Oilers Outsider: Opening Week Offers Optimism

The Edmonton Oilers are off to a 2-0 start thanks to a pair of exciting home wins.

That is good news for both the standings and ticket sales going forward. It is certainly the start that Daryl Katz, Tom Anselmi and Bob Nicholson wanted to see. The Oilers are a business, after all, and when they are winning — and entertaining — business is good.

There were seats available for the home opener on game day — which is unheard of in Edmonton — but the Oilers are back to being the hottest ticket in town now. Turns out, a 6-5 barnburner is all it takes. You could hear the crowd loud and clear on Saturday night — they will be back.

Ken Holland and Dave Tippett are surely thrilled to be starting with four points in the standings. And to see Connor McDavid with five points through two games, including two electrifying goals. He hasn’t lost a step and somehow seems faster than ever coming off that knee injury. That is the best news of all because we all know this team goes as McDavid goes — and he’s been going strong from the outset again.

Stars Leading Charge

Edmonton’s best players have been their best players — and better than the opposition’s best players — through two games, which will need to be the case on most nights for the Oilers to have success and perhaps make the playoffs. That is no secret.

Leon Draisaitl has been the best of the best — even better than McDavid on opening night — but Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is still searching for his first point of the season after not factoring into any of the nine goals thus far. That was easy enough to overlook given the contributions of newcomers James Neal and Mike Smith. Oscar Klefbom is racking up points on the power play and playing a key role overall in supporting his rookie partners, while Darnell Nurse also got on the board with a big goal.

Edmonton Oilers Leon Draisaitl
Leon Draisaitl is looking for his second straight 50-goal, 100-point campaign. (Sergei Belski/USA TODAY)

Those seven players — McDavid, Draisaitl, Nugent-Hopkins, Klefbom, Nurse, Neal and Smith — are going to be the drivers this season. The driving force towards playoff contention. And, yes, Neal and Smith belong in that group. Their presence and impact was very evident in the opening two games, quickly proving their worth in becoming part of that core.

Zack Kassian would be next on that list — overtaking the injured Adam Larsson — and he’s been in beast mode from the get-go this season, which is also great to see. Kassian isn’t a passenger on that top line with McDavid and Draisaitl, he’s been pushing the pace as much as anyone in the early stages and winning over his new coach to solidify his place in the lineup.

Neal Capitalizes on Power-Play Opportunity

Look for Neal to now be the net-front presence on Edmonton’s top power-play unit — after scoring two goals there, including Saturday’s winner. That had been Milan Lucic’s role in recent years before Alex Chiasson took over last season. Chiasson was still occupying that spot in Wednesday’s opener against Vancouver, but Neal capitalized on his opportunity — with Chiasson sidelined by the flu — and should be that guy going forward.

James Neal Edmonton Oilers Jonathan Quick Los Angeles Kings
James Neal sets up shop in front of Los Angeles Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick. (Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

Also look for McDavid to record more shooting assists in man-advantage situations, creating intentional rebounds for Neal by putting low wristers into the goalies’ pads or aiming blocker side — as was the case on Neal’s first goal against Los Angeles. I’m sure that wasn’t by accident, it was by design — and something to watch in these upcoming games: McDavid as more of a shooter, with Neal there to clean up his rebounds.

Imports Already Contributing

The trio of new imports — Joakim Nygard, Gaetan Haas and Joel Persson — have been gaining momentum since arriving in Edmonton and appear to be good finds from overseas. I prefer to call them imports rather than rookies since they came with plenty of pro experience from back home.

Still, the transition to North America comes with several challenges on and off the ice — and those signings don’t always work out — but so far, so good for these three. And the forwards got a nice confidence boost by connecting on some “European showtime” for their first points in the NHL.

Lineup Musings

That glimpse of chemistry between Nygard and Haas — coming in a 4-on-4 situation — makes me think they could work well together, perhaps forming a third scoring line with Chiasson.

That would open the door for Tomas Jurco to move up into a top-six role with Nugent-Hopkins and Neal. Jurco has the skill to play that high in the lineup, as displayed on his dangle to set up Nurse’s goal. I highlighted Jurco ahead of training camp as a dark-horse candidate for that left-wing spot on the second line and I’d still like to see him get a shot there.

