Let’s not allow that first loss to take the shine off a stellar road trip that started with three straight wins — all in come-from-behind fashion for a record-setting 5-0 start.
Sure, coming home 6-and-0 would have been that much better than 5-and-1, but most Edmonton fans would have been content with the Oilers getting off to a .500 start over their first 10 games and they are already assured of that with four games to go.
Those four games are all winnable on paper — home to Philadelphia tonight, home to Detroit on Friday, at Winnipeg on Sunday, and at Minnesota next Tuesday. Three more non-playoff teams from last season and the lone playoff team is icing an inferior and depleted defence this season.
In theory, the Flyers, Red Wings, Jets and Wild should all be beatable for the Oilers — especially since the Flyers and Red Wings will be on back-to-backs, with Philadelphia losing in Calgary last night and Detroit also coming up the QE2 after starting in Cowtown on Thursday. But even the Jets are ripe for the picking right now — as evidenced by that 7-2 beatdown at the hands of banged-up Pittsburgh this past Sunday.
Would we have said that prior to the season? Perhaps, but expectations are certainly higher now that Edmonton has burst out of the gate with better goaltending, much better special teams, and even a better bottom six despite their contributions not yet showing up on the scoresheet.
Were the Oilers overachieving in those first five games? Maybe a little — at least from a fancy-stat perspective, as alluded to by Matt Larkin of The Hockey News following their fourth victory — but the eye test tells us this is an improved team in many areas. That includes Dave Tippett’s coaching, which has been impressive in terms of game management and deployment for the most part.
Now is not the time for a letdown. Win three of these next four — or at least get points in three — and Edmonton will be in great shape going forward. That would make for an extremely positive and promising start through 10 games — whether the record is 9-1-0-0 or 6-2-1-1. I think everyone in Oilers Nation would gladly accept the latter, right?
Reality is, the NHL schedule-maker was rather kind to Edmonton this October and thus the Oilers need to bag as many points as possible for the rest of this month in hopes of holding down a playoff position come American Thanksgiving in November. That holiday arrives around the 20-game mark and approximately 80 per cent of the playoff-positioned teams at that time go on to reach the postseason. The Oilers are looking good to be in that mix at the quarter-pole, providing they play .500 or better hockey between the Canadian and American versions of Thanksgiving. Gobble, gobble up those points in the standings!
James Neal Still Scoring
James Neal has been flaming hot — sorry Calgary, that was irresistible — with his league-leading eight goals, already surpassing last season’s total of seven from his forgettable campaign in southern Alberta. He’s lit the lamp a league-high six times on the power play and looks right at home on Edmonton’s top unit. Neal is cleaning up rebounds as the net-front presence and obviously rebounding in general.
The Real Deal is back — prompting a couple new takes on Neal’s nickname over the last week: The Unreal Deal (Gene Principe) and The Real Steal (David Staples). He’s a huge hit in Edmonton right now, though I’m not convinced this catchy new goal song will hit No. 1 on any billboard charts. It’ll get lots of play locally and a little online love too. Thank you Calgary is the general consensus — and could become a chant in future Battles of Alberta or perhaps at this week’s home games should Neal net another goal.
On the ice, Neal was in the midst of a quiet game in Chicago until his late power-play goal got Edmonton on the board in Monday’s 3-1 loss. He’s now scored in four of Edmonton’s six games and probably shouldn’t have been blanked by the Rangers — with Henrik Lundqvist robbing Neal of one goal, if not two. Like I said, flaming hot!
Meanwhile, Milan Lucic has fought a couple times for Calgary, but . . .
Mike Smith Making Early Saves
Since we’re laying the boots to former Oilers turned Flames, Cam Talbot had a bad habit of allowing goals on the first shot of the game. I lost count, but that total was terribly high — forcing Edmonton to play from behind in what felt like the majority of Talbot’s starts.
Granted, the Oilers have trailed in all four of Mike Smith’s starts — and all six games thus far — but that alarming trend appears to be a thing of the past. Smith has been sharp from the opening puck-drops, making some crucial early saves on difficult first shots — stopping Mika Zibanejad’s partial breakaway against the Rangers and denying Dominik Kubalik of the Blackhawks, both in the opening minute of those games. Trust me, the Oilers’ players have taken notice and have more confidence in their new goaltender as a result.
