Oilers Have Some Roster Questions to Address for the Playoffs

After the Edmonton Oilers defeated the Los Angeles Kings for the third time in four games this season, they are looking more and more likely to make the playoffs and get home-ice advantage. They have 10 remaining games on the schedule and six of which are against teams currently holding a playoff spot. The combined win percentage of the remaining games adds up to .611, which is very tough.

The Oilers will have to use these games to answer some questions about their roster and how they are going to go into Game 1. The coaching staff will have to judge the performances of each individual and the chemistry, forward and defence. Those must be worked out to have the best chance to win along with who will have earned the start in Game 1.

We will look at the big questions and what the Oilers could and should do come playoff time.

Who Starts in Net Game 1?

This is a question everyone has been arguing over the entire season as there have been ups and downs in both Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen’s seasons. The Oilers don’t have a clear starter like most of the other playoff teams do, so riding the hot hand and not hesitating to go to the other goalie is the best play.

Mike Smith Edmonton Oilers
Mike Smith, Edmonton Oilers (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

If the postseason were to start today, I would say there’s no doubt the Oilers throw Smith between the pipes for Game 1 since he is 6-0-1 in his last seven starts and stopped 92 of 96 shots while getting the net in all three games on the California road trip. The Oilers have continued to go back to him as Koskinen hasn’t been healthy for a game and Smith has been great.

Related: Oilers Using Weaker Opponents to Allow Smith to Find His Game

Koskinen’s last start came in the previous matchup against the Los Angeles Kings five games ago. His last two starts against the Kings and Arizona Coyotes weren’t bad at all, allowing four goals and posting a .945 save percentage. The Oilers should be wary of overworking Smith right now, even if he’s been playing excellent. There is still a risk of his play declining or getting injured again, and then the Oilers have a cold goalie. Koskinen can build off of his previous two starts whenever the Oilers decide to put him in next and have a good problem, a decision between two hot goaltenders.

The third and least likely option is to recall Stuart Skinner, but the recent play of Smith and Koskinen don’t suggest any panic button needing to be pressed. Skinner is playing very well in the American Hockey League right now and has been a big part in why the Bakersfield Condors have qualified for the playoffs (“JONES: Skinner spreading his wings in net for both Oilers and Condors”, Edmonton Sun, April 4, 2022). He should stay and get meaningful games in while he can before the Oilers likely see him in the crease next season.

Will Defence Pairings Remain the Same?

A lot of what we’re seeing with the defence pairing has come since Jay Woodcroft has taken over and the Oilers have the most points in the league since then. He’s switched around the pairings and the team has also brought in someone to significantly boost the third pairing.

Let’s start at the bottom. I was initially critical of the second-round pick used to get Brett Kulak, but now I see exactly what a calm and solid presence he is on the Oilers’ blue line. He has done wonders for Tyson Barrie as well. They’ve played 109 minutes together and by what I’m about to show you, have to remain together no questions asked.

Brett Kulak Edmonton Oilers
Brett Kulak, Edmonton Oilers (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

According to Natural Stat Trick, Barrie with Kulak has produced a 56.29 expected goals for percent (xGF%) while having a goals for percentage (GF%) of 78.57, which is very good. Barrie’s time with Duncan Keith is significant enough to get a clear indication of the numbers, playing just over half of the time together as he and Kulak have played. The numbers are good from the small sample size.

The other two options are to slot Kris Russell back into the lineup and beside Barrie which would be a huge mistake, or move Barrie back up with Darnell Nurse. The numbers for Barrie with either don’t suggest that would benefit the Oilers in any way from a change.

Moving onto the second pairing, Keith is a mainstay there but has had multiple different partners. Right now, it’s Evan Bouchard. They have a 53.84 xGF% and a 59.26 GF%. Again, goals have been going in more than they’ve been allowed while these two are on the ice.

Although the numbers are unmatched with Keith and Barrie together, Bouchard has played nearly 300 minutes with Keith. While Keith spent over 500 minutes on the ice with Cody Ceci and they played much better than most would’ve hoped, their numbers didn’t exactly match that with under 49 percent xGF% and GF%. While Bouchard and Nurse have spent the most time playing together and have a high xGF%, they and the team lacked finish and saves while they were on the ice with a sub-40 GF%.

Duncan Keith Edmonton Oilers
Duncan Keith, Edmonton Oilers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Ceci and Nurse’s best numbers have come together and they’ve been the top pairing for a great deal of time while Woodcroft has been in charge. They have a 55.47 xGF% and a 56.10 GF% and have been on the ice for the most goals together than any other Oilers’ pairing this season.

What I just broke down is exactly how the defensive pairings are right now. The Oilers are 7-1-0 since Kulak has come into the lineup and are riding a six-game win streak. With each pairing posting over a 50 percent xGF% and GF%, it has been a winning recipe for offence and defence. They shouldn’t change a thing unless things go off the rails in the next 10 games, and even then they would be wise to work things out.

Which Depth Forwards Get in the Lineup?

The last of the roster groups is the forwards, mainly the depth. We all know just how dominant the top six has been, especially since Woodcroft has taken over. Since his return from injury, Jesse Puljujarvi has been on the ice for 17-1 in goals for and against. He is great at breaking up breakouts and forechecking hard. Kailer Yamamoto was playing very well on Connor McDavid’s wing in Puljujarvi’s absence, but he and Leon Draisaitl have always complemented each other well and he was always considered a fill-in on that line. Keep Evander Kane and Zach Hyman where they are and the top six shouldn’t be messed with.

As for the bottom six, like all teams, there are players coming in and out of the lineup. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is the third-line centre and that’s not changing, but his wingers may be. Before his injury, the Oilers were icing the line of Nugent-Hopkins, Derek Ryan, and Warren Foegele. This line was stellar from the moment it was put together, from the compete level to how they all complemented each other to the finishing ability.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins Edmonton Oilers
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Edmonton Oilers (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Nugent-Hopkins has had new linemates since Derick Brassard joined the team and Zack Kassian was elevated. There was instant chemistry between Nugent-Hopkins and Brassard, but Kassian has remained inconsistent and prone to disappear. He has also been a healthy scratch and moved between the third and fourth line, proving he’s not an integral piece to that third line. If he can start to show the game he once played where he is a physical force and contributing on the offence, then it’s a different question. I still wouldn’t believe he’s shown enough to be anywhere higher than the fourth line, especially since they play a decent amount per game. In the game against the Kings, Woodcroft put the line of Nugent-Hopkins, Ryan, and Foegele back together mid-way through the game and they connected on the second goal late in the second period.

This is not to say that Brassard can’t sub in on that line sometimes, but he is definitely not scratch-worthy like Kassian is. The replacements on the Oilers right now that could fill in that spot are Devin Shore and Josh Archibald. Shore has been on the fringe for a while now since the Oilers bolstered their forward group while Archibald dug his own grave by not getting vaccinated as a player playing in Canada.

Once the playoffs come it will be too difficult for Archibald to stay up to game speed if he has to sit out half the games leading up to the postseason and once it’s here. The Oilers are most likely playing the Kings or Golden Knights in the first round, so both require travel across the border. The Oilers have options in the minors but the Condors are also playoff bound and it’s no guarantee that they will perform better than what the Oilers have right now.

Takeaways from all of the above is that the hot hand should get the start in Game 1 of the playoffs, likely Smith as of right now. The defence pairings should stay the same, even through adversity if that comes. The top six shouldn’t be touched but the third line needs to go back to what it was. Ryan McLeod will lead the fourth line but the players who have been in and out of the lineup need to assert themselves and provide a clear option for the postseason.

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