Connor McDavid, Derek Ryan, Tyson Barrie all to COVID protocol as struggling Oilers close out road trip

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Game Day 34: Edmonton at Toronto

Bad just got worse for Edmonton Oilers in a big way, with confirmation that  Connor McDavid and two other regulars have formally been placed under COVID protocol.

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The status of McDavid and Derek Ryan was under question yesterday wwhen both were reported to have positive tests. Add the name of Tyson Barrie this morning, leaving the Oilers woefully short-staffed as they close out a dismal 5-game road trip in Toronto.

Some good news for Edmonton as Mike Smith and Zack Kassian will make their returns. Smith has been sidelined the last two games with a minor injury, while Kassian has missed the entire road trip after himself being under COVID protocol.

Perhaps the better news, however, is that after tonight the Oilers are scheduled to play just 1 game in the next 12 days after a slew of postponements due to attendance restrictions on games held in Canada.

In the immediate short term, tonight’s challenge is nothing short of immense. The Oilers were always going to be in tough against a powerful Toronto Maple Leafs squad that is riding high with a 21-8-2 record, including 19-4-1 in their last 24 games after a slow start. The Leafs have confirmed that star forward Ausatoin Matthews will be in the line-up tonight after himself having failed a COVID test earlier in the week and missed a couple of practices. But he has since gotten two negative tests and has declared himself fit to play.

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No such luck for the Oilers and their own top star, as McDavid will miss his first game since the 2019-20 campaign. For the goal-starved Oil, losing the NHL’s leading scorer for any length of time is a major blow.

With Ryan also placed under protocol and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins back in Edmonton recuperating from an undisclosed injury suffered in New Jersey on New Year’s Eve, the Oilers are particularly challenged down the middle of the ice. The choices at centre for tonight will likely be Leon Draisaitl , Ryan McLeod , Devin Shore and Colton Sceviour , with the latter two both having played wing on Ryan’s line in recent games but with some prior history at the pivot position.

Expect Brendan Perlini to draw in along with Kassian to fill in the wide open spaces on the flanks.

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But make no mistake, the face of Edmonton’s attack tonight will be Leon Draisaitl , currently second behind only McDavid in league scoring even as he has endured something of a down time these last weeks. Draisaitl rose to the occasion in a major way when McDavid missed time in 2019-20, scoring 12 points in 6 games and leading the Oilers to a respectable 3-2-1 record during #97’s absence. That run of games went a long way toward earning Draisaitl the Hart Trophy.

On the back end, the durable Barrie will miss his first game since joining the Oilers before last season. William Lagesson will surely dress and likely line up with Slater Koekkoek on the third pairing, with one of them sliding over to the right side.

Meanwhile Edmonton’s once-legendary, now-hypothetical powerplay is missing three-fifths of its regulars in McDavid, RNH and Barrie. Of course “regular” is an oxymoron for a unit that got ONE full 2-minute opportunity in THREE games in metropolitan New York — and that one called by a linesman, not a referee. Fair to say the Oilers haven’t been doing enough to draw many calls, but the powerplay differential of 4 for, 13 against on the road trip is problematic. Bottom line, they were outscored 1-0 on special teams in each of those four games, and in two of them that proved to be the difference.

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Most likely that Darnell Nurse will get promoted to the first unit, though given the absences up front it’s possible that the Oilers will go with both Nurse and  Evan Bouchard on the points. The other option is to use all of Jesse Puljujarvi, Zack Hyman and Kailer Yamamoto and one point man with Draisaitl.

A key man for the Oilers tonight will be Smith, making his third start on the road trip after missing ten weeks to a lower body injury. Early returns were not good, with the  club allowing 10 goals in his first two games. Sloppy defensive play was a big part of that, mind, but Smith’s own play was far off the fine form he showed for most of the 2021 season.

The Oilers will certainly welcome the veteran’s puck-handling acumen, especially after last game when early mistakes by Mikko Koskinen beyond the blue paint left the team in a spot of bother. Koskinen was called out by Dave Tippett after the game, with the netminder later firing back in the Finnish press about the lack of goal support he has endured during his current 6-game losing streak. Fact is the team scored 1 goal in 5 of those games, all regulation losses, and 2 in the other, which proved enough to at least reach overtime. But it’s also true that Koskinen allowed 3+ goals in every one of those contests. The laconic Finn admitted “I have to be better”

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Tippett is surely feeling the heat himself, no doubt an underlying reason why he was willing to project some of it elsewhere. But the head coach is winless in his last 9 games behind the bench dating back 5 weeks. The club has posted an 0-7-2 mark in those games with 18 goals for, 36 against, which works out to exactly 2 for, 4 against per contest. Neither figure is good enough. The Oilers gave up the first goal in all 9 games, and the second goal in 6 of them.

Overall, Edmonton is 2-8-2 over that same span, with both wins and one loss (to tonight’s opponent, Toronto) coming while Tippett was himself on the COVID list.

Tonight’s (projected) line-up

The make-up of the forward lines are anyone’s guess at this point in time. Here’s my best guess:

Game time is 5pm MST on Sportsnet West.

Recently at the Cult of Hockey

STAPLES: Shots fired! Koskinen speaks up

STAPLES: McDavid misses practice with “COVID-related” issue

McCURDY: Player grades from desultory loss to Rangers

STAPLES: Short of firing Tippett, how can Oilers turn things around?

LEAVINS: Some context for Oilers’ slide — 9 Things

McCURDY: Player grades from OT loss to Islanders

Follow me on Twitter @BruceMcCurdy

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