Position-by-position breakdown of Oilers’ early-season struggles

Gene Principe and Mark Spector discuss the latest on the Edmonton Oilers' season, including how the Oilers have improved their effort amidst their skid, and how Connor McDavid's confidence could help to turn around their struggling offence.

SEATTLE — So, how did we get here? 

How did a team that played in five playoff series over the past two seasons, winning 99 regular-season games — whose core is not aging out — find itself in the kind of freefall that the Edmonton Oilers have succumbed to this season? 

We called some people who know the game pretty well, and I can say I’ve been around this team for a while — since 1990. 

Here’s a breakdown by position:


When it comes to roster formation among Edmonton’s forward lines, the No. 1 historic issue with this team is its reliance on its top players. And its neglect of any kind of supporting cast. 

Now support is desperately needed and it simply isn’t there. 

Whenever times get tough in Edmonton, the coach goes back to Ol’ Trusty, tossing Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl over the boards — or often pairing them on a line —  to pull the team out of trouble. 

The rest of the forwards are taught to sit and watch, the feet of the bottom-six forwards growing cold as they spend another third period as spectators, called upon only if a penalty kill arises. 

It was a problem under previous coach Todd McLellan. It was a problem under Dave Tippett. It is a problem that has been exacerbated under Woodcroft, who often chooses to start games with an “11 and seven” alignment that all but ensured his two fourth-liners would barely be participants in that night’s game. 

The utter refusal to build a four-line team boomerangs at a time like this. 

Today, McDavid is playing hurt, we believe. Draisaitl is in a black=hole slump.

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This team needs a third element to help dig out of the muck, and in this sport, that third element is traditionally the depth guys. 

But guess what? Nobody has watered that garden in Edmonton for ages, least of all Woodcroft. 

GM Ken Holland has not constructed a fourth line like Vegas has, with size and impact. He has an intelligent penalty killer in Derek Ryan, whose size mitigates his presence. Mattias Janmark, a genuine fourth-line NHLer, is injured. Raphael Lavoie is as green as a rookie can be, and a skill player to boot. 

Partially due to misallocated salary cap money, the third line features two young players in Ryan McLeod and Dylan Holloway. With one point between them, they have been absolutely no help this season. 

Only Warren Foegele has emerged from the bottom six as a solution this season. He has helped, while the rest languish. With limited ice time and having not been invested in during their time in Edmonton, they have not been groomed to be there for a moment like this. 

There is no foundation to Edmonton’s forward group today, just as there was not when Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and a few other 20-year-olds ran the show here back in the 2010s. 

It’s Edmonton. The stars run the show here. 



On the blueline, Woodcroft’s initial mistake last summer was to change from a relatively simple man-on-man defence to zone, where there are many more reads and much more quick thinking to be done. 

This defensive core is not rich in defenders, and its leader — Darnell Nurse — has not always exhibited a high level of defensive awareness. Asking around, the knock on Nurse has never been about anything physical. Any criticism of his play has always been about how he thinks the game. 

Now, he is tasked with thinking more. 

Evan Bouchard? Same, but worse. He thinks the game poorly in his own end, but has always made up for that with his elite offensive play. 

The offence is flagging and Edmonton can’t keep pucks out of its net. There is no defensive foundation for Bouchard to fall back on, and his struggles are well documented. 

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Mattias Ekholm has been only average this season. The hip injury that cost him training camp may still be there. Cody Ceci has been fine — maybe Edmonton’s best defender. Brett Kulak has helped the cause. 

Vincent Desharnais gives you what he has. He’s still trying to survive most nights as a young NHL D-man. 

But as a defensive core, they are not suited to the system. The constant breakdowns, the soft net-front play, the litany of poor pinches that have led to an incredible number of odd-man rushes against, belie a group that — like the forwards — lacks a foundation to fall back on. 

There isn’t one thing this D-corps does really well. Where they can say, “OK. Let’s stay inside the dots, command our own net front and weather the storm.” 

Meanwhile, the acceptance by Woodcroft and assistant Dave Manson of consistent errors by Nurse and Bouchard — their unwillingness to hold either accountable for game-changing errors that have largely been mental — has left this group without a standard to play up to. 

The Oilers lost to Vegas in the playoffs last season and tried to copy the Golden Knights’ defensive style, without the same quality and style of defender. 

Ryan Reaves would like to copy Connor McDavid’s style too. Good luck with that. 



Here, Stuart Skinner is just a sophomore goalie being asked to do too much. 

How good will he be one day? Who knows — goalies are voodoo. But he’ll play a long time, I reckon, in some capacity between starter and 1-A. 

Jack Campbell is the foundational mistake that will one day top Holland’s epitaph in Edmonton. Spending $5 million on a goalie who can’t play is soul crushing for this team. 

The most important position, the biggest unforced error. It may be the fatal mistake. 

Ken Holland signed the player. But Brad Holland — chief scout, assistant GM — is his father’s eyes and ears in Toronto, where everyone knew that Campbell had huge issues as a viable No. 1. 

Everyone but Brad Holland. 

In my books, Ken Holland has done much good work in Edmonton. But this contract undid much of it.

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