europe and still new to North America. It doesn’t help that Nygard, Archibald and now Sheahan are currently hurt, with Cave perhaps getting called back up because of the latest injury.

Worth noting, Nugent-Hopkins scored 20 of his 28 goals at even strength last season and Chiasson netted 14 of his 22 at evens — both had eight power-play goals. Those were career highs across the board for both, but they need to get on the board in November and provide some of that much-needed secondary scoring for Edmonton. The second, third and fourth lines need to combine for more than a mere 28 per cent of the even-strength scoring if the Oilers hope to remain in a playoff position come December. Ideally, that number rises to at least 40 per cent for the month of November.

Trick No. 3: Unsustainable Shooting Percentages

Neal has scored on 26.2 per cent of his shots — 11 of 42, or more than one in every four. His career shooting percentage over 780 regular-season games is a respectable 11.9 (281 goals on 2,362 shots), so that is inevitably going to come down and likely get cut in half as the campaign progresses. Neal isn’t going to stay hot forever. This heater has been a trick — with eight goals in the first six games, including four in the same game — and he was starting to cool off with only two goals in the last six games (both on the power play). But those two goals have come in the past three games, so Neal might be able to carry the hot hand into November.

Edmonton Oilers James Neal
James Neal has had plenty to celebrate in the early stages of this season. (Perry Nelson/USA TODAY)

Draisaitl is obviously on fire too, with a red-hot 24.5 shooting percentage (12 goals on 49 shots). That is extremely high, but not much higher than last season’s 21.6 per cent that produced 50 goals (on 231 shots). It’s possible this could be the new norm for Draisaitl — despite his career shooting percentage being 16.5 (137 goals on 828 shots) — but it’s also possible he could go cold and endure a dry spell at some point. His current shooting percentage will be difficult to sustain, bordering on impossible — considering Draisaitl’s 21.6 led the league last season for players with more than 100 shots, just ahead of Tampa Bay’s Brayden Point at 21.5 (41 goals on 191 shots). David Perron at 20.5 (23 on 112) and Joe Pavelski at 20.2 (38 on 188) were the only other players to exceed 20 per cent. This season is young, so there are still several players shooting above 25 per cent with a minimum of 20 shots — including Pastrnak at 30.0 (12 on 40). Brayden Schenn is even higher at 32.1 (9 on 28), while T.J. Oshie at 29.2 (7 on 24), Travis Konecny at 27.3 (6 on 22), Roope Hintz at 26.9 (7 on 26) and Adam Henrique at 26.7 (8 on 30) are the other notables ahead of both Neal and Draisaitl.

On the flip side, Nugent-Hopkins should heat up sooner or later and his current drought shouldn’t last much longer. His career shooting percentage is 11.6 (148 goals on 1,277 shots), including 13.5 last season (28 on 208) and 15.9 two years ago (24 on 151). Right now, Nugent-Hopkins is somehow at 3.2 (1 on 31) and he hasn’t scored over the last seven games (19 shots), so he’s due to break out — perhaps in Pittsburgh. Of course, all the zero per-centers are due too — especially Chiasson, who is up to 13 shots and trailing only Patrick Russell’s 18 shots among those yet to score this season.

Oilers Outsider

Looking back on last week’s third edition of Oilers Outsider, I made some of these same points in varying degrees of detail by sharing 10 thoughts through 10 games. I tried to offer something new — or something more — this time around, so hopefully it wasn’t too much overlap or too redundant.

Speaking of something new — and something not as many people are talking about despite my tweeting on this topic — the Oilers went through the entire first month without a single fight over 14 games. That has to be a first for Edmonton, if not a first for any and every NHL team.

Fighting is evidently down in today’s game — and may be on the verge of extinction — but that is still surprising for a team that features Khaira, Kassian and Nurse. Kassian led Edmonton with four fights last season, followed by Nurse with three and Khaira with two. Lucic also had two for the Oilers last season and has already matched that total for the Flames this season — tied for the league lead with Ross Johnston of the Islanders, Chris Stewart of the Flyers and Matt Calvert of the Avalanche. That seems low — the leaders only having two fights through October — but last season finished with 10 players tied for the most fights at six, including former Oiler Pat Maroon. Fighting just isn’t a big part of the sport anymore.

The closest an Oiler has come to dropping the gloves this season was Khaira confronting Chicago’s Andrew Shaw after his big hit that concussed Joel Persson and Kassian jabbing with Washington’s Tom Wilson after a whistle, resulting in offsetting roughing minors. Nurse has been on his best behaviour with only 10 penalty minutes through 14 games. Kassian has eight and Khaira has six. Edmonton’s penalty-minute leader may also come as a surprise: Bear, with 14.

