Dave Tippett scrambles to find answers as Edmonton Oilers’ top players struggle through dry spell

Game Day 33: Hurricanes at Oilers

It was just two short weeks ago that Edmonton Oilers reached the highest point of what remains a promising 2019-20 season. In the midst of a 5-game road trip the club rolled to a convincing 4-2 win at Vegas, then hung tough to produce a 4-3 shootout win at Arizona just 22 hours later.

But storm clouds were on the horizon. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins missed the second of those contestss with a hand issue that would sideline him for six games. Then Zack Kassian had a back injury that would cost him three of those same games. Edmonton’s forward corps, already dangerously thin in top six-calibre players, suffered a double blow. The club would fall into a six-game slide in which they were extremely fortunate to garner 5 standings points with a 2-3-1 record.

Thank a red-hot powerplay for all of those points, as the Oilers were outscored at 5v5 in all six of those games. But 2 powerplay goals turned a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 win at Vancouver, 2 more PPG provided all the offence in a 2-1 nailbiter vs. Los Angeles, and a rare powerplay goal from the second unit produced the tying tally in an overtime loss against the Sabres.

Overall, a special team that has actually been special produced 6 of Edmonton’s 12 goals over that span. But at even strength the Oilers have been absolutely torched, with just 6 goals for, 17 against. Add in a shorty and 2 powerplay goals against and the net margin over the 6 games has been 12 goals for, 20 against, despite an overall +3 margin on special teams. Make it -11 at even strength, built convincingly on a shots rate of just 41%, a team shooting percentage barely above 5% and a save percentage below 90%. On a per-60 basis at evens the Oilers have scored 1.2 goals while allowing 3.5. Ugly, ugly numbers, all the way around.

Four of those games have been at home, against teams that finished 23rd, 31st, 30th, and 27th in the NHL last season — not exactly Murderers’ Row.  The Oilers scored just 2 goals in each of those games, all against teams which have allowed well north of 3 per game in both last season and this.  8 for, 14 against.

The good news is that it’s “only” six games, and as mentioned the club has scraped out a few points against the flow of play. The bad? Edmonton’s top workhorses have collectively hit a Drai patch:

  • Leon Draisaitl has been a minus player in the last 7 consecutive games, and has been a net -12 over the past 11. No empty net goals in there either, in fact there have been no ENG for or against for the last 15 contests, many of which have been one-sided affairs. Over the past 6 Draisaitl has 5 points, but just 1 even strength while being on the ice for 2 Oilers goals and 9 by the opposition, with Draisaitl himself among the defensive culprits on 5 of those goals against by our analysis here at the Cult of Hockey.
  • Connor McDavid has posted just 1-4-5 over the 6 games with a dash-4 of his own. McDavid has been a net -9 in his last 10 home games (3 wins) after posting a +9 in his first 5 (all wins).
  • James Neal has been goalless for his last … wait for it … 6 games, his longest drought of the season and also sports a dash-4 over that span. After an 11 goal October, Neal has struck for just 3 goals in 16 games since, with an ugly -12.
  • Oscar Klefbom may be the most concerning of the lot. The NHL’s top minute-muncher until recent days, Klefbom has posted just 1 (powerplay) point and a ghastly -12 over the last 6 games. Minus. Twelve. According to Natural Stat Trick the Oilers have been outshot just 56-51 during his 102 even-strength minutes (47%), but scoring chances tell a different tale at 32 for, 56 against (36%) and high-danger chances a dismal +10/-24 (29%). Our own project tagged Klefbom as a defensive culprit on 7 goals against over that period. Whether partnered with Caleb Jones, Adam Larsson, or Joel Persson, Klef has struggled.

Then there’s the situation in net, where at least some clarity is being achieved. With virtually 40% of the season played, Dave Tippett has evenly split the starting assignments with each of his veteran ‘tenders getting 16 starts. But Mike Smith has fallen on hard times, posting a save percentage above .870 just twice in his last 8 appearances. Not surprisingly the Oilers won those two games, lost all the others. Overall Smith has been running at just .865 over those 8 games — that’s Jonas Gustavsson territory.

Over that same span Mikko Koskinen has posted a net .923 in 10 appearances, posting a 6-2-1 mark. There’s now some significant separation between the performance levels of the two. On the season Koskinen has a Goals Saved Above Average of +6.09, Smith -2.72. That’s a 9-goal difference, basically half a goal per appearance attributed to netminding alone. That’s huge.

Amidst all these down-arrows, Tippett must find some answers, starting tonight as the Oilers close out a disappointing home stand vs. Carolina Hurricanes.

Tonight’s line-up

Significant changes up front, where the go-to line of Draisaitl-McDavid-Kassian was reunited on Sunday only to struggle mightily with a combined 10 giveaways exacerbated by some lax defensive coverage. Previously split up by necessity due to the absence of RNH, tonight the deadly duo will line up separately by coach’s choice. Fresh off a 1-goal-1-assist performance vs. the Sabres, Joakim Nygard gets the push to the McDavid line, with Kassian keeping his spot on the right flank. For his part Draisaitl will line up at right wing for the first time all season, alongside Nugent-Hopkins at pivot with Jujhar Khaira on the port side. Neal finds himself on Line Three with Haas and Patrick Russell, while the fourth line of Granlund-Sheahan-Archibald remains intact. Alex Chiasson, scorer of the Oilers’ most recent game-winning goal, finds himself in the press box alongside Sam Gagner.

On the back end Caleb Jones returns from Bakersfield and slides into the third pairing alongside Kris Russell. Klefbom plays musical partners again, with his long-time mate Adam Larsson slated to line up to his right. Klefbom was recently dinged up on one of his NHL-leading 102 blocked shots, so look for Russell to slide in beside Larsson on the first penalty-killing unit with the regular pairing of Darnell Nurse-Ethan Bear working the second unit. Worth noting that Klefbom has posted his two lowest TOi totals of the season the last two games after getting drilled during the Ottawa game.

Mikko Koskinen returns to the starter’s net for the fourth time in five games, and may finally be on the verge of establishing himself as the team’s #1 stopper in the only place that matters, the mind of his coach. In the minds of many other observers, it’s a decision that is well past due. But as Rod Phillips used to say — frequently — “time will tell”.

For their part the Hurricanes are a tough out with an 18-11-1 record. 19-year-old Andrei Svechnikov has emerged as the club’s leading scorer to this point, ably assisted by Finnish hotshots Teuvo Teravainen and Sebastian Aho and a deep forward group. A crackerjack top pairing of Jaccob Slavin with Dougie Hamilton leads the defence. Tonight veteran netminder James Reimer is expected to get the start.

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