In one more home game before we all tuck off to gorge ourselves on festive fowl et al, the Edmonton Oilers (9-10-1, 6th Pacific) are in town to give thanks to our San Jose Sharks (11-7-3, 2nd Pacific). This may come as a shock to those of you who have been following the NHL for the past few decades, but the Oilers are struggling. Losers of six of their last seven games, Edmonton has experienced a free fall down the division standings, after an early run caused no shortage of misplaced optimism.
Connor McDavid is very good. There is no overstating the impact the 2015 first overall pick has on the ice and, at 21 years old, it is already clear that he will be one of the best players ever to play this silly game we all love for some reason. Unfortunately for Edmonton, this is not LeBron James; it takes more than one player to win in this game, and they may just have the one. With McDavid on the ice, the Oilers control play, holding a 52.39 percent share of shot attempts at 5-on-5. Without him, that number craters to 48.89 percent. There is talent on this roster behind McDavid, just not nearly enough of it.
Edmonton’s struggle to find scoring depth on the wing has been well documented, ever since the ill-advised trades of Jordan Eberle and Hart trophy winner Taylor Hall decimated their forward corps in favor of Ryan Strome and middling defenseman Adam Larsson. Still, recently, general manager and The Art of the Deal fanatic (probably) Peter Chiarelli seems busy making calls, sending the aforementioned Strome to the New York Rangers in a one for one swap for Ryan Spooner. These kinds of moves, combined with the decision to demote to the AHL first rounders Jesse Puljujarvi and Kailer Yamamoto, have left the Oilers with little to no scoring depth, a problem only exacerbated by head coach Todd McLellan’s insistence on playing Leon Draisaitl on the wing, depriving the team of center depth, as well.
It’s clear to anyone who has been watching the Oilers struggle for the better part of the past 20 years that Chiarelli has set the process of this team back by years, if not decades. The egregious trades of Hall, Eberle, Justin Schultz, the first round pick that the New York Islanders used to draft Mathew Barzal; the indefensible high cap high term signings of Milan Lucic, and Kris Russell; and the abject refusal to do anything of substance in the most recent off-season after yet another year of disappointment should have been more than enough for team owner Darryl Katz to move on from Chiarelli to a more competent GM, like say, any breathing human.
Despite all that, it seems that the hottest seat in the Oilers organization is the one under McLellan. Especially with the Chicago Blackhawks’ recent firing of head coach Joel Quenneville, there has to have been some talk in Edmonton’s front office of moving on from the former Sharks bench boss to greener, more mustached pastures. Quenneville has a recent history of getting reasonable success out of a depth starved and star heavy Blackhawks lineup, and maybe we’d see at least one of McDavid’s prime years go un-wasted.
Most recently, Edmonton dropped a 6-3 decision to the Vegas Golden Knights at home on Sunday. The contest highlighted what has been another inconsistency in the Oilers lineup, and indeed in the NHL at large: goaltending. Starter (?) Cam Talbot allowed all six goals on 31 shots in the loss, three of which came in a 2:14 span of the second period. Talbot’s unsteady play, his .914 save percentage at 5-on-5, and his 5-8-1 record, may have already given way to back up goalie and KHL import Mikko Koskinen, complete with a .929, and a 4-2-0 in those same categories.
The Sharks, on the other hand, are riding high, after a 2-1-0 week ended with a 4-0 shellacking of the St. Louis Blues at home. Aaron Dell stopped 30 Blues shots for the fourth shut out of his career in his first start since a symmetrical 4-0 loss in St. Louis, Joe Pavelski scored two goals to help secure the NHL’s third star of the week honors, Erik Karlsson scored his first goal as a Shark, and all was right with the world.
In a bizarre twist of fate, considering the manner in which Edmonton dropped their second period on Sunday, the Sharks scored three goals in 4:11 during the middle frame on Saturday, and held on to win, despite allowing 11 shots in the third while only managing two of their own. A conspicuous absence that night, Tomas Hertl participated in full practice Monday morning, and expects to be ready tonight.
The last time these two teams met was a thrilling 4-3 overtime win in Edmonton on March 14. Hertl scored two goals, including the overtime winner, Logan Couture potted a goal and two assists and Mikkel Boedker recorded two assists. Much has changed and much remains the same for both clubs since that meeting, but we should expect a similarly offensive affair tonight.
Can the Sharks continue to outscore their defensive problems?
Despite their disparities in the standings, these two teams are similar in many ways. The Sharks have allowed four or more goals in four of their last six games, the Oilers in six of their last seven. The difference seems to be that San Jose can outscore that problem more often than Edmonton can. If both teams start their “starters,” which seems a little unlikely, admittedly, we could be in for a pretty wild spectacle.
Can Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun contain McDavid and Draisaitl?
With Draisaitl’s elevation to McDavid’s wing a few weeks ago, the Oilers have gone from a one man team to a one line team. While Edmonton’s depth is a serious cause for concern as outlined above, these two players together are terrifying. McDavid’s 28 points in 20 games are third in the league, and Draisaitl’s two points against Vegas on Sunday propelled him to a six-point, three-game streak, and eight goals and 15 points in his last 12. As San Jose’s premier shut down pairing, Vlasic and Braun will have their hands full.
What’s a “starting goaltender”?
Both of these teams have had at least some part of their season defined by struggling starting netminders. In a dismal Pacific division, though, it’s anyone’s guess who will occupy the top three spots come April. Until then, the Sharks and Oilers both seem content to trade starts between hot hands and drift towards a platoon situation and, as a result, it’s anyone’s guess who will start in the creases tonight. Koskinen and Martin Jones seems the surest bet, but at this point in the season, it seems like Dell gives the Sharks their best chance of success.
Bold prediction: The Sharks bury the Oilers, 7-3, Karlsson records five points, McDavid three. McLellan and Jay Woodcroft are fired before post-game pressers.