The boys of summer are here!
Okay, I’ve got the wrong sport; but we’ve got summer hockey on the horizon!! The NHL’s return is drawing near. Training camp got started on Monday, in advance of a play-in series against the Chicago Blackhawks that will begin on August 1st.
We’ve got 3 weeks of daily line-up updates and constant debate about roster decisions to look forward to right now! You’re going to get a ton of line-up talk from other blogs and from Twitter users during this 3-week training camp, so I’m going to take a different angle here. I’m going to tackle 5 big questions about the Oilers coming into the playoffs for this piece.
1. Is there a chance that we have the next Cale Makar on our roster?
Sam Girard got hurt in game 2 of Colorado’s first round series against the Flames last year. That created an opening for the freshly signed Hobey Baker award winner Cale Makar on the Avs roster. He took the opportunity and ran with it! He scored in his first game, and he had an impressive rookie season up until the pause.
There is no Oiler in quite the same situation as Makar was in last year, but Evan Bouchard is the one Oilers prospect that could steal the show like Makar did.
Bouchard had a solid first season in Bakersfield where he posted 36 points in 54 games, but he really turned up the heat offensively at the end of the season. He had 13 points in his last 15 games! That’s obviously the AHL, but that production is certainly encouraging. Coach Woodcroft was pleased with Bouchard’s progress defensively throughout the season as well according to the few interviews I listened to on Oilers Now during the season.
If there’s any prospect in the Oilers system that could potentially surprise a few folks in these playoffs, it’s Bouchard.
2. How much of an impact will Oilers prospects have in these playoffs?
Makar only got in last year because of an injury. In all honesty, that’s what it will take for any Oilers prospect to get onto the playoff roster for any games this summer.
Bouchard has played NHL games before, but he’s got Larsson, Bear, and Benning ahead of him on the depth chart. Coach Tippett could also play Russell or Jones on the right side before giving Bouchard a chance. Mike Green opting out of the playoffs helped Bouchard’s odds, but his odds are still low.
Tyler Benson got a look in the NHL this season, but he was not all that effective in limited ice time. He might be ready by the time the 2020-21 season starts, but there is too much depth at the wing for him to overtake right now.
Bouchard and Benson are the two prospects with the best chances of seeing ice time this summer. If any of William Lagesson, Cooper Marody, or Ryan McLeod get to pay in NHL playoff games this summer, the Oilers will have had a horrific rash of injuries. Philip Broberg, Olivier Rodrigue, Stuart Skinner, and Dylan Wells are simply at camp for the experience.
The safe assumption is that Oilers prospects are not going to have an impact in these playoffs. The playoffs are about putting your best foot forward, and that means playing the guys that are the most trusted and that have the most experience in most situations. I don’t see Tippett swaying from that theory unless he has no choice.
3. Who could emerge as a star for the Oilers in these playoffs?
I’ll give an honourable mention to Ethan Bear here because he could be an impactful player for the Oilers, but he had his breakout before the pause.
My choice for potential breakout star here is Kailer Yamamoto.
Yamamoto was a part of the top line in the league from January 1 onwards with Draisaitl and Nugent-Hopkins. He was almost a point per game player with the Oilers this season with 26 points in 27 games. I think that Yamamoto’s game is perfectly suited for the playoffs. He’s going to be the smallest guy on the ice, but that doesn’t stop him from getting in on the forecheck and creating turnovers. He’s got enough creativity to play with skilled players, and he has gained the poise and confidence needed to score ta the NHL level. Tippett broke up that effective line for day 1 of camp, but Yamamoto still found himself on the reigning Art Ross Trophy winner’s right wing. He will get an opportunity with Draisaitl for sure. He will be in a position to thrive, and I think that he will do exactly that in the playoffs.