That problem left town with Talbot but apparently followed him to Calgary, where he once again allowed the first shot in his Flames debut — a losing effort against San Jose on Sunday. That goal was bad luck — a centering pass that went in off Timo Meier’s skate — but still . . .
Goaltending Above Average
I fully expect Mikko Koskinen to make his first home start tonight against Philly, but that’s not putting the blame on Smith for Monday’s first defeat. He got outduelled by Chicago’s Corey Crawford in a battle of veterans and was guilty of getting over aggressive again on Alex Nylander’s goal that stood up as the winner, but Edmonton’s goaltending has been above average from both netminders.
Smith had to overcome those puckhandling blunders against Los Angeles, but he was a big reason for Edmonton starting the season in the win column — backstopping that victory over Vancouver — and also for beating the Rangers in Saturday’s matinee. Smith only had to make 20 saves in that triumph, but he came through with a couple clutch stops when the Oilers were clinging to a 2-1 lead with less than 10 minutes remaining in the third period before pulling away to prevail 4-1. Key saves at key times, that will be one of the keys to a successful season.
With four starts under his belt, Smith is sporting a .917 save percentage and 2.51 goals-against average.
Koskinen, who was rock solid in road wins over the Islanders and Devils to start that four-game trip last week, has nearly identical numbers at .914 and 2.40.
If both goaltenders can maintain a .910 or better save percentage over 82 games, I do like Edmonton’s chances of making the playoffs. That position was perceived to be a weakness — or a massive question mark to say the least — but it’s been a strength in these early stages. And Koskinen’s glove is holding up fairly well . . . knock on wood!
Tonight could turn into another goaltending duel, with Carter Hart surely wanting to shine in his homecoming. Hart is one of the league’s brightest young stars between the pipes and Koskinen will need to be up to the challenge in facing a Flyers team full of shooters — assuming he gets the start.
Defence Also Delivering
Sink or swim. That was the predicament — and overwhelming sentiment — for the Oilers’ defence when Adam Larsson went down in the season opener. Their top shutdown defender suffering a broken bone in his right leg (fibula) from blocking a shot and expected to miss two months.
Through five games without him, Edmonton’s back end has been staying afloat — Ethan Bear and Joel Persson are treading for the time being and had been trending in the right direction.
Chicago was a rougher outing for Persson — getting bowled over by Andrew Shaw and absorbing another hard hit from Zack Smith, while being slow to react on Nylander’s 2-0 goal and nearly getting another minus when Brandon Saad split the D only to be stopped by the crossbar — but the rest of the trip was progressive for No. 36 in his ongoing adjustment to the North American game.
Persson was billed as an offensive blueliner upon first signing with Edmonton back in May 2018 — touted as a potential power-play quarterback — and those contributions could be coming, but he’s been pretty sound defensively, displaying poise with the puck and making the proper reads in all three zones. He’s been efficient, not flashy thus far.
Bear has been a bright spot from the start of camp, showing up in the best shape of his life — for real — and continuing to show he can handle a top-four role. Bear has been more “active” than Persson — more noticeable overall — and the good has far outweighed the bad with him.
Bear has been the best of the bunch in executing Edmonton’s new up-the-middle breakout, which worked twice for him against the Rangers, with the latter leading to a secondary assist on Leon Draisaitl’s 3-1 goal. Bear didn’t get a helper on this goal against New Jersey, but he started that rush too — as nicely highlighted by Louie DeBrusk.
Bear almost turned over an up-the-middle attempt against Chicago — getting checked as the puck was leaving his stick — but Connor McDavid swooped in to pick up that pass near the crease and skated it out of harm’s way. No. 74 hasn’t been perfect, but he’s been passing the eye test on a nightly basis. Bear has yet to get a failing grade — from his fitness test to his litmus test.
Bear and Persson are technically rookies but both are seasoned pros, with the 22-year-old Bear having two AHL seasons on his resume and entering this campaign with 18 games of prior NHL experience, while the 25-year-old Persson spent the previous two seasons developing as a late-bloomer in Sweden’s top league, the SHL.
