The Edmonton Oilers are a flawed top-heavy powerhouse: Previewing the Pacific
Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
By Michael Liu1 year ago
A long offseason is drawing to an end with September nearly upon hockey fans. Players are arriving, training camp preparations are underway, and the start of the regular season ticks closer by the day.
As Canucks fans get ready in the lead-up to training camp, it’s an excellent time to look around the Pacific Division. Now that the mad rush of free agency is over and with just a couple of signings trickling on through, most teams are starting to have an idea of what their roster will look like for 2022-23.
As such, we’ll be taking a look at how the Canucks stack up against their in-division rivals, starting with the Edmonton Oilers.
What Edmonton does better
First things first: the best hockey player in the world cannot be stopped. You can only hope to contain him. Connor McDavid is a game-breaking talent that comes once in a generation and is almost unfair to match up against. The Canucks don’t have anyone that comes close to what McDavid brings to the game, and it’s an edge that the Oilers have regardless of the opponent. The speed, the offensive production, and the creativity that he has will be enough to be the engine of the team.
For possibly the first time in McDavid’s career though, there’s a good supporting cast in the top 6. A lot of attention should be paid to Leon Draisaitl, who finished 4th in league scoring last year, but it’s how they’ve been able to round out the wingers alongside them that matters more. Zach Hyman appears to have meshed well in Edmonton, setting a new career high in points while playing with the big guns. Evander Kane, for all his off-ice problems, made a very good addition for the Oilers in the playoffs. Kailer Yamamoto, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Jesse Puljujarvi can all slide into the top 6 core when called upon as well.
Having two top-5 players in the NHL along with viable top 6 forward options gives the Oilers the edge in comparison to the Canucks. Yes, Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser, J.T. Miller, Bo Horvat, and Conor Garland are good — but there’s not that massive game-breaking edge that McDavid and Draisaitl have, at least not yet. Especially if McDavid and Draisaitl are paired together, there’s little any team can do to counter that potent punch. The manner in which they elevate their teammates and open up the ice is something that someone like Pettersson has shown glimpses of, but is not quite yet a consistent feature in his game.
Another aspect the Oilers are a little better than the Canucks is in their team defence. Darnell Nurse emerged as a minute-munching two-way defenceman for Edmonton last year, really living up to his first-pairing billing as a defensively responsible defender. As well, the emergence of Cody Ceci in a reliable defensive role has allowed the Oilers to run a sturdy top-4 at the back, at least to start the season.
It also comes as a credit to assistant coach Dave Manson for implementing a structure that worked for the players he had on defence. It’s a well-organized, well-drilled unit that does its job without too much fuss. Reliability at the back is an aspect that has been a bit suspect for the Canucks the last couple of seasons, and though there are signs of improvement, it remains to be seen if they can deliver on that promise.
What Edmonton does worse
One of the biggest aspects that lets the Oilers down is their lack of depth. Thanks to McDavid and Draisaitl commanding a huge chunk of the payroll, and with Darnell Nurse’s $9.25 million deal kicking in this year, Edmonton is very much so capped out with little flexibility to maneuver. As such, their bottom-6 looks very rough.
Currently, they’re fielding players like Derek Ryan, Mattias Janmark, Warren Foegele, and Devin Shore to fill in the gaps. Yes, they could also bring up prospects like Dylan Holloway or put someone like sophomore Ryan Mcleod in elevated minutes, but there’s a good chance it would harm their development. While they might be alright to eat up some minutes, there’s a heavy undercurrent of underwhelming offensive capabilities while being average defensively at best.
This is where the Canucks forward corps outshines that of the Oilers. The top 9 as a whole unit is much more balanced in Vancouver, and with Nils Höglander and Vasily Podkolzin seemingly on the cusp of figuring it out at the NHL level, it could be at minimum three lines that can score for the Canucks. This isn’t even factoring in the impact of Andrey Kuzmenko, who could be a very good middle-6 option going forward.
It also wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the fourth line in Vancouver has the potential to be better than that of Edmonton. If Jason Dickinson can rediscover his Dallas form, if Curtis Lazar and Dakota Joshua can play up to their capabilities, it’s a fourth line that won’t be giving up any easy goals. It allows the Canucks to field better depth from top to bottom against a top-heavy Oilers team.
As well, the Oilers’ defence is a lot less mobile than the Canucks. Though Nurse and Tyson Barrie aren’t bad skaters or transitional players, it’s the other four where expectations are a little lower. For all his offensive instincts, Evan Bouchard’s skating has always been a bit suspect. That goes similarly for Philip Broberg, coupled with the fact that it would very likely be his first full-time NHL season.
The retirement of Duncan Keith does leave a deeper impact than at first glance. As a unit, there’s a good chance that breakouts and transitional play will be more difficult for that defensive group, where the only true veteran is probably someone like Nurse. It leaves a gap that isn’t fully bridged between defence and offence which could lead to some lapses or breakdowns.
This goes in contrast with Vancouver, which has one of the most dynamic, smooth skating defencemen in the league in the form of Quinn Hughes. Oliver Ekman-Larsson is a good mover of the puck himself, and if Jack Rathbone makes the roster he’ll add another good skating defender who can skate or pass the puck out of his own zone. Even someone like Tyler Myers is more mobile than a Cody Ceci.
Potentially the biggest superiority the Canucks have over the Oilers is between the pipes. Jack Campbell played the role of Jekyll and Hyde for the Toronto Maple Leafs and is still yet to cement himself as a truly reliable starter in the NHL. His brilliant play early in the season is tainted by a rough stretch in January and February which saw his save percentage plummet below .900.
Campbell was able to get away with it thanks to playing behind a very good Toronto team, but in Edmonton, he might not be able to get the same treatment. With an unproven Stuart Skinner as backup, Campbell will have to prove that he can be a full-time starter for a team with Cup ambitions.
Of course, Canucks fans are well familiar with the exploits of Thatcher Demko. The 26-year-old netminder has proven to be one of the best in the league, even if the attention isn’t always spared for him. Vancouver should count their lucky stars that Demko is between the pipes, often giving a chance for the team to win in front of him. That ability to make game-changing saves is something he has and Campbell does not.
What to make of it
Obviously, the Oilers were able to make the conference finals while the Canucks entirely missed the playoffs. There’s a good chance that this remains the status quo. However, Edmonton is a very top-heavy team that has some serious flaws in its roster construction. If one card falls, the entire house could come tumbling down.
Flawed roster construction is something that Vancouver fans are very familiar with. But, optimistically, there’s a measure of depth dispersed throughout the entire lineup that Edmonton simply cannot afford to have. There’s a lot that is up in the air and will become more readily apparent as the season begins, but development remains key for the Canucks to really strike at the Oilers.
It’ll also be interesting to see how these teams match up. Edmonton was able to reach the conference finals largely by outscoring all their flaws. The question is now will they be able to keep doing so? If they can’t, then the unbalanced nature of the team becomes all that more apparent.
Vancouver shouldn’t be intimidated by McDavid or Draisaitl. Treat them with the respect that they deserve on ice, but this Oilers team is top-heavy, and certainly beatable. Clashes between these two teams in the regular season should be very entertaining affairs.
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