Oilers Still Have Positives Amidst 6-Game Losing Streak

The Edmonton Oilers are on a six-game losing skid, and by all accounts it might seem like the sky is falling. Oilers fans were treated to a 9-1 start — the team was scoring on almost half of their power-play chances and the penalty kill was top five in the league. So, their winless streak can feel like a stab in the back.

But to Oilers fans I say, step back, relax and breathe. Lulls can happen in a season, and the Oilers have put their faithful through this emotional rollercoaster before. In the 2019-20 season the team won only five of 14 games in the month of December. Yet, they followed it up with winning 11 of their next 17 in the new year; however, the season was cut short due to COVID-19.

You might feel betrayed because you haven’t heard the “La Bamba” win song at the end of the night at Rogers Place, or there hasn’t been banging on the glass screaming for the “Bison King” in post-game interviews, but there’s no reason to throw in the towel (or jersey) just yet. The negatives of a team are always under a microscope when they’re losing, but for a change of pace, below are positives regarding the Oilers.

The Oilers’ Prospects Are Atop Their Leagues

A few of the Oilers’ prospects are sitting atop their respective leagues in terms of points. They look promising, and what’s most exciting is that they all look like steals, relative to their draft position.

This group is led by Xavier Bourgault, selected 22nd overall in 2021 NHL Draft. He’s currently fifth in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) with 42 points and second in with 22 goals. Most recently, he was selected to Team Canada to represent his country at the World Junior Championships (WJC), with the team’s first game kicking off on Dec. 26. This is an amazing feat for the Shawinigan Cataractes’ player, to be able to showcase his skills on the grandest stage for a junior player. And for the most part, he’ll be able to do so in front of his future fans at Rogers Place.

Xavier Bourgault Shawinigan Cataractes
Xavier Bourgault of the Shawinigan Cataractes (Jean Levasseur)

Next, the Oilers selected Matvei Petrov from the North Battalion of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) 180th overall in the last draft. He was drafted out of Russia, first overall in the 2020 Canadian Hockey League (CHL) important draft by the Battalion, but due to the OHL’s cancelled season, he seemed to fly under many scouts’ radar. He’s having an amazing first season skating on North American rinks, producing 44 points in 27 games — good for third place in the OHL. The last Russian player drafted first overall in the CHL Import Draft was Carolina Hurricanes star, Andrei Svechnikov. If he even has a glimmer of his countryman’s success, Petrov might be the steal of the 2021 NHL Draft.

Two Oilers prospects selected in the 2020 NHL Draft are also having standout seasons, Carter Savoie (100th overall) and Tyler Tullio (126th overall). The Denver Pioneer, Savoie, is sixth in points per game (P/G) in the entire National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) having registered 12 goals and 11 assists in 16 games. While Tullio ranks 20th in the OHL scoring with eight goals, 23 helpers in 24 games for the Oshawa Generals.

Related: Oilers Fans Get Glimpse of Future With Bourgault at World Juniors

These four young players are lighting up their respective leagues. Add in Dylan Holloway, Philip Broberg and Markus Niemelainen and the cupboard is full of promising prospects for Edmonton. Their success is encouraging because they could either make an impact on the big club one day, or be a trade chip that could land an additional piece to the Oilers’ puzzle.

Oilers Defensemen Are Returning to the Lineup

It’s no surprise the Oilers have been on a six-game losing streak. They’ve had slow starts, but since losing to the Los Angeles Kings on Dec. 5, they’ve come out of the gate with more jump, yet haven’t been able to convert on their chances. Having said that, when any NHL team loses four out of their regular six defensemen at the same time, the ride is going to get bumpy. The good news is that the blueliners have started to return to the lineup, although, it’s important to remember that it takes time to adjust to the pace of the game.

Darnell Nurse, arguably the team’s No. 1 defenseman was out for six games with a broken finger. He’s since returned and starting to get into his flow of averaging over 28:00 minutes time on ice (TOI). Cody Ceci, who’s been fairly consistent all year, missed four games due to COVID protocol and has since returned on Dec. 9 against the Boston Bruins.

Duncan Keith made his return against the Toronto Maple Leafs after missing eight games. No, Keith is not the Norris Trophy-calibre player he once used to be, and he does have defensive flaws in his game, but an important piece that was missing when he was out of the lineup was his outlet pass. His wheels may not be at the elite level they once were, but his outlet pass onto the forwards’ tape is still one of the best from the back end, and his absence affected the Oilers’ transition game.

Leon Draisaitl gave his analysis on an element that’s been missing during the Oilers’ losing skid, and he described, “In my opinion, speed of the game is how fast you move the puck. Every team has really fast skaters, but if you can’t move the puck up the ice, then your speed doesn’t really do that much. I think that’s one area we can do better, our D moving it up a little faster.” We can’t expect players to jump right into the speed of the game their first time back. Keith will need time to adjust and recalibrate, but once he gets up to speed it will help improve their transition game, and create more chances off the rush.

If the Oilers Were Going to Slump, it Came at the Best Time

Edmonton’s 9-1 start gave them a buffer for when they hit a roadblock in the season. Again, history shows that the team has been in this situation before. They hit a slump in December in 2019-20 and turned it around in the new year. The solace in their current winless streak is the timing of it. It’s better to happen now, versus later in the year when playoffs are about to start.

The losing streak forced general manager Ken Holland to see the glaring holes in his line up. It’s no surprise the team needs a new goaltender, a top-four defenseman and a bottom-six centre. The timing of the losing streak to happen now allows him to assess a deal in a timely manner, versus making desperation moves around the trade deadline.

Saginaw Spirit, Markus Niemelainen, OHL, NHL Entry Draft
Oilers prospect Markus Niemelainen with the Saginaw Spirit (Photo by Terry Wilson / OHL Images)

Another benefit of the losing streak is that it forced him to see what he has at his disposal with young Broberg and Niemelainen. They’ve had struggles in their callup as any rookie would, but they’ve also showed upside in their game.

Broberg has showed glimpses of his smooth skating and his ability to create and break up plays. The towering young Finn, Niemelainen, has showed an element the team severely lacks. In seven games, he’s dished out 36 hits — many of them punishing. Against the Carolina Hurricanes, he even set a rookie record by delivering 10 hits in a game. Of course, both players have wrinkles that need ironed out, but with the taste of what the NHL life is like, they can go back down to the Bakersfield Condors and work on their game. If their services are required for a playoff run, they’ll be more confident in their call-up.

After their game on Dec. 16 against the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Oilers visit the team where the losing streak started, against the Seattle Kraken. They’re in a slump and when things go wrong, they go really wrong. It may feel like a dark time, but when you take a look at the bigger picture, they’re still 16-11 and the ship can start sailing in the other direction at any time. Colton Sceviour, who scored his first goal of the season against the Toronto Maple Leafs, said in his post-game interview, “once we get out of it, we’ll get on a roll here and we’ll be laughing about this stretch at a later day.”

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