When all the forwards are healthy — which could be the case for Edmonton’s next game on Tuesday — the other new guys could comprise the fourth line with Riley Sheahan returning between Markus Granlund and Josh Archibald. That would be a better-than-average fourth line, though the third line would be considered below average simply because those imports are still unproven by NHL standards.

I’m not sure where that configuration leaves Jujhar Khaira, Colby Cave and Patrick Russell. The latter would likely be headed back to Bakersfield, which is already three lines deep without Russell. Cave could also be AHL bound if Tippett prefers Russell’s body of work to date.

Regardless, I’m optimistic this lineup could provide Edmonton with much-needed scoring depth:






If I were Tippett, I’d run with those lines for a five-game window, but it’s possible he’ll feel the need to split up McDavid and Draisaitl at times during this four-game road trip for a more balanced attack and to create matchup problems for the opposition. McDavid and Draisaitl are obviously better together, but with the way Draisaitl has burst out of the gate, there is no doubt he could drive his own line right now if need be.

RELATED: So Far, So Good for the Edmonton Oilers

Gagner’s Future

I’ll admit that I was surprised to see Sam Gagner on waivers prior to the season. I thought his history with Tippett from Arizona would have earned him a starting spot in Edmonton — he got the first look with Nugent-Hopkins and Neal, and didn’t look too bad to my eyes — but Holland wanted to see what he had with Nygard, Haas and Jurco. Completely understandable since Tippett knows what to expect from Gagner if and when he’s recalled from Bakersfield.

Edmonton Oilers Sam Gagner
Has Sam Gagner now played his final game as an Oiler? Perhaps, but probably not. He’s starting out in the AHL this season, but Gagner could be one of the first call-ups among forwards — ahead of the top prospects. (Tom Szczerbowski/USA TODAY)

It was also interesting to hear Holland discussing Gagner’s demotion and comparing his situation to Dan Cleary in Detroit — making mention that Cleary is now working in player development for the Red Wings. That last part was intriguing to me, almost suggesting that Gagner could follow a similar path to a player development role with the Oilers in the years to come. There could be some turnover in that department under Holland’s watch and Gagner would be a great choice to mentor the future Oilers — on the ice for now and eventually off the ice.

Gagner’s career is winding down — be it in the AHL or back in the NHL — but he has always been a proud Oiler and he’s happy to be part of the organization again. There is potential for a longer-term relationship this time around, with Gagner helping oversee the prospects once he retires. He’s only 30, though, so Gagner probably doesn’t plan on hanging them up any time soon and there is still a good chance he could return to Edmonton as a player when injuries arise.

Puljujarvi’s Production

Jesse Puljujarvi won’t likely wear an Oilers’ jersey again, but he continues to gain confidence and potentially increase his trade value by producing with his hometown team, Karpat in the Finnish Liiga.

Puljujarvi is a fixture on the top line there, tied for the team lead with eight points (three goals, five assists) through nine games and logging more than the 15 minutes per game that he desires in the NHL. His biggest supporter, BeerLeagueHeroe on Twitter, was quick to point out that Puljujarvi is also leading the entire league in shots.

Edmonton Oilers forward Jesse Puljujarvi
Jesse Puljujarvi’s future remains uncertain, having requested a trade from Edmonton. (Anne-Marie Sorvin/USA TODAY)

Problem is, the shots that he’s scoring on don’t look like NHL goals to me. His latest goal being a prime example, with the goaltender whiffing on what should have been a routine save. Sure, there was a bit of traffic — calling it a partial screen would be generous — but the goalie saw the release point on Puljujarvi’s shot and should have stopped it. The puck went through him, but this wasn’t a snipe by any stretch of the imagination.

If you shoot enough, something will eventually go in. There is merit in that quantity theory, but not every shot is a good shot — or, rather, a smart shot. I know it’s often said “there’s no such thing as a bad shot” in hockey, but that isn’t entirely true. There can be better options, which triggers the hockey IQ debate with Puljujarvi. That’s a debate for another day.

Reality is, Puljujarvi sees himself as a shooter and shooter’s shoot. Good on him for that, but I’d like to see Puljujarvi score a goal that screams top-six forward in the NHL. Rip one bar down off the rush. Fire a one-timer post and in. Pick a corner, any corner. Or be the power forward that he was drafted to be by driving around a defender and tucking one in the net. My advice is try being more like James van Riemsdyk instead of trying to be Alex Ovechkin or even Patrik Laine.