In terms of age, Persson is older than Darnell Nurse (24) and also Matt Benning by a couple months (both 25). Oscar Klefbom is 26 and Larsson will be 27 by the time he returns (Nov. 12 birthday), while Kris Russell is the elder statesman at 32 — though he’s a youngish, energetic 32, not necessarily showing his age yet despite some hard miles on his shot-blocking body. Brandon Manning, the extra as of now, is 29.
Klefbom and Nurse deserve ample praise for propping up their pairings — shouldering the load and doing the heavy lifting on special teams — but their newbie partners have been carrying their weight at even strength.
Klefbom has been the main workhorse and the Oilers can ill afford to lose him to another injury with Larsson already on the shelf. That would sink the ship again — as was the case last season, when Klefbom and Russell were sidelined at the same time. Nurse has been more durable over his career to date and he’s presumably been told not to fight for now because the Oilers need him on the ice as much as possible. Breaking a hand on a helmet — or a jaw — would be as foolish as it would be harmful, so Nurse best keep his gloves on in the present.
As for that third pairing, Russell and Benning have been providing reliable, workmanlike minutes and working very well together, which brings me to my next point.
Matt Benning Appreciation Club
Benning has become a whipping boy for factions of the fan base despite being something of an analytics darling — and a plus player in each of his three NHL seasons. That is an archaic stat, but it’s still telling of Benning’s effectiveness in the big picture.
Like Bear, Benning is an “active” player, so you notice him more than others on most nights. No. 83 makes his share of mistakes — no one is denying that — but he makes up for them with plenty of positive plays. As evidenced by those plus ratings.
Benning turned in one of his best performances against the Rangers — not only of this season, but of his career — yet that didn’t stop the Twitter trolls from trying to run him down. That vocal minority has been successful in running others out of town — Tom Poti and Justin Schultz immediately come to mind — but not this time.
Kurt Leavins from the Cult of Hockey was having none of it — coming to Benning’s defence and shaming the anti-Benning bias in his latest 9 Things column. That had a positive impact, with HHOF scribe Jim Matheson quick to join the Matt Benning Appreciation Club. Sign me up too.
This is a hometown kid — an Alberta boy — doing his absolute best for the Oilers. He wears the jersey with pride and doesn’t hesitate in sacrificing his body. He’s undersized but one of Edmonton’s more physical players and he’s been blocking more shots this season too — taking another one for the team in taking a blast off his wrist against the Rangers. Painful but helpful. On that front, Benning has been playing a lot like another unwarranted whipping boy — his partner, Russell.
That’s a good thing — contrary to the belief of those ABB spewers and Russell haters. It is strange, though, how the analytics tend to be favourable for Benning while painting Russell in such a negative light. The eye test suggests they are comparable, complementary players. Regardless, get off Benning’s back — get off both their backs.
New Whipping Boy
For those now needing a new whipping boy, I’d like to nominate Jujhar Khaira, who needs to prove he wants to be an NHLer — and an Oiler. He can’t be coasting around, taking shifts or entire nights off. Patrick Russell and Gaetan Haas would gladly take his spot — and that may not be far off from happening. Russell, in particular, could fill the same role in a heartbeat.
Khaira has always left me wanting more — and he should be capable of more, with his size and relative skill. His puck protection is impressive. His shot is above average. He can be strong on the forecheck and on the cycle. He is a physical presence when he wants to be. But this is a guy who only scored three goals last season — after netting 11 two years ago in his first full campaign — and often looks like he’s going through the motions, as if he’s an established 10-year veteran. Khaira looks too comfortable for my liking and for what he is — a bottom-six checker and a fringe NHLer. A replacement-level player, with potential replacements now nipping at his heels.
Khaira needs to find that hunger in a hurry to stay in the lineup. He needs to bring that power-forward mentality on a regular basis or he won’t be a regular for long. And for a team in need of secondary scoring, he needs to become a threat to score again. He can’t be invisible or he’ll be in the press box — or sent packing.
