The Edmonton Oilers are still 7-2-1. It’s not a time to panic or throw away the season just because the Oilers have lost two games in a row. Yes, technically it’s a losing streak — the Oilers first of the season — but no, it doesn’t mean the 7-1-0 start they began the year with is an anomaly. It could be that Edmonton is facing its first real challenge and they’re stumbling a bit to overcome it.
On Thursday, the Oilers will be squaring off against the New York Rangers, and like the Rangers, Edmonton was a team putting up a ton of goals. The difference now is, Edmonton’s scoring has stopped and the Rangers scoring hasn’t. The fact is, the Oilers will be on the road and facing a team that puts up the most goals in the NHL. It’s another in a long line of tests and should the Oilers continue not to score, Edmonton will have to do what a lot of teams haven’t been able to, shut down the Rangers offense.
Before this little two-game hiccup, the Oilers were passing tests with flying colors. They’d beaten Western Conference teams, they’d won games on the road and they’d overcome poor play by some key players who have since rebounded. With that in mind, there have been a couple issues which have nagged the team thus far this season.
The power play has been a constant area of weakness and needs to be better. So too, the top line has been quiet over the last two games and held off the scoreboard. Finally, Edmonton is facing a real lack of secondary scoring.
The First Line
For the first real time this season, many fans and those close to the team are suggesting splitting up the first line. Things have started to stagnate for the trio of Connor McDavid, Milan Lucic and Jordan Eberle and with little support, it’s cost the Oilers two victories. A top line that was tremendously hot to star the year and providing most of Edmonton’s offense, is now ice cold and could use a little help.
Definitely time to shuffle lines for Oilers.
— David Staples (@dstaples) November 2, 2016
While David Staples tweet is suggesting drastic changes, it could be that a simple switch is enough to get a few lines going at the same time. One player is potentially the key that unlocks a number of issues.
This Isn’t on McDavid
Jordan Eberle started the season with points in every game. He’s since hit a wall and in the last five, he’s gone quiet. A player who looked like he had the potential to get 80 points alongside McDavid is now on pace for a mere 49 points this season. He, and not McDavid, is the catalyst that can turn this all around for the Oilers.
Unlike Milan Lucic, who appears to be stapled to the McDavid line, Eberle can be replaced. This is not to say replaced entirely, but Eberle’s position on the top line can be filled by a right-winger who has a bit more to gain. That is, a right-winger who can indirectly show Eberle that becoming complacent in his approach to every game can be a detriment to the team and himself. The idea here is to make Eberle aware that if he doesn’t get back on track, he has something to lose — that being his spot alongside arguably the best player in the game.
Who Takes Eberle’s Spot?
One player who is improving, although he hasn’t been on the score sheet much, is Jesse Puljujarvi. There is something about Edmonton’s fourth-overall draft pick this year that says he might have the wherewithal to play with McDavid. He’s fast, he’s a shooter and he’s got a limited window to show his stuff which makes him motivated. With two more games on his entry level window, if there was ever a good time to try something, this might be that time.
Puljujarvi’s progression isn’t going unnoticed and over the last couple games, he’s shown to be a player with a quick release, tenacious around the puck and worthy of a look on the top unit power play. Like Eberle, Puljujarvi has the tools to compliment McDavid who often thinks pass first. One need look no further than the most recent Oilers game against the Maple Leafs. On Tuesday, Puljujarvi was charted as having 12 shot attempts and 7 shots on goal. That he didn’t score was rather unlucky.
The Second Line
If the Oilers move Eberle down for a couple games, what does this do for the second line? I suppose that depends on who you consider to be the second line in Edmonton. Is it the line centered by Ryan Nugent-Hopkins or the one centered by Leon Draisaitl? Both players are on pace for between 45 and 50 points and both are expected to produce more.
As the default second line according to the Oilers official website, Nugent-Hopkins, Benoit Pouliot and Zack Kassian haven’t exactly been lighting the scoreboard on fire. By moving Eberle down to play with Nugent-Hopkins and Pouliot, perhaps the second line will get a bit of a kick in the pants. Kassian can play in a third line spot (where he’s more suited) and Eberle has the offensive ability to spark Nugent-Hopkins who’s offense has been lackluster.
Both Pouliot and Nugent-Hopkins are sound defensive forwards. This defensive awareness is a skill that Eberle isn’t known to possess. Having two strong defensive forwards playing on his line allows Eberle the offensive freedom to be creative and potentially get back on track.
The Third Line
This leaves Leon Draisaitl with Patrick Maroon and adds Zack Kassian to the fold. This is a big, strong and fast set of forwards who would be a formidable group on the forecheck. Draisaitl will still see his regular power play time and this trio give the Oilers a line that can do more than crash and bang.
The Fourth Line
For a fourth line that wasn’t expected to do much, the trio of Anton Lander, Tyler Pitlick and Mark Letestu have been a pleasant surprise and there is no reason to shift these guys away from each other. They’ve been building nice chemistry, played well in special team situations and chipped in offensively from time to time. There isn’t much more you can ask of this group.
The Edmonton Oilers are still a good team — much better than most expected them to be to start the 2016-17 season. They’ve finally hit a bit of a wall and they’ll be facing some stiff competition on the road over the next few games. Winning hockey games is going to more important now than ever and one of the ways to help is by ensuring scoring from the entire roster.
Getting this help doesn’t mean having to blow up all the lines and change the entire structure of the offensive attack. One player has the ability to shake up an entire team. Amazingly, that player isn’t Connor McDavid.
Jim Parsons is a freelance writer who covers the Edmonton Oilers and news and rumors posts here at The Hockey Writers.
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