Oilers quarter-mark report: Slow improvement raises playoff hopes

Gene Principe is joined by Mark Spector to break down where the Oilers stand a quarter of the way into the season. Including, do they have enough around Connor McDavid & Leon Draisaitl, Ken Holland's plan moving forward & more.

EDMONTON — Fourteen points in 14 games, a 7-7 record through the opening quarter of the season, and on top of that a win Tuesday night in Ottawa that put the Edmonton Oilers above .500 for the first time all season.

You could look at that fairly average opening quarter by the Edmonton Oilers and judge the rest of their season on it. But it would be inaccurate, and a bit unfair to a team that entered the season depending on a two-goalie system that ended up starting Mikko Koskinen in 12 of its opening 14 games.

“It’s fair to say we didn’t get off to the start that we wanted to (3-6), but we battled our way back,” said veteran winger Alex Chiasson. “We’re a quarter into the season now and we’re right in the middle of our division.

“Having two goalies is key for us, it showed last year.”

Breaking in Jesse Puljujarvi on the first line? No problem.

Figuring out a defence when Caleb Jones and Ethan Bear -- two guys who were being counted on to play -- have either struggled or been injured? No problem.

But being forced to play Koskinen so much that he was more than 100 minutes ahead of the next NHL netminder? That was a problem.

That the Oilers were at .500 and right in the thick of the North Division playoff race after 14 games, when Koskinen had a .889 saves percentage and a 3.55 goals-against average is just shy of miraculous. Now, with Mike Smith back — with an impressive first start under his belt — let’s see what kind of goaltending Edmonton gets when its original plan plays out and both guys roughly split the load.

So let’s look at Edmonton’s opening quarter, all things considered:

WHERE THEY ARE RELATIVE TO EXPECTATION?

Likely just about where we thought they’d be — serious contenders for third or fourth spot in the North, within two points of second place Montreal, which hosts the Oilers on Thursday.

I have the Oilers as a playoff team, and considering that they sit in that exact spot despite some injuries and much uncertainty in the opening quarter, it is fair to expect them to protect that position as the season goes on and their game solidifies.

We expect Puljujarvi to steadily improve. We would say that Dominik Kahun will be better in the ensuing segments, having spent the first quarter of the season on a new team with two new linemates in Leon Draisaitl and Kailer Yamamoto.

Minus the injured Klefbom, the defence is beginning to solidify, with Evan Bouchard emerging as a Top 6 D-man and Tyson Barrie finding his game nicely of late. And we’ll predict that, with continued health, the goaltending will settle.

Does fourth place after the opening quarter mean third place at the halfway point? Hey, just make the playoffs. The Oilers can’t have any other goal than that.

TOP-SIX FORWARDS GRADE: A-

In Edmonton, when you talk Top 6 forwards, you’re really talking about McDavid and Draisaitl, both of whom saw 10-game points streaks snapped as the 15th game concluded.

As of Thursday, McDavid led the NHL in scoring with 9-18-27, while Draisaitl was second with 8-17-25. They have become the game's deadliest duo, the best one-two punch at centre in the NHL — and we all know that the Oilers have to build a team around them that they are deserving of.

Draisaitl and McDavid finished one-two in scoring last season, and are looking to be the first teammates to do that in back-to-back years since Wayne Gretzky-Paul Coffey (1983-84) and Gretzky-Jari Kurri (1984-85). The last time the same two teammates did it? Phil Esposito and Bobby Orr finished one-two in 1973-74, and ’74-75 — some 45 years ago.

Puljujarvi has been a revelation. He started on the third line but was promoted to McDavid’s right side after six games. The 22-year-old who was rushed as a rookie has returned a completely different player who stops on pucks, plays in straighter lines and is closer to his teammates on the ice and available for passes. Puljujarvi is close to being a serious weapon for McDavid, and as it stands he’s not hurting anyone on the top line.

Kahun is forging some chemistry with Draisaitl, and less than 70 games into his NHL career Yamamoto forechecks like a veteran and furnishes his centreman with pucks. He needs to get a bit more selfish as a shooter, but that will come.

The Top 6 here is just fine. It’s the strongest area of the team, actually.

BOTTOM-SIX FORWARDS GRADE: C-

Kyle Turris came in as a third-line centre, and he has struggled in the new role. His ability to become a more sound defensive player will go a long way to dictating if this Bottom 6 grades out. If he fails, they’ll struggle.

Jujhar Khaira continues to give his team two good games and four “meh” ones, but he’s on a good run and let’s see if he can find consistency. Zack Kassian has been poor this season, and is now injured. Chiasson has been all right when in the lineup, but got his first point Tuesday night when he assisted on Barrie’s goal. James Neal had a late start and can’t find his trademark hands. Without the slick mitts that scored 19 last season, he is a guaranteed buy-out this summer.

Josh Archibald is the one fourth-liner who plays every night, because he is effective and adaptable to every role. The rest need to be better. The rest of the lineup is only now reaching a place where we can predict who is going to play with whom every night.

“There are just so many guys here right now,” Chiasson said. “I’ll be the first to admit, you want to play. This is my ninth year in the league, you want to play every night.

“There has been a lot of moving around, trying guys in different positions. Personally, you want to find yourself in the lineup every night, and then see what happens.”

DEFENCE GRADE: C

The Oilers are the sixth-worst in the NHL, averaging 3.57 goals against per game. That’s not all on the defencemen, but they have to wear much of that.

However, losing their 25-minute man in Klefbom is a crushing blow — think Leafs without Morgan Rielly, Habs without Shea Weber. Bear had a slow start and was injured. Jones had a slow start, and has fallen out of the lineup.

Darnell Nurse has been a horse, with five goals, 11 points and a plus-8 rating. You can’t ask for more, and now that Barrie has begun to fit in, the Oilers are getting offence from their back end like they haven’t see in years, tied atop the NHL with Montreal with 11 goals.

It’s not an elite group — and they’ve kept their heads above water, mostly.

GOALTENDING GRADE: B

This is all about Koskinen, who gets credit for surviving an untenable situation. He survived being, basically, the only goalie in the first quarter, and gave his team a chance to win on most nights.

A BIG QUESTION FOR THE SECOND QUARTER

Oh, there are more than just one.

• Can Ethan Bear find the game that made him a legit second pairing defenceman last year?

• Can Mike Smith — and Koskinen — stay healthy? Because the Edmonton goaltending situation absolutely depends on both guys playing. There is no viable No. 3.

• Can Turris stop bleeding goals against at five-on-five, and become the 3C that Ken Holland signed him to be?

• Do Puljujarvi and Bouchard continue to ascend? Both could be difference makers 25 games from now.

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