4. Do the Oilers have enough depth offence to support Connor and Leon?
Ken Holland went shopping at the trade deadline. He traded two 2nd round picks and Sam Gagner for Andreas Athanasiou, and he got Tyler Ennis from Ottawa for pennies on the dollar. Athanasiou only got 2 points in 9 games with the Oilers and he frankly did not look good on many occasions in those games. Ennis was more productive with 4 points in those same 9 games.
Holland was shopping at the deadline because the support just wasn’t there for most of the season. The Oilers scored 223 goals in the regular season. Draisaitl had 110 points, and McDavid had 97. You can see that if those two didn’t produce, then the Oilers didn’t win hockey games.
Yes, Nugent-Hopkins had a great season and Yamamoto has started to emerge, but there is still something left to be desired. Kassian was having a career year, but that was still just above a 0.5 points per game pace. Neal had a hot start, but he was not effective for the majority of the season.
That’s really it. Those are the guys that we expect to produce. No matter how the Oilers have configured their lines, they have had one awesome line, an average line, and two fourth lines when it comes to offensive production.
Sheahan and Archibald play a defensive role and they do it well. They can get hot for stretches, but they are not counted on to produce offence. I’m not expecting offence from any of Chiasson, Khaira, Nygard, Haas, or P. Russell. I’m not expecting much out of Neal. I’m hoping that playoff Kassian comes back in full force, especially since the mutton chops are back; but I’m not holding my breath expecting him to continue putting up career numbers in these playoffs.
I think that aside from McDavid, Draisaitl, Nugent-Hopkins, and possibly Yamamoto if he is able to pick up where he left off before the pause, the other forwards that the Oilers are going to count on for offence are basically interchangeable because the results are close to the same no matter who Tippett puts with the skill guys or who he has lower in the line-up. That tells me that the depth offence that they need just isn’t there.
It’s going to be up to Connor and Leon for the most part in my estimation, which leads me to my last question…
5. How dominant can McDavid and Draisaitl be in these playoffs?
The Art Ross Trophy has been in Edmonton for 3 of the last 4 seasons thanks to McDavid and Draisaitl. McDavid won it in 2017 and 2018, and he was the runner-up to Nikita Kucherov last year. Draisaitl won it this year, and he was quietly 4th in league scoring last season. Oh yeah, McDavid was 2nd in the league to Draisaitl this year. The Oilers have had 2 players in the top 4 in league scoring in each of the last two seasons. That is crazy!
Teams are going to have to pick their poison against the Oilers.
Looking back at the 2017 playoffs, McDavid was surprisingly not all that dominant. He had 9 points in 13 games. That in itself is not bad, but it is a far cry from his typical standard. That was his first taste of NHL playoff hockey and it was only his 2nd season. McDavid was definitely the guy that captured the attention of San Jose and Anaheim that year.
Meanwhile, Draisaitl decided to step up. He put up 16 points in 13 games, which he had not proven he could do in the regular season yet let alone in the playoffs. He was particularly good against Anaheim where he was matched up against the Getzlaf line. He definitely won that matchup!
It will be VERY interesting to see how Chicago decides to handle that challenge now that Draisaitl has proven to be just as big of a threat as McDavid on any given night. Do they take away Draisaitl and allow the best player on the planet to have an easier matchup, or do they take away McDavid and allow the reigning Art Ross Trophy winner to have the easier matchup? It’s a pickle.
My prediction is that the Blackhawks will key in on McDavid because his speed can kill and he is still the best player on the planet. Therefore, Draisaitl will outscore McDavid in the playoffs.
That being said, nobody in the league has proven that they can shut down the dynamic Oilers duo. They will be dominant, but that won’t necessarily guarantee that the Oilers will go far or even advance past the Blackhawks.
This is not a normal training camp where we don’t know who will be on the roster and guys are fighting for spots. Instead of focusing on the team and what’s going on at camp over the next 3 weeks, I’ll be taking a closer look at the matchup between the Oilers and the Blackhawks and at what could lie beyond the play-in round if the Oilers were to advance. Stay tuned for all of that in the coming weeks!