Oilers quarter mark report: Surprising goaltending a major boost

Sportsnet’s Mark Spector joined Tim & Sid to discuss the Edmonton Oilers and if they can keep up with their level of play to start the season.

EDMONTON — The Edmonton Oilers have reached the quarter mark at 12-6-2, firmly in second place in the Western Conference and having led the Pacific Division since the opening week of the season.

Considering where even the most bullish predictor stood when the Oilers’ season began 20 games ago, their opening quarter would rate somewhere between "fabulous" and "Holy hell! Are these standings upside down!?!"

So, what has gone right to put the Oilers in a position to be five points north of the wild-card cut-off line just two weeks before American Thanksgiving? Well, 20 games is a middling sample size, but let’s dig in.

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MOST IMPORTANT DEVELOPMENT

Goaltending.

The tandem of 37-year-old Mike Smith and $4.5-million man Mikko Koskinen scared the heck out all the prognosticators. Smith was coming off a season in which he had a .898 save percentage in Calgary, while the book was out on Koskinen’s glove hand, and it was a horror novel.

Well, at the quarter mark, Koskinen has a .928 save percentage and Smith is at .913. As a team, the Oilers rank 10th in the NHL in team save percentage (.913). Take out the empty-net goals and they’re at .920.

Meanwhile, the team is seventh in goals against per games played (2.65). That’s the biggest change in Edmonton, and it starts in goal.

MOST WORRISOME DEVELOPMENT

There is still a concerning lack of support scoring on an Oilers team that has seen Connor McDavid (11 goals) and Leon Draisaitl (15) account for 52 per cent of team scoring. Throw in James Neal’s 12 goals, and three forwards have scored 63 per cent — or nearly two-thirds — of Edmonton’s goals.

As with every team, there are a bunch of 8-12 goal players in the bottom-six who need to contribute. If they do, the Oilers will be a tough out.

TOP SIX FORWARDS GRADE: A+

Draisaitl (15-21-36) leads the league in scoring. McDavid (11-20-31) stands third in the NHL. The election desk is already declaring the Oilers as victors in the James Neal-Milan Lucic trade based on Neal’s 12 goals in his first 20 games. Second-line centre Ryan Nugent-Hopkins started slowly, but now has climbed up to 13 points. Zack Kassian has six goals in the opening quarter.

In the faceoff circle, Nugent-Hopkins (50.2 per cent) has put about six points on his career average, while Draisaitl (50.2) has been employed the lone forward when the team is down two men, and has become Anze Kopitar-like in the overall game.

You can’t ask for more from a top-six.

BOTTOM SIX FORWARDS GRADE: C

These players get much credit for an improved goals-against, and particularly improving a perennially last-place penalty kill that has jumped to 86.4 per cent and fourth place in the NHL. Riley Sheahan, brought in to win faceoffs and kill penalties, leads the Oilers’ regular centres at 51.9 per cent on the dot.

As defensive players, the bottom-six has been excellent. Where it comes to chipping in goals, however, they have failed thus far. Jujhar Khaira, Joakim Nygard, Alex Chiasson and Sam Gagner each have one goal at the quarter mark. Sheahan, Josh Archibald, Markus Granlund, Tomas Jurco and Patrick Russell each have zero.

Not enough.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

DEFENCE GRADE: B+

Like the bottom-six forwards, the D-corps has locked ‘er down through 20 games — which is their primary job. And it must be said, likely the strongest defender — Adam Larsson — broke his leg in the season opener, and has not been back since.

Ethan Bear has been a revelation. Oscar Klefbom, who averages 25:33 per game, is fourth in the NHL in that category. When everyone is healthy, the third pairing of Kris Russell and Matt Benning (a combined plus-15) have been stout.

With a tad more offence from a group that has just six goals through 20 games, this group would rate an ‘A.’

GOALIE GRADE: A

Koskinen’s save percentage ranks sixth among NHL starters, while Smith fell to 20th spot only after a tough, six-goal night in San Jose in game No. 20.

You can credit the structure that has been installed by head coach Dave Tippett, or the focus on defensive play by Edmonton’s skaters. But in nine of 20 games the Oilers have allowed two or less goals. In 16 games, it’s been three or less.

Goalies and team defence are keeping the Oilers close, so that Draisaitl and McDavid have a chance to win games for them every night. When you have two superstars like the Oilers do, that’s a recipe for success.

AWARDS

MVP: Leon Draisaitl
Most Improved player: Mikko Koskinen
Best defensive player: Oscar Klefbom
Most physical player: Zack Kassian

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