The Oilers are playing very well so far in this young season, but their success does not come without battling some adversity. The Oilers were hit with a plethora of injuries to many of their blueliners which has caused several inexperienced defensemen to be thrust into more prominent roles. The team is without significant players including Duncan Keith, Slater Koekkoek, Cody Ceci, on the backend, while Nurse made his return against the Los Angeles Kings on Dec. 5 after missing a few weeks to a finger injury.
On top of the depleted blue line, the team lost starting goaltender Mike Smith early in the season, and also fourth-line forward Devin Shore. Players like Evan Bouchard, William Lagesson, and Kris Russell are seeing a significant uptick in minutes, but rookie defensemen Philip Broberg and Markus Niemelainen were recalled from the American Hockey League (AHL) and performed extremely well during their first NHL stint.
The Oilers expect to get reinforcements back soon, and tough decisions will need to be made as to which players will remain with the team at the NHL level. Head coach Dave Tippett will need to decide which players are best suited to be left out of the lineup once players return from injury, and this article will be an attempt at projecting what the team’s optimum lineup would look like once everyone returns.
Optimum Oilers Forward Lines
The Oilers continue to string wins together, despite the lack of key players missing from their lineup and still hold a 16-6-0 record through their first 22 games played. The team is benefitting from the strong play of Broberg who stepped into a larger role on the blue line and is earning the right to stay at the NHL level. However, with a full complement of players back eventually back from injury, the Oilers’ optimum lineup may force players to return to their previous roles.
Oilers First Line: Zach Hyman – Connor McDavid – Jesse Puljujarvi
Despite coach Tippett’s willingness to mix and match his lines on a game-to-game basis, this line combination remains one of the most consistent. There are times where the first line is stacked with McDavid and Draisaitl to provide a boost to the team and also instances where Zack Kassian is elevated to provide a physical presence.
Despite other possible combinations, the best wingers for McDavid on the top line remain to be Hyman and Puljujarvi. Both players are hard workers and can establish a strong forecheck to create turnovers. Hyman’s willingness to get to the dirty areas and be effective off the puck keeps this line defensively responsible, while Puljujarvi provides a combination of a big body with a touch of skill.
Oilers Second Line: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins – Leon Draisaitl – Zack Kassian
The second line is also one that Tippet tinkers with depending on how Draisaitl is deployed. Nugent-Hopkins is a proven playmaker and is more effective when playing on the wing as opposed to the center position if Draisaitl is moved to the top line.
The other winger on this line in Zack Kassian provides a physical presence and should help create space on the ice for the more skilled players like Hopkins and Draisaitl. Kailer Yamamoto is often deployed as the right-winger on this line and while he is an effective player he is yet to find his former scoring upside. With only five goals and six points in 22 games this season, compared to Kassian’s four goals and nine points, it seems like a swap that would benefit both players, not to mention the team.
Oilers Third Line: Warren Foegele – Derek Ryan – Kailer Yamamoto
This combination would be the team’s shut-down line, and all of the players on this line are defensively responsible and play on the team’s penalty kill. Foegele is playing very well in his first season with the team, providing energy and speed, and giving the team trustworthy forward depth. Derek Ryan on the other hand is struggling but the important thing he provides is his faceoff ability.
The Oilers’ ability to win more faceoffs this season and possess the puck more is proven to translate to wins. Through 22 games, the Oilers have a faceoff win percentage of 50% or better in 17 games as opposed to the five games with below 50% success rate in the faceoff circle. With possession analytics becoming a more notable focus in the modern NHL the importance of winning faceoffs is becoming more crucial.
Ryan would displace 22-year-old Ryan McLeod as the center on this line who tallied three goals in 14 games played this season compared to Ryan’s single goal through 19 appearances. This change is more about roster management as McLeod is waiver exempt and can be returned to the AHL without having to clear waivers and the Oilers risking losing another forward off the roster.
Yamamoto’s addition to this line fits the similar style of Foegele in being an effective forechecker combined with speed. The demotion to the third line would allow Yamamoto to be more of an offensive catalyst rather than someone who is responsible for retrieving pucks and getting them to more skilled linemates. This change could help Yamamoto find his offensive game while facing easier matchups against opposing teams compared to the ones he is exposed to on the second line.
Oilers Fourth Line: Brendan Perlini – Devin Shore – Colton Sceviour
Once Devin Shore returns from injury he will immediately return to the team’s fourth line, with McLeod likely needing to be sent down to the minors. If that happens, Shore would be the team’s best remaining option down the middle. The Oilers have not gotten much production from their fourth line after several bottom-six forwards made strong impressions during the preseason.
Sceviour would continue to be active in the lineup because of his penalty kill abilities and Kyle Turris’ inability to be effective in any capacity. The left-wing spot on this line is also up for grabs with no specific players being able to grab the roster spot in a full-time role. Tyler Benson is pointless in his ten games this season and while Brendan Perlini is also pointless through his first 13 games his speed and offensive pedigree make him the better option after a strong preseason showing.
