Despite strong start, Oilers need bottom-six contributions to sustain success

Gene Principe and Mark Spector discuss the Edmonton Oilers need for more contributors from around the lineup and Connor McDavid's reaction to being ejected from the Oilers game after a hit from behind on Los Angeles Kings forward Adrian Kempe.

EDMONTON — You can call it depth, roster construction, or use hockey’s new crutch word — consistency. But here’s what this whole season is about for the Edmonton Oilers:

This team needs more players who can help win the games when Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl aren’t winning games for Edmonton.

They need more production from more people, and so far, we haven’t seen much improvement, despite the 16-7 record.

The Oilers needed help in their Top 6 so that the two superstar centres could play apart more often, and general manager Ken Holland obliged by signing Zach Hyman. The left winger has been a brilliant add to the top line, pushing Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to Draisaitl’s left flank, and the maturation of right winger Jesse Puljujarvi has created a functional Top 6 with five players who nobody would disagree belong up there.

The big boys have all produced. Below that however, it’s been a failure.

After a hot 9-1 start to their season, in which the superstars and the powerplay did more than their share of the heavy lifting, a pedestrian 7-6 run over their last 13 games has exposed a Bottom 6 group of forwards that is no more able to help secure wins today than it was at the end of last season, when the Oilers were swept into their summer by the Winnipeg Jets.

“We’ve got too many guys who aren’t contributing enough to help us here,” Tippett said after Sunday’s 5-1 loss to Los Angeles. “We need some more throughout our lineup.”

Edmonton has struggled at five-on-five, a bad sign for a team that wants to win playoff games, where powerplays tend to become infrequent. And their starts have been brutal, scoring the first goal in just nine of 23 games this season.

So, if we’re willing to say the Oilers Top 6 is — all in all — pretty good, let’s look at where the help isn’t coming from.

Derek Ryan: He was brought here in hopes of being a third-line centre. But at 34 years old Ryan can’t handle those minutes anymore. He is a 4C — simple as that.

Ryan McLeod — When I think of third-line centres on teams with Stanley Cup aspirations, I think of Phillip Danault, Yanni Gourde, Manny Malhotra… But none of those players were stalwart 3C’s at age 22,  McLeod's age. This young player isn’t ready for the role, and that’s not his fault. He’s played 25 NHL games — McLeod is not the answer to Edmonton’s void at 3C.

Warren Foegele — A legit third-line left winger, Foegele doesn’t have a scorer’s hands. But of late he hasn’t been physical either, which means he is accomplishing little. If you can’t score, you’d better do something. For Foegele that means banging some pucks loose on the forecheck and collecting a garbage goal down low. More competitiveness please.

Zack Kassian — Remember what Craig MacTavish once said about Dustin Penner? “We signed him to be a top two line player, and that's kind of where it ended. The difference was, we thought the contract was a starting point, and he's viewed it as a finish line. It's been one thing after another. I can't watch it for -- certainly not another two and a half years."

Well, since Kassian signed his four-year, $12.8 million deal, he has been injured, disinterested and ineffective. He has another two years after this one at $3.2 million, and we doubt that MacTavish can stand to watch it. This has become perhaps Holland’s worst contract as Edmonton’s GM, which says more about Kassian than his boss.

Brendan Perlini and Kyle Turris — Neither are NHL players anymore, but hold down roster spots in Edmonton. Good teams don’t waste roster spots on guys who can’t help.

Tyler Benson — This player is no more a fourth-line winger than Devin Shore is a first-liner. After a lifetime of being a top 6 forward, the best thing that could happen to Benson is to find a team with room in its top 6 for him to play the way he knows how. He is simply miscast in Edmonton.

Meanwhile, McDavid is well aware of the group of forwards below him. He hears Tippett’s words, and if we know McDavid at all he’ll be back to carrying the team again soon.

“The sky’s not falling here, you know?” he said on Monday. “We’ve lost two in a row, haven’t played all that well, I think it’s a good time for us to re-set. Tipp made that comment, and we have to respond as players.

“It’s an everyday league. You have to show up every day.”

Tippett, meanwhile, called an audible early Monday morning when he cancelled practice after the debacle against the Kings. He re-watched the game late Sunday night and saw a tired team that needed more video work than on-ice practice.

Does he have to tell his players that he needs more from them? Or, does the video do the talking for him?

“Both,” Tippett said. “There are lots of conversations that go on every day. Might be long conversations, might be short conversations.

“But the video sessions ... They don’t lie.”

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