If you’re an Edmonton Oilers fan trying not to panic about a 1-3-0 start where the team has been outscored 15-10, those words are worth repeating.
It’s early. The power play will get going. The 5-on-5 play will improve. The goaltending won’t sink the season.
And on it goes.
It’s true that it’s too early to draw any conclusions about where this season is headed in Edmonton, and that small samples in a four-game stretch can make things look and feel worse than perhaps they actually are. For instance is the power play, the league’s best last season that is 0-for-10 and a minus-2 in its past two games, an area of concern now? I’m not willing to make that leap yet.
But there are only 56 games this season and the North Division is proving to be as competitive as advertised. There’s not a lot of time to let things play out. Adjustments need to be made. Your competitive level can’t be questioned for very long, or else you could be in a tough hole before you know it.
“You’re taking it game by game,” head coach Dave Tippett said after Monday’s 3-1 home loss to Montreal. “We’re still trying to figure our team out. We gotta get our competitive levels up.”
So what, really, is behind Edmonton’s less-than-ideal start and what might they do to fix it?
The 5-on-5 play
We’ll get to the power play in a minute, but most of the game is spent at 5-on-5 and that’s a key area the Oilers have been lacking to start the season. The 11 goals they’ve allowed in these situations are the most in the North Division, as are the 109 shots against they’ve surrendered.
When McDavid is on the ice, Edmonton has controlled 61.11 per cent of the 5-on-5 shots. With Draisaitl it’s 53.42. Contrast that with Kyle Turris at just 34.78, Jesse Puljujarvi at 42.86 and Joakim Nygard at 33.33 and you can see the third line has been a bit of an issue. The entire bottom six, actually.
It was always obvious that Edmonton will only go as far as their top stars take them. When they have an off night, the whole roster becomes exposed. This was on display Monday night against a great defensive effort from Montreal, as the Canadiens were able to hold a shot advantage against Edmonton’s top two lines.
“I think we gotta shoot the puck more,” Tippett said after the latest loss. “Montreal’s done a good job around the front of their net and you’ve gotta pay a price to score.”
He continued: “I think we can shoot the puck more and we’re looking for some harder goals. We’re overpassing it and not getting enough sustained time in the offensive zone.”
Depth and 5-on-5 production concerns are a continuation from last season. The hope is that Turris will show more, or that Puljujarvi can be better at both ends — perhaps so much that he gets promoted to the top six. The third line was a hopeful upgrade. That hasn’t happened yet, so it’s a contributing factor to the slow start.
Monday’s loss was a reminder that, despite some off-season change to the third line, when McDavid and Draisaitl are slowed the Oilers are probably in for a long night.
And this isn’t only on the offence. A full 60-minute effort, commitment to team defence and protecting the front of the net also remain concerns in the early going. There have been times when it’s been good, but they’ve yet to sustain anything positive.
“The competitive levels on defending; defending the front of our net, winning battles in our own zone, that’s what we’re having some issues with,” Tippett said. “For the most part our team works hard, but there’s a competitive level of winning battles. Winning stick battles, loose puck battles, and defending the front of your net. That’s the area we needed to improve on.”
This was one of the takeaways after the Oilers were eliminated in the bubble, so it’s not a great thing to hear at the start of the next season. Ethan Bear and Caleb Jones were already made healthy scratches.
There were a few reasons why the Oilers lost Monday night. Montreal only scored once at 5-on-5, but clearly controlled the opportunities. Edmonton just wasn’t doing the dirty work well enough.
I feel bad for Mikko Koskinen. His numbers aren’t a great start (3.80 GAA, .897 SV%), but he’s also in a really tough situation. By bringing both him and Mike Smith back this was going to be a likely area of weakness for Edmonton, but the hope was that one of them would be the hot hand at a given moment. Now Smith is on the IR, 22-year-old Stuart Skinner is the backup, third-string waiver claim Troy Grosenick is in quarantine and so everything rests on Koskinen’s shoulders now. He’s started every game.
In a division that houses Connor Hellebuyck, Carey Price, Jacob Markstrom, and Frederik Andersen, Koskinen is usually going to be the second-best starter out there. He’s not regularly going to steal you games. And I don’t think he’s been bad per se, but when your team is struggling to generate at 5-on-5, and on a night where the power play gets shut out on seven opportunities, starting the game by allowing a goal like Alexander Romanov’s Monday night can be deflating.