Until I see some or all of that, I’m not convinced other general managers will be upping their offers for Puljujarvi. Right now, I’m seeing much the same player we saw in Edmonton and Bakersfield over the past three seasons, with Puljujarvi getting better results back home from a combination of more opportunity and inferior goaltending. For the record, he’s tied for 17th in the league scoring race and it’s not exactly a who’s who ahead of him (check out those top 16 names and see how many of them you know).

I’m not sure that deal gets done before the December 1 deadline to return to the NHL. And there has been no talk, to my knowledge, on Puljujarvi rejoining the Oilers if his trade demand can’t be accommodated between now and then.

Goaltending Decisions

Smith has backstopped both wins and it’ll be interesting to see who starts Tuesday when the Oilers start their four-game road trip at Nassau Coliseum against the Islanders. That is Mikko Koskinen’s former team, he’s faced them twice before — winning in Edmonton but losing on the road, with both those games taking place this past February — and he might be motivated to make his season debut in familiar territory. But I could see Tippett sticking with Smith for a third straight start based on the ‘win and you’re in’ philosophy.

Smith barely won against Los Angeles and had to overcome a couple early blunders, but he settled in during the second period and battled until the end. Those puckhandling miscues will happen from time to time with Smith — there is also an adjustment process for his new defencemen — but you need to take the good with the bad on that front and the good still outweighs the bad through two games. Smith was definitely a difference-maker against Vancouver, which outplayed Edmonton in the opener.

Buzz words emerge with certain players — for broadcasters, talking heads and scribes alike. With Smith, the words “presence” and “battle” come to mind because he clearly has a presence between the pipes and his battle level is as high as any goaltender in the league — even at 37 years old. He’s as competitive as they come — similar to Islanders legend Billy Smith (no known relation) in that sense — and therefore you can bet Smith wants to stay in the crease against the Islanders. I would bet on that happening — on Smith keeping the net for now.

Oilers Outsider

That would be a small bet on my part — not the house, nor the farm — because I’m no insider. I don’t live in Edmonton. I don’t travel with the team. I don’t have my finger on the pulse of the room by any means. I’m an outsider, an avid follower from afar.

Edmonton Oilers Outsider

Like Jonathan Willis of The Athletic and Kurt Leavins from the Cult of Hockey, I’m currently based in B.C. — calling Kelowna home for the better part of a decade now, since August 2008 — but I grew up in the prairies on a grain farm outside the small town of Luseland, Sask. (population 650), located four hours east of Edmonton just across the Alberta border, with stops in Lethbridge, Ponoka and Lloydminster en route to the Okanagan where I now have a fiancée, two yorkies (fur children), a mortgage and a 35th birthday looming in November.

I do have connections in Edmonton. I went to college with Dustin Nielson and played on the same rec team during our time in Lethbridge. I was a media colleague of Reid Wilkins in Lloydminster and did colour commentary for him at the 2007 Allan Cup in Stony Plain. And I’ve got to know the real Oilers’ insiders over the years — the likes of Bob Stauffer, Mark Spector and Jim Matheson. That list goes on to include Jason Gregor, Ryan Rishaug and Daniel Nugent-Bowman, among others. Those are the guys to follow for the scoops!

As for this column — Oilers Outsider — most of my insight will be speculation and guesswork, while sharing my honest opinions and analysis on all things Oilers. The format is a work in progress, I don’t want to copy Kurt’s 9 Things, but there could be some similarities. My favourite read is Elliotte Friedman’s 31 Thoughts, so that is the inspiration here.

Essentially, I’ll be publishing a compilation of my thoughts from Twitter (@LarryFisher_KDC) in more than 280 characters. I’ve always been longwinded, so this will be a better platform for me to elaborate on what I’m seeing and sensing. Speaking of Twitter, there is already an Oilers Outsider account, but that has no affiliation to me.

I’m debating whether to commit to this as a weekly column — I already have other commitments with my NHL draft coverage for THW — or to publish it randomly whenever time permits and my two cents are warranted.

We’ll see where it goes and how it grows, but here’s hoping you’ll accept this Oilers Outsider and enjoy my contributions — whether you agree or disagree.