Oilers a one-man team? As Draisaitl & Sekera's play shows, that's a tall tale
The Edmonton Oilers roar into the New Year with two No. 1 centres leading the way, Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid. That’s a luxury few other teams can boast, but it’s fuelled the rise of the Oilers this year, along with a much improved blueline featuring players like Andrej Sekera, Adam Larsson, Kris Russell and Matt Benning. Here the the January 1, 2017 power rankings on the team:
Andrej Sekera, ⇔. Sekera’s underlying scoring chance numbers are far and away the best I’ve ever seen for an Oilers d-man playing tough minutes since I started this project in 2010-11. He’s a big part of the reason this team is winning. Before he missed the last few games with the flu, Sekera was playing like a real live #1 NHL d-man, doing well in all aspects of the game, even strength, power play and short-handed. Sekera had been playing about 24:00 minutes per game and had 11 points in 12 games. Let’s hope his flu isn’t one of those doozies that set you back forever, because his strong play in tough spots was taking the pressure off every other Oiler d-man on the blueline.
Cam Talbot, ⇑2. He plays almost every game, has a .919 save percentage, has won 18 of 34 decisions and rarely lets in a bad goal, the kind that sucks the life out of team.
Patrick Maroon,⇑3. Put him on any line, he hits hard, makes plays and makes those around him better. He’s earned a good, long shot on a line with McDavid, not that Maroon needs it, as he was playing well with others. But it would be swell to find the perfect mix on the Oil’s very top line.
Kris Russell, ⇑9. He skates, he hits, he gambles, he loses some, but he wins most, so much so that cutting edge analytics expert Brad Werenka, a former NHLer, says Russell is “drastically under-rated” and one of the top defensive d-men in the league. We already know what coach Todd McLellan thinks of Russell, as no Oilers players gets more even strength time on ice per game. But this isn’t a hard case like Justin Schultz who got all that ice for years and struggled on a struggling team. Instead Russell is doing fine on a team trending up. Most recently he has performed well enough partnered with young Matt Benning in one of the game’s toughest roles, filling in for sick Sekera as the team’s No 1 d-man. His underlying scoring chances numbers show a solid enough second-pairing d-man, a decent NHLer.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, ⇑5. At long last McLellan gave RNH the break he needed, taking him off a checking line and putting him with two strong attackers in Draisaitl and Patrick Maroon. Almost instantly RNH has looked like the Nuge of old, fast and tricky on the attack, sharp on defence. It’s clear that RNH is not now and is unlikely to ever be a major offensive driver who can carry a line, but he’s good enough to more than hold his own on a line with other good players. So there he should remain, though that leaves a hole at No. 3 centre for the Oilers.
Adam Larsson,⇓1. As Werenka describes it, on a NHL defensive pairing you will sometimes find a troublemaker and a cleaner, one d-man who makes a lot of mistakes and another d-man charged with trying to clean up those errors. This year the inconsistent Oscar Klefbom has struggled to stop attackers on his side of the ice, so his partner Larsson has been asked to that cleaner-type d-man. Larsson hasn’t always got the job done either. But when Klefbom is on a good run of play, Larsson has looked great. He’s a nasty shut-down guy on his own side of the ice and can move the puck safely, though not spectacularly. As the year has gone along, Larsson’s underlying scoring chance numbers have trended up, something we saw with Sekera and Eric Gryba last year as they settled into their new team.
Milan Lucic,⇓4. He’s meshing well enough with McDavid, been a physical force in some games and showed both skill and toughness on the power play. His best fit, though, might be with Draisaitl, as Looch is a big winger who can go into the corners, win the puck and feed Drai in the slot.
Brandon Davidson, ⇑4. A skilled, tough, smart NHL d-man who only needs a run of good health. He has improved pretty much every game since he got back in the line-up and is close to playing at the high level he did last year when all the underlying numbers including own scoring chances metric saw him having a home-run of a rookie season. If Davidson stays healthy he may find a way to beat the odds again and make himself so valuable that the Oilers find a way to keep in the upcoming Vegas expansion draft.