Oilers’ Optimum Defense Pairs
Many of the questions regarding lineup decisions when the Oilers return to full health will come on the blue line. The main reason for the tough decisions is because of how well the rookie defensemen are playing since the team’s regular blueliners were injured. All of the replacements made the most of their opportunity and a lasting impression on the coaching staff and management to earn their respect and trust forcing them into tough decisions.
Oilers First Defense Pair: Darnell Nurse – Evan Bouchard
With Darnell Nurse returning from injury he immediately returns to his top pair role as the team’s number one defenseman. Alongside him remains young Evan Bouchard who is enjoying a breakout season this year. During Nurse’s absence, Bouchard was asked to do much more on the teams’ blueline and did not look out of place while doing it, averaging 20:47 of ice time to go along with two goals and five assists in that span.
He has already proven he can play against the team’s top lines, and having Nurse back will take a large load off of Bouchard and allow him to focus a little bit more on his offensive game. He is emerging as a complete two-way defenseman and is proving that he can be relied upon in all situations.
Oilers Second Defense Pair: Duncan Keith – Cody Ceci
Once Cody Ceci and Duncan Keith return to the lineup they will revert back to their role as the team’s shutdown pair. Keith’s injury is a little more concerning considering his age and could lead to further absences down the road. Ceci’s return will surely see Markus Niemelainen return to the minors after seeing very limited minutes in his first two NHL games.
“You never want to face injury trouble, especially to key guys, but I think guys are doing a good job stepping up. Some young guys are getting a chance to step in and play big minutes and they’re playing well for us.”Tyson Barrie
The other notable demotion once Keith returns is former first-round pick Broberg who excelled in his first NHL stint. Like Bouchard, Broberg played a large role with all the absences on defense and proved to Tippett he is a viable option on the backend. Unfortunately because of the plethora of defensemen, the Oilers have when everyone is healthy and Broberg’s waiver exemption he will be the odd one out and return to the minors.
Oilers management should be encouraged by Broberg’s showing and this impression allows general manager Ken Holland some flexibility when addressing potential moves at the deadline knowing Broberg can take on a larger role. Due to this season still being Broberg’s first as a professional in North America he is better suited to continue to play top minutes in all situations in the minors to continue to improve knowing that he proved he is ready to be the next man up if any more injuries occur.
Oilers Third Defense Pair: Kris Russell – Tyson Barrie
The final pairing once everyone returns to full health should have Tyson Barrie paired alongside shot-blocking specialist Kris Russell. Barrie seeing fewer minutes 5-on-5 is warranted and pairing him with a defensive defenseman makes a lot of sense because it will allow him to focus on moving the puck out of the zone and contributing offensively.
Slater Koekkoek played 11 games on the third pair prior to his injury with 12 hits and 11 blocked shots and one assist with a minus-3 rating. Russell on the other hand has 11 hits and 37 blocked shots in 12 games this season and also owns a better plus/minus rating while averaging 17:33 of ice time. Russell’s strong defensive play makes him an ideal fit for Barrie and brings a significant upgrade to the penalty kill and can be utilized in high leverage situations and play big minutes if needed.
Oilers Goaltending Tandem
With the injury to Mike Smith early in the season, the Oilers were forced to recall Stuart Skinner from the AHL to work in tandem with Mikko Koskinen. The Finnish netminder is enjoying a much better season than he did in 2020-21 owning a 12-3-0 through 15 games played, while Skinner owns a 2-4-0 record through six starts this season. The 23-year-old goaltender is playing much better than his record suggests and is proving he is capable of competing at the NHL level.
Of course, it is great to see a young goaltender beginning to emerge for an Oilers team with well-documented goaltending struggles in the past. While Skinner may be the Oilers’ solution in goal moving forward, once Smith is healthy Skinner will likely head back to his starter’s role with the Bakersfield Condors. He is waivers exempt, which makes this move easier for Holland to make, but the positive in this is the team knows they have a reliable option at their disposal. With Koskinen’s contract expiring at season’s end, Skinner should find his way back to the NHL in a full-time capacity next season but for now, the net belongs to Smith and Koskinen.
Battling Through Adversity
The Oilers were relatively smooth sailing up until the injuries hit their blueline and having to battle through some tough times should bode well for their confidence and overall team. The next-man-up mentality and strong play of the young replacement players provide a high degree of confidence as potential options to turn to should more injury concerns arise while the team can still compete at a high level. All teams will battle adversity and the Oilers proved that they have the right players and group to do just that.
I am a graduate of Seneca Colleges Civil Engineering Technology Program and have turned my obsession for sports into a lifestyle. I cover the Edmonton Oilers and Los Angeles Kings here on The Hockey Writers but have been a diehard Maple Leafs fan since birth. I love fantasy sports, collecting sports memorabilia and when I’m not watching the Toronto Raptors, Blue Jays, or Pittsburgh Steelers; you can find me playing for my ball hockey team, playing video games, or listening to classic rock with a cold one or a coffee in my hand.