The Top 10 ways the Edmonton Oilers will be better this coming season?
- Better puckmoving. The team has been hurting for puck-moving d-men for a long time, players who can get the puck to Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Last year, the Oilers had just three d-men in their staring line-up who were at least NHL average at this skill, Ethan Bear, Darnell Nurse and Oscar Klefbom. This year even, and without Klefbom, the Oilers have four, Bear, Nurse, Tyson Barrie and Caleb Jones. If Klefbom plays and Kris Russell sits, Edmonton can go with five puck-movers and Adam Larsson. If Larsson is out, they can go with six, Klefbom-Barrie, Nurse-Bear, Jones-Evan Bouchard. Not too shabby.
- Better McDavid. We didn’t know it last year, but McDavid was coming off a serious, career-threatening knee injury. He’s now that much more removed from the injury, that much more along in his rehab, and that much more at peak McDavid powers.
- Better Draisaitl. For years, McDavid and Draisaitl played together, which might have worked on the attack but was a disaster in their own end. Both players appeared confused about their d-zone rules and, collectively, managed to leave the d-zone slot wide open all too often. At the same time, to fully realize his attacking game, Draisaitl is best served as the lead dog in give-and-go attack, not acting as the shooter waiting for McDavid to set him up. With Kailer Yamamoto and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Draisaitl found the perfect give-and-go linemates, all three of them pass first, shoot second players, all three of them adding up to greater as the sum of their parts. And that’s why Draisaitl won the Hart Trophy this year. If Oilers coach Dave Tippett reunites the Dynamite Line and keeps them together, Draisaitl could easily repeat as league MVP, and not go through the horrendous defensive slump he experienced last December on McDavid’s line.
- Betting goaltending. The goaltending is a better bet. Yes, I know that everyone, including me, is moaning that Oilers GM Ken Holland said goaltending was his top priority this off-season, yet he still brought back Mike Smith as Mikko Koskinen’s back up. But last year at this time it was an unknown as to whether Mikko Koskinen was a real NHL starting goalie or a phoney who would fold. He had just a .906 save percentage in 2018-19, after all. But Koskinen had a .917 save percentage last year, just behind Vancouver’s Jacob Markstrom at .918. Koskinen was a middle-of-the-pack NHL starter in 2019-20. Not bad, and that certainly makes him a better bet this year. Not only that, the Oilers signed up veteran AHL goalie Anton Forsberg, who is a very good bet as a back up if Smith can’t get it done.
- Improved secondary scoring. I’ve already mentioned how RNH and Yamamoto found success with Draisaitl, with RNH scoring 41 points, Yamamoto 26 and Draisaitl 30 in their most excellent second half run. But along with the NHL’s most dangerous line and McDavid, Tippett will get scoring this year all year from Jesse Puljujarvi, Tyler Ennis, Kyle Turris and Tyson Barrie. With another year of NHL experience, I also expect more attacking success from rookie d-men Bear and Jones and from second-year NHLers Gaetan Haas and Joakim Nygard (if he’s healthy).
- Three attacking lines. Many Oilers fans have hungered for three attacking lines and it looks like Holland and Tippett are going in that direction. As I see it the most like lines to produce are Ennis-McDavid-Puljujarvi, RNH-Draisaitl-Yamamoto and a strong third line of Neal-Turris-Chiasson. JJ Khaira centered these two vets in the playoffs but Turris will provide more attacking prowess in this spot. A fourth line of Josh Archibald, Gaetan Haas and Zack Kassian will also be plenty fast and able to pick off some goals.
- Greater depth. Nygard, Khaira, Cooper Marody, Ryan McLeod, Patrick Russell, William Lagesson, Bouchard and Tyler Benson are all capable players who I have outside the starting line-up right now. This kind of depth will serve the Oilers well in a long NHL season.
- Continuity. Stable leadership is in place at the top in Holland and Tippett, who have learned a few things about the team, which is why Holland preached and delivered continuity and patience. He made few major changes to the line-up, adding in just Barrie, Turris and Puljujarvi, while providing openings for young players like Jones, Lagesson and Benson to make a mark if they have the quality.
- Better knowledge. Tippett now knows his team, knows that it’s best to not to ride McDavid and Draisaitl on the same line, knows how to get the most out of Koskinen and Smith, knows that the Dynamite Line can carry the team, and knows more about who and what will work with McDavid. Indeed, perhaps the final major riddle for the Oilers, at least if Koskinen steps up in net, is finding the right linemates for McDavid. Ennis looks like a fit for now. Kassian can work at times. Puljujarvi, Benson or Nygard might also be a big part of the answer. But Tippett has already accomplished the hard part by splitting up McDavid and Draisaitl and now he’s getting a better sense of what will and won’t work. I expect he and McDavid will crack the code at some point this year.
- Broberg! Is youngster Philip Broberg going to make the Oilers this year? The 19-year-old is grabbing major minutes now in the Swedish league and wowing fans there with his skating and puck-carrying. He could well be ready for the NHL when the season starts up, and if he’s anywhere close to his video highlights, he could also be ready to give the Oilers a lightning attacking dimension from the blueline that they haven’t had in years.