Oilers Facing 4 Questions Down the Playoff Stretch

The playoff race is heating up, and the Edmonton Oilers find themselves in the thick of it. With only 15 games remaining, the pressure is mounting and every point is critical. With that in mind, when it comes to the Oilers, there will be some certainties down the stretch — like Connor McDavid leading the team in points, their power play clicking at impressive rates, and Evander Kane never shying away from a confrontation. However, below are four questions Edmonton is faced with, with the postseason just around the corner.

Will Vincent Desharnais Be Able to Handle More Minutes?

Oilers’ defenceman Vincent Desharnais has been a pleasant surprise since making his debut with the team in January. Since then, he’s played in 22 games, tallying four assists, and has a plus-8 rating while averaging 12:08 of time on ice. Moreover, the 6-foot-6 and 215-pound behemoth has brought a physical and nasty dimension that’s been a welcomed addition to the blue line.

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Head coach Jay Woodcroft often ran his 11 forwards and seven defencemen format, but in the last three games, he’s gone to the traditional 12 forwards and six defencemen route, which increased Desharnais’ minutes per game. The 26-year-old played a career-high 16:10 against the Buffalo Sabres on March 6 and 14:54 against the Boston Bruins three nights later. However, he only played 11:41 against the Toronto Maple Leafs on March 11, and the reduction of playing time was likely due to a costly mistake. In the second period, teammate Ryan McLeod gave the puck away to Mitch Marner, who buried it all alone on Stuart Skinner. Less than two minutes later, Desharnais attempted to make a diagonal pass up the middle, which was intercepted by Marner again and led to the game-tying goal. Rookie mistakes will happen, but it’s a lesson he’ll have to try and learn not to make again.

Vincent Desharnais Edmonton Oilers
Vincent Desharnais, Edmonton Oilers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

On a different note, according to Natural Stat Trick, in the four games prior to seeing an increase in ice time, Desharnais had a combined eight high-danger chances for (HDCF) and seven high-danger chances against, but in his last three games going with six defencemen, he’s had eight HDCF and only two against. Additionally, in just under seven minutes playing on the penalty kill in the last three games, the Oilers have only let in one goal while he’s been on the ice.  

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Trading away Tyson Barrie not only created a new opportunity for Evan Bouchard, but it seems Desharnais has been tasked with more responsibility as well and aside from his costly error against the Maple Leafs, he’s fared decently as a third-pairing defenceman in his limited sample size. The question is whether he can keep up this pace down the playoff stretch and into the postseason. Considering he’s already surpassed expectations by making it to the NHL after defying the odds as a seventh-round pick, I don’t expect him to slow down at this point.  

Could Nick Bjugstad Emerge as a Top 6 Option?

Although it may not have generated as much buzz as the Mattias Ekholm trade, the acquisition of Nick Bjugstad could turn out to be an underrated move by general manager (GM) Ken Holland, because the Oilers’ forward has looked like a solid pick-up so far. In four games with the Oilers, he’s averaging just under 13 minutes, he scored a goal in his first game, and two nights later he went a perfect 10-0 in the faceoff circle. Nevertheless, his addition creates a welcomed problem to have up front with the various possibilities of line combinations. In Bjugstad’s short stint with Edmonton, he’s played at the 3C and 4C positions, which dropped the speedy McLeod to the fourth line. Furthermore, it appears that Ryan Nugent-Hopkins’ days at 3C are over for the time being and will now be slotted into the top six moving forward.

Now, let’s turn our attention to the players who are certain to play in the top six — there’s McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Zach Hyman, Kane and Nugent-Hopkins. That said, early indications show that the second-line right-wing spot is Kailer Yamamoto’s to lose. He’s pointless in his last four games, and he’s struggled with consistency throughout the season. For this reason, I’m curious if another Oiler will rise to the occasion and claim a top-six role over Yamamoto. Moreover, I’m wondering if Bjugstad gets a shot in the top six at some point (and McLeod returning to 3C). It’s worth noting that he recorded a career-high 49 points in 2017-18 with the Florida Panthers and the forward he played the most minutes (551) with at 5-on-5 was Aleksander Barkov, who is regarded as a top 15 centerman in the NHL, showing he can play with elite talent.

Can Stuart Skinner Handle the Pressure Down the Stretch?

Stuart Skinner headed into this season as the backup to goaltender Jack Campbell, but he seized the reins, became an NHL All-Star and he’s put himself into a position to be the Oilers’ starting goaltender when the postseason rolls around.

The question is, will the 24-year-old be able to handle the pressure down the playoff stretch? At the end of the day, he’s still a rookie and the expectations can be a lot to handle. At the same time, however, he made a statement against the NHL’s best team, the Boston Bruins, who most recently set a record as the fastest team in NHL history to reach 100 points. Recapping his performance on March 9, he let in a soft first goal and caused a bad turnover on the second goal. Yet, after a shaky first 20 minutes, the Oilers’ netminder dialled it in and provide solid goaltending, and Edmonton gutted out a come-from-behind win. Skinner’s performance in that game showed he had the mental composure (something Campbell has lacked) to keep his team in the game after a couple of questionable goals against.

Yet, only two nights later he let in six goals against the Leafs, but it’s hard to blame the loss on him. He faced 18 grade-A chances and his teammates gifted Toronto excellent scoring opportunities, which they capitalized on. Still, Skinner was unable to weather the storm and make a key save in those pivotal moments and finished the night with a .838 save percentage (SV%). It’s a question mark whether the rookie goaltender can manage the workload down the stretch, but with his counterpart, Campbell, struggling, the Oilers are relying on him to come through.

Which Version of Nurse Will the Oilers Get in the Remaining Games?

I recently wrote that Darnell Nurse needs to elevate his game to a new level, now the question is whether this will happen. In theory, with Ekholm playing behind him and providing stability on the Oilers’ blue line, this should reduce Nurse’s workload enabling him to be fresher, and make wiser decisions on the ice.

Darnell Nurse Edmonton Oilers
Darnell Nurse, Edmonton Oilers (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

He’s tallied 34 points in 67 games, yet, consistency is an area he struggles with. While he’s decent offensively, at times, the defensive side is a struggle, as evident by being third in the NHL in defensive zone giveaways (54). His inconsistency was reflected in the most recent game against Toronto. He played a great first period, blocking four shots; however, as the Oilers started to break down, so did Nurse’s play. He lost a board battle in the second period in the neutral zone that led to an odd-man rush, and a goal against. The blueliner also took two penalties in the game, one of which Toronto scored on. It was also noted that he made four major mistakes on grade-A shots against at even strength (from “Player Grades: Ugly Turnovers Lead to Edmonton Oilers Crashing to Loss Against Toronto Maple Leafs” Edmonton Journal, 3/11/23).

Nurse tends to get criticized due to his $9.25 million cap hit, but he’s previously shown he can perform at a high level, such as in the 2020-21 season when he finished seventh in Norris Trophy voting. The playoff stretch is the perfect opportunity for him to prove he can help lead his team to success and we’ll soon see if he can rise to the occasion.

On paper, the Oilers look like a legitimate contender for the Western Conference crown; however, the playoff stretch will be a gruelling test for them, and we’ll see in the coming weeks if the pieces they have can get on the same page to come out on top.

Does Desharnais deserve more minutes? Will Skinner rise above the pressure? Does Yamamoto get replaced in the top six? And will Nurse deliver down the stretch? Have your say in the comments below!