I couldn’t help but notice over the past few weeks Oilers fans already throwing in the towel and completely freaking out, which is not at all surprising considering the team’s 1-5 start to the season. Given that early signs point to a disappointing season ahead, its understandable that victory-deprived fans are getting fed up. I for one am not giving up faith just yet and I don’t think the city should be so quick to condemn the team, especially when considering it’s the first time in years we’ve had a roster actually capable of winning. I’m not saying they’re winners right now, but they’re most certainly capable of it as we witnessed in Monday’s game over Tampa Bay.
Of the six games the Oilers have played so far this season, there’s only three I would say have been a realistic snapshot of the team at the top of its game. The first two were our games against Vancouver and, of course, our win against Tampa. Though we lost in two of those games, we kept up with the Canucks in almost every way. Monday’s performance was a good show of what the team can do offensively. So what was the difference between those games and the rest of the season? Two pretty important factors tell the tale: goaltending and a full roster.
The first factor is pretty blatant in the fact that Ben Scrivens has had a subpar start to the season. This is frustrating for fans, given that the team’s goaltender curse goes back to Tommy Salo and Scrivens was the team’s best player last year. The good news is that Scrivens’ performances since losing to Arizona have proven he hasn’t lost his edge, evident by some good bounce-back games. Viktor Fasth has also performed decently in his appearances this season, and hopefully he won’t stay injured for long. The first few games saw some pretty weak goaltending, but we have two very talented goalies on the team and here’s hoping Scrivens will soon be performing like he was last year when he had no help around him.
The Oilers’ kryptonite this year will be injuries. For the first time in years, we have depth throughout the lineup when everyone is healthy, but that depth does not extend to the players watching from the press box. Just having a center injured creates a line up nightmare for the team, especially when it’s Ryan Nugent-Hopkins who’s injured. Though Arcobello played well in his stead, neither he nor Draisaitl are at a level where they can ensure every drive with Hall and Eberle ends in a scoring chance as Nugent-Hopkins can. It also means Boyd Gordon has to move up a line and focus on creating offence rather than on getting pucks out of the defensive zone. If Gordon had played against L.A. and Arizona with Hendricks and Joensuu (as he ideally should be) there likely would have been significantly less goals against in both of those games.
There have been suggestions that the team should send Draisaitl back to the minors before his 9 games expire (when the league says he officially starts the first year of his obligatory 3-year entry level contract) and make a trade for a centre with more NHL experience to create more depth. While I admit this could very well be the best decision for the development of Draisaitl given his uninspiring performance over his first few NHL games, I do not think its the best decision for the team because of the talent available and what we might have to give away to gain that elusive centre.
The only centres who are aren’t going to require moving a young star are third-line grinders currently watching their team from the stands as healthy scratches. The framework of the Oilers doesn’t call for another grinder. The centre in question would either be playing with Yakupov/Pouliot or Perron/Purcell, two pairings who need and deserve a centre of equal offensive value in order to be as productive as possible. Unfortunately the trade for such a player would require parting from one of our young stars. Despite the potential benefits of another talented centre I still would never trade Hall, Nugent-Hopkins or Eberle.
I admit I used to say we should trade Yakupov, but he has been one of the Oilers’ best players so far this season. Sending Draisaitl back isn’t really an option either. He may be inexperienced, but he certainly has offensive value. His first NHL games have seen him shy away from hits and make weak passes, but these are all normal things for a new player and will improve over the season. Head Coach Dallas Eakins played him with Perron and Purcell against Tampa Bay on Monday rather than with Yakupov, ensuring the young rookie was surrounded by seasoned veterans, a trend that would likely continue if he stays on the team.
Though having such a finicky line up is a huge team flaw, it’s a frequent one when rebuilding a team. When the Oilers are healthy and the goalies are playing at their best we are a very tough hockey team to play against. Hall, Nugent-Hopkins and Eberle are proven stars in the NHL. Even though the second and third lines have been rotating between Arcobello and Draisaitl, the pairings of Perron/Purcell and Yakupov/Pouliot have already shown our first line won’t be the only unit throwing pucks at the net on a regular basis. Arcobello has had an excellent start to his season, and if the team choses to keep Draisaitl he will only improve more every game.
It should also be added that the defensive end of the Oilers has been playing at a level not ever reached during the past two seasons despite the team currently having the most goals against. Nikita Nikitin and Mark Fayne have already proven incredibly useful offseason additions and have been excellent on the break out. Nikitin has also started to show off his bomb of a slapshot. Schultz has been rotating between partners Brad Hunt and Martin Marincin, both of whom have played very well. Marincin in particular reminded everyone how he has the defensive skill to back up Schultz as he jumps up in the play. Andrew Ferrence and Jeff Petry have gone from the teams best defensive pair to the worst, though they definitely aren’t playing poorly. It will be interesting to see who Eakins will play regularly with Schultz, but regardless the Oilers are stronger on the back end than has been seen in a long time.
I don’t blame the die hard hockey fans for losing faith right off the bat given our previous seasons, but I think it somehow slipped the minds of a very hockey savvy city that we actually have a pretty good team this year. We had some goaltending and injury problems right off the bat, but that should hopefully be over and done with. As we’ll see, when the roster is full and at its best the Oilers will be competing with the top teams in the NHL. I’m not saying we’re going to be in the top two Pacific Division spots by the end of the season, but we could very well be in the fight for a Wild Card position. Oiler fans, don’t give up yet. I know you’ve heard it before, but we could be in for a surprise this season if everything holds together.
Image courtesy of Flickr user bridgetds, used under a Creative Commons license.