5 First-Year Oilers Primed to Strengthen Playoff Depth

The Edmonton Oilers head into this postseason with some unfinished business. They had a lengthy playoff run last season, but lost in the Western Conference Final in four games to the eventual Stanley Cup champions, the Colorado Avalanche. Yet, general manager (GM) Ken Holland deserves some credit, because, within a year, he has successfully retooled the team and made significant additions. The Oilers are better, deeper, and more equipped to contend for the Cup. Now, let’s take a closer look at the five first-year players who are poised to make a difference this postseason.

Bjugstad’s Specialized Skills Will Help Oilers Excel in Postseason

When the Oilers traded for Nick Bjugstad at the trade deadline, I wrote that it would be remembered as an underrated move by Holland. In 19 regular season games played with the Oilers, he produced at a 26-point pace in an 82-game season, but he’s thriving in a depth role as the team’s third-line center. The 6-foot-6, 209-pound forward isn’t overly physical, but he’s big, leans on the opposition, and his huge wingspan disrupts a lot of plays. Since his arrival in Edmonton, he’s played 32:49 on the penalty kill, and the team has only given up two goals while he’s been on the ice.

Moreover, he takes important draws for the Oilers in the defensive zone and because of that, Bjugstad has an opportunity to be an instrumental depth piece this postseason. He’s hovering around 50 percent on the dot with the Oilers, but recently in an important game against the Los Angeles Kings on April 4, he went 10-3 in the faceoff circle against Edmonton’s first-round opponent in the upcoming playoffs.

Nick Bjugstad Edmonton Oilers
Nick Bjugstad, Edmonton Oilers (Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images)

Just how important can he be in the postseason? Think back to the 2021 Playoffs in the North Division in Game 3 against the Winnipeg Jets. In overtime, the faceoff was to the right of goaltender Mike Smith and former Oiler Jujhar Khaira, a left-handed shot, was assigned the task of winning the draw; however, being on his weak side, he was beaten cleanly. The faceoff loss led to a Jets goal, winning the game and pulling ahead 3-0 in the series. That minor detail of having a strong-right-handed faceoff man, like Bjugstad, could be the difference in a close playoff series.

Kostin’s Physicality and Timely Scoring Will Be a Valuable Addition

Oilers’ forward Klim Kostin is a player that will fight for his teammates, yet still has a playful and humorous side, and these are qualities that Oilers fans appreciate about the Penza, Russia native. If I’m being truthful, he’s the Oiler I’m most eager to see respond to a playoff environment.

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At the same time, his strengths lie in being more than just a tough guy who appears for only a few minutes each night. He plays around ten minutes a game, he led the team in hits (157) in the regular season, and being a first-round draft pick, he knows how to put the puck in the back of the net (11 goals). Considering all of this, and factoring in his 6-foot-3 and 215-pound frame, he has the potential to be a dynamic force this postseason, much like ex-Oiler Zack Kassian was during the 2017 Playoffs.

Simplicity in the postseason should be key for him. Kostin needs to keep up his aggressive play by delivering punishing hits, and chip in by scoring timely goals, which will rile up fans in Rogers Place. Should he be able to accomplish that, the first-year Oiler has the chance to deliver a memorable playoff performance and become a town treasure in Edmonton for years to come.

Janmark’s Experience and Penalty-Killing Abilities Will Be Vital

Forward Mattias Janmark has effectively filled a depth role on the team and the Oilers are certainly getting their money’s worth on the $1.25 million contract he signed last summer. He’s scored ten goals, and added 15 assists in 66 games this season, but equally as important is his contribution to the Oilers’ penalty-killing unit.

He often makes the right plays, and I recently picked him to be the Oilers’ unlikely playoff hero, but above all, he’s smart with the puck and poses a threat to score on the penalty kill. According to Natural Stat Trick, in 128:10 played shorthanded, he’s been on the ice for seven goals for, scoring three goals himself and he recently scored a shorthanded beauty in the Oilers’ last game of the season on April 13.

He’s currently ranked second among forwards in shorthanded minutes, only behind Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and in the postseason, he is a player that head coach Jay Woodcroft can confidently rely on to protect a lead when the star players need rest, without the fear of buckling under pressure.

Desharnais’ Disciplined Physicality Will Be a Valuable Asset

Oilers’ defenceman Vincent Desharnais was a seventh-round draft pick in 2016 and made his dream come true when he played his first NHL game in January. Since then, he’s become a menace on the back end, getting under the opposition’s skin by physically imposing his 6-foot-6 and 215-pound frame. Not only that, but he’s irritated star players like John Tavares, and he’s found ways to use his 13:33 of ice time effectively, while also sporting a plus-14 rating.

He recently said in an interview on the “Oilers Now” show, “With my physicality, I’ve been more and more confident with it as well, kind of learning [when I’m] crossing the line and when I’m on it”. He’s only played 36 NHL games, but he’s shown he’s a quick learner because he’s developing a sense of discipline on the ice, and improving every game. Also, by the eye test, he’s become more comfortable with the puck — at first, he was making the safe “off the glass and out” play but down the stretch, he’s shown he’s capable of making a decent first pass as well. Another noticeable trait is his willingness to block shots on the penalty kill, an element the team has lacked since the days of Kris Russell.

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

That said, the Oilers were missing this type of player on the back end last postseason, someone who can disrupt the cycle and make life miserable in front of the net for the opposition. If whoever plays the Oilers in the postseason wants to play a heavy and physical game, Desharnais has shown he’s learned to play within the rules, and won’t be backing down anytime soon.

Ekholm’s Dominance From Back End Could Be a Game-Changer

When Edmonton traded for Mattias Ekholm from the Nashville Predators, it was clear that they were sacrificing some offensive firepower in the form of Tyson Barrie, but gaining a stronger defensive presence on the blue line. However, Ekholm has exceeded all expectations since joining the team, delivering that much-needed stability on the back end and then some.

It turns out that Ekholm is not only a reliable defender but also has a surprising offensive flair to him. In 21 games with the Oilers, he’s scored four goals and added ten assists and is plus-28, and if he had been with the team from the beginning of the season, it would prorate to a staggering plus-109.

Ekholm might have played in the shadow of star defenceman Roman Josi during his time in Nashville, and his true talent may not have been fully recognized. That said, his ability to transition the puck quickly and precisely has been a significant addition to the team. For example, in the game against the Colorado Avalanche on April 11, he scored an early goal to tie the game, but what stood out to me the most was an outstanding flip pass, across the length of the ice and over eight players, to spring Connor McDavid on a breakaway. On top of that, many people feel he’s the best defenceman the Oilers have had since Chris Pronger, who led the Oilers to a Stanley Cup Final appearance in 2006.

As an added bonus, the veteran defenceman has had a positive effect on fellow blueliners Darnell Nurse and Evan Bouchard, as both are playing at the top of their game right now. What’s more, is that his calmness from the blue line has had a ripple effect on the entire team as they’re visibly more patient and not taking unnecessary risks, which makes them even more dangerous in the postseason.

All in all, the addition of these five players, to go along with their dynamic offensive stars, has strengthened the Oilers’ roster, making them strong contenders for the Stanley Cup this postseason. As the team prepares for its first playoff game against the Kings, we’ll soon see if this puzzle assembled by Holland can see it through to the finish.

Which player mentioned above will have the biggest impact this postseason? Have your say in the comments below!

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