Matt Benning, ⇓2. It’s not easy when a young d-man is asked to suddenly play tough minutes. Benning has had a few shaky moments since Sekera got sick and he was teamed with Russell, but he’s holding his own. On the third-pairing, the kid has crushed it all year long.
Eric Gryba, no rating. His game blew up good against Vancouver, with major mistakes on both Vancouver goals, but before then Gryba was playing the best hockey of his Oilers career, hitting hard and moving the puck well. As seventh d-men go, it’s hard to beat Gryba.
Mark Letestu,⇓3. He continues to do everything asked of him as a checker and occasional scorer. Might be an idea to call-up gritty Anton Lander and give both him and Matt Hendricks a game off now and then.
Jordan Eberle,⇑4. For a guy getting regular minutes with McDavid, he’s not getting it done. I keep expecting him to break out but something still seems missing. Needs to play with both more gusto and confidence, especially when it comes to taking the puck hard to the net. We’ve seen him make that daring move to the net in the past. Where is it this year? His underlying numbers are OK, but unspectacular for a winger getting so much ice with McD, and they are nothing close to his outstanding metrics last year with McDavid.
Jesse Puljujarvi, ⇑5. He has been used more the last few games and has played with his usual skill and hustle. I don’t see many veteran wingers on the Oilers more deserving of ice-time. If I were King of the Oilers, I’d play him with McDavid for five games. If he doesn’t get it done, and there’s no room for him getting 13 or 14 minutes per game on the third line, then send him to Bakersfield. But Puljujarvi sitting — or dressing and not playing much — is a bad idea, as has been noted by countless Oilers fans by now. It’s one of the top complaints about the team this year from fans.
Zack Kassian, ⇑1. Had a huge moment in a big game, standing up for his linemate Matt Hendricks against Arizona after Oliver Ekman-Larsson violently smashed Hendricks into the boards. Kassian responded instantly, giving Ekman-Larsson as good as he gave. It was the kind of physical pushback Oilers fans have craved to see for years. As a player, Kassian is inconsistent, but often makes a positive difference with his hitting, skating and skill.
Oscar Klefbom,⇓6. It looks like coming back from his injury — and his own learning curve as a young d-man — are presenting some major challenges. This isn’t at all unexpected, of course. It’s the way it goes with young d-men. But Klefbom is nonetheless on a skid and the underlying numbers speak of a need for rapid intervention. In the first 22 games, Klefbom made 13 major contributions to Grade A scoring chances and 25 major mistakes on Grade A scoring chances against, a decent rate for defenceman, given their limited offensive opportunities and major defensive responsibilities. Klef was -12 Grade A scoring chances in those 22 games, not bad for a player facing tough competition regularly. In the past 16 games, however, Klefbom has contributed to just four Grade A chances and made mistakes on 29 against, -25 in that run. Ouch! But nothing a steady diet of softer competition can’t fix. When Sekera returns how about Klefbom and Benning on the third pairing? Sekera and Larasson can handle the tough competition, with Russell and Davidson on the second pairing. Make sense?
Matt Hendricks,⇑6. He’s battled his way back into the affections of the hockey mob. He’s a tough-checking hombre two out of three games, but could use a rest every third game. The will is there, but the wheels aren’t always.
Benoit Pouliot,⇓6. Meh. That said, Pouliot’s awfulness is over-stated. His underlying scoring chance numbers are OK, though they indicate he’s playing more of a perimeter game than last year. If he wants to win his way back into the Top 6, he’s got to play with more intensity, especially when it comes to handing out hard checks.
Drake Caggiula, ⇓1. In the last few games he’s started to flash more of his skill. He also plays with a bit of an edge. Most games, however, he’s struggled to hold his own, though if RNH, Draisaitl and McDavid are all on the top two lines, Caggiula may get an extended run here at 3C. Me, I’d like to see Lander and Jujhar Khaira also given another shot.
Jonas Gustavsson,⇑2. Coach doesn’t much trust Gamblin’ Gus. I suspect he’ll get another chance or two before the Oilers make the change to a different back-up.
INJURED: Tyler Pitlick, Darnell Nurse