Oilers’ depth starting to make an impact after slow start to season

Mark Spector joined Gene Principe to talk about the Edmonton Oilers getting their first home win of 2020 and much more.

EDMONTON — When Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Darnell Nurse all had career years offensively last season — and the Edmonton Oilers still missed the playoffs — it drove home the point:

This is hockey. Not basketball.

Four or five good, productive players aren’t enough.

Then, before he had even been hired by the Oilers, head coach Dave Tippett sat down to watch Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final between the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues.

What did he see?

“Well balanced teams,” Tippett observed. “You went into a Game 7 of the Final, and both teams started their fourth lines. That’s depth. Confidence in your depth and skill that they can play in a game like that.”

The Oilers were thin. They needed depth, and they needed it badly. So new general manager Ken Holland took the eight million he had left to work with, and rather than signing three guys in the range of $3 million each, he signed seven players at around a million apiece.

Josh Archibald. Joakim Nygard. Gaetan Haas. Riley Sheahan. Markus Granlund. Tomas Jurco. Joel Persson.

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You never hit on all of them, of course, and today the latter three players are in Bakersfield, where they at least provide some depth should injury strike. But the first four names have all become regulars in an Oilers Bottom 6 that has become deep enough for McDavid and Draisaitl to survive on separate lines, and productive enough to still get points when the big boys don’t score two goals each.

“Look at our lineup,” said Archibald, who has moved up to first line right wing temporarily while Zack Kassian is suspended. “We’ve got guys who were brought in for different reasons, but everybody wants to score goals and help the team. Now that it’s starting to go in, it doesn’t put as much pressure on the top lines to score four goals constantly, every night.

“Now, the chemistry is starting to be built, and everyone’s getting confident.”

The support scoring was slow in arriving this season, and it was widely lamented that relying this heavily on McDavid and Draisaitl is a bad recipe. Now, all those depth guys from which 10 goals were hoped for are starting to score, and the Oilers are getting by.

Archibald has five goals. Haas has four. Jujhar Khaira has six. Sheahan has five. Nygard is stuck on two, but has perhaps had more scoring chances than any of the depth forwards.

“You look at players like Sheehan and Archibald, even (Alex) Chiasson coming back,” Tippett said. “They’re NHL players. They know how to play, they know how to win. They know how to play a role on a team.

“The next phase of that is our young players, like Yamo (Kailer Yamamoto), coming in and pushing to play in the lineup. It’s a work in progress still, but we’ve made some strides.”

Sheahan is nothing more than a solid fourth-line centre. He wins his faceoffs, kills his penalties and eats up some hard, defensive minutes that you’d rather spare McDavid of when possible. He’s a 27-year-old who’s played 490 NHL games, and fills out a roster nicely — as long as you’re not trying to make him a Top 6 guy.

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Holland spent a first round pick (21st overall) on Sheehan back in 2010 when he was running Detroit. What did he ask of Sheehan when the two reunited in Edmonton?

“Just be the player I know I can be,” said Sheahan. “There have been lulls in my career where I am not playing to my potential. Kenny just saw what he saw when he drafted me, and some of the ways I performed in Detroit, and he wanted to bring some of that back to the surface.”

When you have McDavid and Draisaitl on your top two lines, and a guy like Sheahan at 4C, your team is one third-line centre away from being as good down the middle as any team in hockey.

“You need to give our star players the support,” Sheahan said. “Look at a lot of good teams — the Islanders are a good example. All four lines are hard to play against. If you can do that you wear teams down, especially leading up to the playoff and in the playoffs.

“Whether it’s D-zone starts, penalty kill, or little parts of the game that maybe the fan doesn’t see, everyone needs to chip in and pay the game the right way.”

None of Haas, Nygard or Persson had ever played a professional game in North America before the Oilers signed them. That two are making an impact in the NHL is pretty good odds, with both Nygard and Haas having excellent chances to be re-signed for next season and beyond.

“Haas is a smart player,” Tippett said of the Swiss import. “He’s quick, he’s got good enough hands, and he’s a smart player. Those players, when they come over, they’re grasping for every bit of information they can find. He’s got a lot of experience in World Championships over there with the penalty kill. So he’s done it before, just not at this level. He’s done all right.”

As such, so have the Oilers.

So far, so good.

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