Edmonton Oilers Jujhar Khaira Minnesota Wild Nick Seeler
Jujhar Khaira got the goal-scoring monkey off his back in Wednesday’s win. (Harrison Barden/USA TODAY)

Khaira had become my whipping boy this season — in part for his lack of intensity and pugnacity — but he’s been a bit better the last couple games and particularly in Columbus. Even before he scored early in the second period — by going to the net and having Nugent-Hopkins’ rebound go in off his body — Khaira was more engaged and more noticeable. It was a step in the right direction for No. 16 and hopefully he’ll take another step in Pittsburgh — especially if that line stays intact with Nugent-Hopkins and Gagner.

Off the ice, there was something of a Twitter fight between Bob Stauffer and Dustin Nielson in recent days — trading barbs over the ever-polarizing Jesse Puljujarvi after sparring over potentially recalling Kailer Yamamoto. Nielson has been Puljujarvi’s biggest supporter among the Edmonton media, while Stauffer seems keen on bringing up Yamamoto in the near future — maybe now that Sheahan is sidelined. It’d be great to see both of them in Edmonton again — Puljujarvi and Yamamoto — but I’m not sure the timing is right for either of them. I’d leave them where they are at, with Puljujarvi benefitting from spending a full season in Finland — barring the right trade return — and Yamamoto continuing to develop in Bakersfield until Christmas or at least until the 20-game mark of the AHL season (the Condors played their ninth game on Wednesday, falling to 3-5-1-0 with a 5-0 loss). But desperate times could call for desperate measures when it comes to solving the lack of secondary scoring, and Stauffer noted that Holland is heading overseas to check in on Puljujarvi next weekend.

On the trade front, with that December 1 deadline now only a month away, there have been some new names floated as potential returns for Puljujarvi. Kurt Leavins tossed out Colorado’s Tyson Jost in a recent 9 Things column — though that was before Gabriel Landeskog joined Mikko Rantanen on the sidelines, depleting the Avs’ depth — and that is the type of player to be targeting. Jost hails from the Edmonton area and has nice upside as the 10th overall pick from Puljujarvi’s draft year — six selections after Puljujarvi went fourth in 2016.

If Holland prefers a more established scorer that could immediately fit with Nugent-Hopkins and Neal, there is Tyler Toffoli, who was a healthy scratch for Los Angeles last night, and Chris Kreider, who was flying for the Rangers against the Oilers in their October meeting and has long been rumoured to Edmonton. Both Toffoli and Kreider are pending free agents — and Puljujarvi would presumably be attractive to the Kings and Rangers in their rebuilding states — but Toffoli might be more available at the moment.

Los Angeles Kings Tyler Toffoli
Tyler Toffoli has scored 20-plus goals three times, including a career-high 31 in 2015-16. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)

Edmonton would need to send salary to the Kings to afford Toffoli’s $4.6-million cap hit. Los Angeles is weak on defence and the coaching staff there — Todd McLellan and Trent Yawney — are very familiar with Kris Russell ($4 million for this season and next). Would the Kings say no to that 2-for-1, Puljujarvi and Russell for Toffoli? Could Holland turn Puljujarvi into another 20-goal man for this season while also opening another spot on the blue line for William Lagesson or Caleb Jones? That trade makes sense to me and the timing could be right for both teams.

A few more quick hitters that I found interesting over the last week: Klefbom’s seven-game splits, he was 1-8-9 over the first seven and 0-0-0 over the next seven; Edmonton’s special teams haven’t been all that special lately, with the power play just 2-for-19 over the last seven (nearly 3-for-19 but Draisaitl’s first of two goals last night came as a Columbus penalty expired) after going 10-for-22 over the first seven, while the penalty kill has allowed a goal in four of the last five, with opponents going a combined 4-for-12 on man advantages over that stretch after only allowing 3-for-31 over the first nine games (killing off 28 of 31). As a result, Edmonton’s power play has slipped to third in the league at 29.3 per cent after being tied for first a week ago and the penalty kill has plummeted to 11th at 83.7 per cent after being tied for fourth at this time last week.

Lastly, to avoid leaving you on a negative note in these happy times according to the standings, I wonder if there is any chance Wednesday’s win will change Dave Tippett’s mind on bringing back his moustache for Movember? Stay tuned!

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.