Koskinen won’t be winning awards and, ideally, he’s working in a tandem rather than having to play so often. The goals he’s allowed are under the microscope right now because the team is 1-3-0, but that’s not all on him. If Edmonton’s power play had been producing the past two games, or if the team defence had a better start, Koskinen wouldn’t be in the crosshairs.
The power play
This is where the “small sample size” idea needs to be drilled hard.
Edmonton was 0-for-7 on the power play Monday night and that was the main reason why they lost. It wasn’t Carey Price in net, it was backup Jake Allen. The Oilers had their chances, caught a few bad breaks and it cost them.
When they were trailing only 1-0, McDavid had this chance with the man advantage and if he scores, suddenly the whole game could have played out differently.
Out of 100, this is probably a goal 97 times off his stick.
As they did at 5-on-5, Montreal had a great game of getting into passing lanes and putting sticks on the puck. Especially early on, the Oilers had lots of opportunities on the power play and took shots.
Sticks in lanes, on pucks. Montreal was just great at it. The big defencemen in front of the net. Forward Jake Evans was impressive on the penalty kill, too.
Edmonton had the league’s best power play last season and the players who drove that success are still here. It’s bound to turn around. The fact is, when you’ve only played four games and your power play goes 0-for-10 and allows two goals against in consecutive games, you’ve probably lost both of them, as Edmonton did.
“That should be one of our strengths and it wasn’t the last two games,” Tippett said.
And, just like that, you go from .500 to a 1-3-0 hole.
What could change now?
Tippett started the blender a bit on Monday, and gave power-play opportunities to lots of forwards. Tippett acknowledged they needed to be better with the puck on defence, and so it’s likely Bear will be back in the lineup quickly. You wonder when Evan Bouchard gets his turn.
In the 317 minutes at 5-on-5 those three spent together last season, they outscored their opponents 28-8, according to Natural Stat Trick. They had a 188-165 shot advantage.
Sure, that puts more weight on McDavid, but if you’re looking for a charge then maybe it’s worth trying a proven successful line, as your highest-paid player drives a more watered down one. When James Neal is fit to return he could line up next to McDavid again, at least for a stretch, to put a goal scorer there — not a bad idea when you need goals. Zack Kassian is a candidate. And you wonder if Jesse Puljujarvi will be given a shot there.
“When you’re not winning you gotta do what it takes to get the winning formula, so that’s what we’ll continue to look for,” Tippett said when asked about what line changes he’d consider.
There’s no doubt it’s been a rough start to the season for Edmonton and any bad stretches will raise tensions in any Canadian market. We’ve seen it in Toronto until Frederik Andersen put in a solid game on Monday. It’s currently also playing out in Vancouver as their top line — among other things — falters. But it is too early to panic.
After being upset by the Blackhawks, we’d rather not still see the Oilers struggle with defence and helping out their goaltender. We’d rather not see a full game effort or consistency come into question so fast. Those are worth keeping an eye on and could develop into festering problems.
But other things will change for the better. Their power play was first in the league last season so better days are ahead. Draisaitl has yet to score at 5-on-5, a stat he finished fifth in last season. He and McDavid combined for a single point in two games against the Habs — that represents half their season right now.
The Oilers, so far, are who we thought they were. A top heavy team that overly relies on its two best players to produce the offence, hopeful of defensive improvement, and hanging on for dear life in goal. The worst of the downside to icing a team built that way is what we’ve seen so far, but almost none of the upside has been present…yet.
“I think it’ll be good for our team to go on the road myself,” Tippett said. “Just hopefully a change of atmosphere or change of arena and get out on the road and play some strong road hockey and find a way to win.”
Edmonton has played all home games so far, and including the summer bubble, haven’t played on the road since March of 2020. Maybe it will be good for them, but here’s the thing: it’s not going to start easy.
First up are the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday and Friday, a team whose strength is creating great scoring opportunities. It’s sink or swim time for the Oilers, who could possibly be staring down a 1-5-0 start by the weekend.
Then it might be time to panic.