Oilers quarter-mark review: Is Edmonton really deeper up front?

Edmonton Oilers head coach Dave Tippett and forward Connor McDavid discuss the importance of having the young defenceman step up and play a strong, stabilizing game in the wake of recent injuries to top defenceman Duncan Keith and Darnell Nurse.

EDMONTON — The Edmonton Oilers have the best player in the world, and the consensus pick for the Hart Trophy at the quarter-mark of the 2021-22 season. And they aren’t the same person.

But really, we knew that — or some version of that when the season started. Didn’t we?

What the hockey world wants to know is whether the Oilers have enough of a hockey team surrounding Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl to become something more than a travelling offensive circus that goes own to town selling regular season tickets.

Like the Toronto Maple Leafs, every “yeah but” aimed at the Edmonton Oilers refers to a lack of playoff success — which is fair. You can’t win playoff games in October and November however, so we’ll reserve the playoff talk for a few months while we look at a very tidy opening quarter to the 2021-22 season by McDavid’s boys.

With a 3-2 win at Vegas on Saturday — their second regulation win at T-Mobile Arena this season — Edmonton closed out their first 20-game segment with a 15-5 record. Heading into play Monday night that .750 winning percentage tied the Oilers for second in the NHL in winning percentage with Washington, behind only Carolina (.775).

The Oilers maintain the league’s best power play (37.7 per cent) for the third consecutive season, and their PK (87.1 per cent) is tied for fifth best. Averaging 3.75 goals per game, their offence trails only Colorado’s (4.00), and Edmonton has even become a pretty decent faceoff team, ranked sixth at 53.4 per cent.

They’ve got the NHL’s two leading scorers (points per game) in Draisaitl (20-20-40) and McDavid (14-22-36), the former poised to take as hearty run at 50 goals in 50 games, a mighty feat that has not been seriously attempted in 30 years.

Five-on-five they have some work to do, and head coach Dave Tippett continues to tinker in search of support scoring. But with Mike Smith out of the lineup since the third game, Mikko Koskinen and Stuart Skinner have been revelations. No teams plays .750 hockey without stellar netminding and the Oilers are no different.

“They’re a close team,” began Tippett. “The new guys who have come in have been welcomed with open arms, and the chemistry is very solid. With some of the injuries we’ve had we’ve found out about our depth… If there’s one thing we have to keep working at it’s our goals against. That’s an area we’d like to improve.

“It’s been a good start, but we’ve got lots to work on to get to where we want to go.”

Best in the West, on top of the Pacific, you can find holes in any team’s game if you look hard enough. In Edmonton, through 20 games at least, they’re making us squint.

Exactly how unworldly can Leon Draisaitl’s season be?

After 20 games, Draisaitl leads the league in goals (20), points (40), points per game (2.00), powerplay goals (10), game-winning goals (6), shooting percentage (28.6), road points (19) and third-period goals (9). He ranks second in assists (20), and power-play points (16).

He has 27 goals in his past 26 NHL games, and his 40 points in 19 games this season made Draisaitl the first player in Oilers history not named Wayne Gretzky to have 40 points prior to the 20-game mark of a season.

The addition of winger Zach Hyman — and the arrival of Jesse Puljujarvi — has allowed Tippett to play Draisaitl and McDavid on separate lines more often than not this season, a huge step forward in Edmonton.

With McDavid being McDavid, Draisaitl cementing himself as a true superstar and one of the Top 2 or 3 players in the world goes a long way to making Edmonton a deeper and more difficult team to play against. Now, and in the playoffs.

So, Are the Oilers Really Deeper Up Front?

Past the Big Two, is Edmonton really any better among its forward lines?

The 15-5 record says, “They must be,” but McDavid and Draisaitl’s heroics can obscure that. So let’s dig in:

Edmonton has been outscored 51-49 at even strength in the opening quarter through 20 games. That ranks 18th in the NHL, a hole the powerplay digs Edmonton out of nightly.

Even with the NHL’s top-two scorers, Edmonton “high danger scoring chances for” percentage (Natural Stat Trick) ranks 17th in the NHL, and at 47.24% the Oilers surrender more of those than they produce.

Individually, Ryan McLeod has taken over as third-line centre from Derek Ryan, which is fine. On a good team, Ryan is a 4C. So he is well placed down there.

Puljujarvi has shown he can ride shotgun with McDavid, but on Saturday in Vegas he drove his own line with McLeod and Warren Foegele, perhaps even a better sign for the young Finn. If Puljujarvi can help the third line produce, now you’ve got the scoring depth that lacked versus Winnipeg last spring.

McLeod is an excellent young prospect, and he has gone 53.2 per cent in 109 faceoffs taken. But is he ready for the defensive aspect of a 3C role that is traditionally inhabited by a veteran player like a Phil Danault? We’re not sure yet.

At third-line left wing Foegele has been a nice addition, but when it comes to offence he appears to be about a 10-goal player. The loss of Josh Archibald (myocarditis) has really hurt — he’s a 12-goal guy and excellent penalty killer.

Hyman has made Edmonton’s second line much more formidable, and with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins it allows Tippett to play 29 and 97 together more often. But overall in the bottom six, the Oilers are still trying to scratch the itch that the Winnipeg Jets exploited in Round 1 last season.

What if Stuart Skinner is Too Good to Send Down?

By the time Edmonton plays game No. 41, the halfway point of the season, two things are highly likely: Mike Smith will have been declared healthy and ready to take one of the two goalie positions on the roster; and Stuart Skinner will have proven if his early numbers were a flash in the pan or the start to something more legit.

Skinner arrived on Edmonton’s scene some 23 years after he was born there, a quickie replacement for a leg injury to Smith that was deemed “day to day.” More than a month later Skinner has cozied into a 50/50 split of the goaltending duties with Mikko Koskinen, actually posting a better saves percentage (.928) than Koskinen’s (.912) since the date of Skinner’s call-up.

What are the chances that the Oilers have had the answer to their goaltending woes sitting right under their since 2017, when they drafted Skinner in the third round? Well, Patrick Roy was a third-round pick. Mikka Kiprusoff was a fifth-rounder.

Dominik Hasek went in the 10th round, while Curtis Joseph and Ed Belfour weren’t even drafted.

“You can always think what players might do, but until they get thrown into a situation you never know how they’ll react,” reasoned head coach Dave Tippett. “We’ve had some players come in who don’t have a long track record, and been thrown into tough situations because of the injuries, and they’ve responded very well.

“They’re still young players (Skinner and Philip Broberg). They have lots to learn yet, but their first steps in the NHL have been pretty solid.”

It must be said that Koskinen has been fantastic in taking on the extra work with Smith out, and was the reason Edmonton took two points out of Vegas on Saturday. He was all-world in that game.

Who goes down when Smith is ready to take his spot back in the Oilers crease? It’s very likely Skinner, but that decision isn’t getting any easier.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.