Last but not least when it comes to Khaira, he needs to embrace pugilism as part of his game. With Lucic gone, Nurse too valuable to be in the box, and Zack Kassian a legitimate contributor on the top line, the enforcing now falls on Khaira. He needs to take on that role — fighting is in his job description, more so than years past — and he really should have fed Shaw a few following the hit on Persson. Instigator rule be damned, Khaira was already getting a penalty for getting in his face, so he may as well have started swinging.
That was a missed opportunity to send a message that there’s a new sheriff patrolling the ice for Edmonton — wearing No. 16, not No. 17 — and that taking liberties still won’t be tolerated. We all saw Lucic go after Colorado’s Nikita Zadorov during his Calgary debut — that was the right response, the right reaction. Khaira needs to channel his inner Lucic and be meaner, be more of a deterrent, develop that intimidation factor, and take the intensity up several notches.
Long story short, Khaira needs to play with an edge and with a chip on his shoulder all of the time — not some of the time. And he needs to be ready to answer the bell — because No. 17 is going to be in the other corner when Calgary finally comes to town for the first Battle of Alberta on Dec. 27. Lucic will have that date circled on his calendar, so Khaira needs to practise up for that inevitable tilt. After all, that ability may be the only thing keeping Khaira in the lineup over Russell right now.
Patrick Russell Wins Final Roster Spot
Speaking of Patrick Russell, he beat out Colby Cave for the final roster spot now that all the forwards are healthy. Russell was a dark horse heading into camp but emerged as a pleasant surprise with his relentless forecheck and superb penalty killing — winning over the new coaching staff to stick around. He’s not as big as Khaira and not known as a tough guy, but Russell plays a heavy game and could complement Riley Sheahan just as well should he get that chance. The question is, could Russell chip in more offence than Khaira?
As for Cave, he was waived to Bakersfield and will be in tough to work his way back up to the big league. Cave is a hard worker, but he’s a tweener at best — not skilled enough to make a meaningful impact in the NHL and prone to mental lapses in the defensive zone, which led to his demotion. If I were a betting man, I’d bet on Sam Gagner getting recalled before Cave.
For the record, Patrick Russell is no relation to Kris Russell. Patrick is a Dane, Kris is from Caroline. That’s worlds apart — Denmark to small town Alberta — despite sharing a surname and looking a little alike. Maybe it’s just me, but I do see a slight resemblance. You be the judge from these videos: Patrick and Kris. Brothers separated at birth, reunited with the Oilers?
Looking back on my debut column — the first edition of Oilers Outsider, published prior to the road trip — I was wrong about Smith starting against the Islanders but right about Jurco getting promoted to the second line and also about the imports being paired together — at least for that first game.
Meanwhile, the Oilers’ insiders have since taken notice of Jesse Puljujarvi’s “soft” goals padding his stat-line back home, which I was among the first to call out. Mark Spector of Sportsnet and Daniel Nugent-Bowman of The Athletic agree that those don’t look like NHL goals and that the goaltending in the Finnish Liiga isn’t on the same level. However, we can all take a moment to applaud Puljujarvi’s latest goal — this was more of a goal-scorer’s shot and an encouraging sign. A confident, productive and improving Puljujarvi bodes well for the Oilers as this saga continues to play out.
That’s not to toot my own horn, the men on the beat have hit the ground running this season in providing tremendous coverage — be it those two out on the road or Matty and Jason Gregor, among others, back in Edmonton. Oilers Nation is lucky to have such a passionate and driven media team — and broadcast team, for that matter. I had the pleasure of listening to Jack Michaels and Bob Stauffer call the beginning of the Devils and Blackhawks games on my way home to the TV (PVR was a wonderful invention).
That also meant I got to hear the Star Spangled Banner from Chicago, one of only two cities where I’m tempted to turn the anthem up — instead of down. The other? Philadelphia’s God Bless America. Those renditions genuinely get the players and fans — and even listeners — pumped up. And that’s no disrespect to Robert Clark, who belts out O Canada with the best of them at Rogers Place. And who could forget those sing-alongs with the late Paul Lorieau during the 2006 playoff run at Rexall? I was in the building for most of those games — commuting from Lloydminster at the time, before relocating to Kelowna in 2008 — and the anthems were epic. Legendary!
Now I’d like to hear from you, the readers. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.