As the NHL All Star Break arrives the Edmonton Oilers force their critics to admit that this club is a contender: 9 Things

The Edmonton Oilers enter the NHL All Star break 2nd in the Pacific Division, a single point back of the Vancouver Canucks.

I was in Rogers Arena as the Canucks passed the Oilers Saturday night. Edmonton owned top spot for only a few hours.

But as we enter the bye week and NHL All Star break, it is difficult to argue that any one club has a leg up on a post-season birth. It’s that tight.

And for fans of a club that has missed 13 out of the last 14 years, that’s something to savor.

9 Things

9. I grew up in the village of Dinsmore, Saskatchewan. Great town. Just a few hundred people live there. Among many other things it is the hometown of the Leavins boys. 4 generations of us have played our minor hockey there. Dinsmore is in the running for the 2020 Kraft Hockeyville. Read about their effort here. Please consider supporting them.

8. I’ve long believed that if you haven’t seen a team play live in person then you probably haven’t really seen them. I learned that from watching baseball alongside legendary sportswriter Milt Dunnell. He showed me how there were subtle aspects to the games that you miss inside of a small screen. In Vancouver Saturday I saw a Canucks club that is deeper that people give them credit for. They’re quick, all over the ice. And they’re getting better all the time. Not a top tier team but a legit playoff contender.

7. San Jose, on the other hand, looked S.L.O.W. I was among those surprised to see them struggle so in the first half. But having seen them in person from just a few rows back, now I understand it much better. Joe Thornton is still a smart player and a fierce competitor but he’s skating in quicksand. Patrick Marleau could not come close to keeping up to the Canucks’ pace. And Erik Karlsson (unless he’s hurt again) looks done. He played the entire game in one gear. That contract looks like a boat anchor.

6. The Oilers franchise has not always enjoyed immunity in how it is perceived to have handled injured players. Some of that suspicion was born out of the Sheldon Souray saga in 2010 during which the player suffered an infection in his hand. Subsequently, hard feelings developed between he and the club. Fast-forward to today, where the organization is clearly being wisely cautious with the return of Matt Benning from successive concussions. Interesting contrast.

5. Connor McDavid’s first goal on Saturday drew him into a 9th place tie with Shawn Horcoff for points all-time in the NHL history of the franchise with 447. With his 2nd goal he passed the former Oilers Captain. McDavid is on pace for 126 points this year. If he hits that mark he will also pass 8th place Ales Hemsky (477). Then Doug Weight is 7th at 577. At 498, McDavid would then be almost half-way to Mark Messier’s 1,034 (3rd) in 5 seasons. Wayne Gretzky is 1st at 1,669. That’s probably at least 10 more healthy Connor McDavid seasons away.

4. I’m still angry over the interference call on Connor McDavid versus Arizona Saturday afternoon. And I’m sitting in my Vancouver hotel room on Sunday morning. I should have cooled off by now. McDavid was penalized for 1) thinking (correctly) that he had every right to the ice that he was occupying and 2) being solid on his skates. I know the call ultimately had little bearing on the game. But after the forest of sticks that McDavid has had to skate through this season without drawing a power play on most them? A call like that was plain insulting. An Amateur Night call by NHL referee and former WHL grinder Chris Schlenker. He can and should be be better.

3. It is my belief that the Oilers see their blue-line situation as a long-term, internal solution. If they were to add at the deadline this season, I believe that it would be a Top-6 forward. And while some people think the club’s primary need is a 3C (fair enough) that kind of player is also much rarer and as a result more expensive than a Top-6 winger. Now, if the winger you can acquire is good enough then you could consider dropping Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to 3C. While it’s exciting to be a buyer. That hasn’t happened much in recent Oilers history. But I’d suggest you set your sights modestly this season. I can’t see Ken Holland moving either an elite prospect or a #1 for deadline day help. And you get what you pay for.

2. One of the reasons the NHL has evolved away from its rough & tough former self is common sense: Players were getting needlessly injured. I can get behind that. But it is also because it’s commission, Gary Bettman, cut his teeth in professional sport as the Sr. VP and General Counsel to the National Basketball Association. In a conversation I had with Bettman back in 1994 he admitted that the broad-based appeal of that league was a good example for the National Hockey League to follow. The less-violent basketball has broader appeal across North America and Bettman saw that as an opportunity to grow the game. To his credit, it has. But that evolution has also altered the game from its roots as a more physical contest. We see that in how the Department of Player Safety doles out punishment today. And until ratings and revenue regress you’ll see more of it and not less.

1.I will not be disappointed if the new contract for Oilers winger Zack Kassian ends up somewhere between $3.5m/4 years and $3.75/3 years. So…a little less for more term, a little more dough for les term. I believe it’s even possible the deal could be 5 years for a shade less still. I see this range as a reasonable payday and term for his player type. For one thing, in today’s NHL tough guys absolutely need to be able to play. So…

Here is a list of the top 10 scoring NHL forwards in 2019-20 (as of Friday, January 17th, 2020) who also have 50 or more penalty minutes. Their AVV’s are at the right. No, penalty minutes are not the be-all and end-all of in the measurement of toughness. But it provides some interesting context:

Evander Kane: 95 (35), $7.0m

Nazem Kadri: 87 (28), $4.5m

Tom Wilson 62 (39), $5.2m

Zack Kassian: 64 (28), ?

Barclay Goodrow: 63 (20), $925k

Chris Krieder: 58 (31), $4.6m

Wayne Simmonds: 54 (19), $5m

Brad Marchand: 51 (64), $6.1m

*Brady Tkachuk: 53 (25), $925k

Nick Foligno: 50 (19), $5.5m

*Still on his ELC.

You can see what the initial ask from Kassian’s agent might have been $4m. Now I would exclude Tkachuk (a much more honest competitor than his big brother if you ask me) due to him still being on his ELC. I’m a fan of the kid and he’s going to get paid. The salary above is indicative of nothing. I would have suggested that Barclay Goodrow is the outlier on this list. Although I was just a few feet away from him when he scored yet another greasy goal Saturday night.

In the end I think the real difference maker when it comes to what Zack Kassian is really worth comes down to his ability to skate at a well above average NHL level. But what can he do that a lot of other comparably good skaters can’t do as well?

Make room for elite-level line-mates while scoring. Kassian is a multi-tool player. Not a perfect player, I agree.

But he sure checks a lot of boxes.

Find me on Twitter @KurtLeavins

Cult of Hockey David Staples

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