All systems appear go for Connor McDavid as Edmonton Oilers approach Heritage Classic at critical time: 9 Things

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The Edmonton Oilers are in a world of hurt.

Off to an unfathomably poor start and with their best player temporarily on the sidelines, the view heading into what should have been a celebratory Heritage Classic Battle of Alberta was decidedly bleak just a day ago. But sometimes, all it takes for a good team (and this IS a good team, playing poorly) to get back on track is one little tweak, something to reverse the momentum. Perhaps Sunday’s outdoor BOA can be just that. And so, with Connor McDavid a full participant in practice Saturday evening at Commonwealth Stadium the Captain certainly seems poised to re-enter the chat. Jay Woodcroft: “We’ll see, but he looked pretty good to me”. And McDavid’s own quote on Hockey Night In Canada: “Everything is heading in the right direction”.

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Oilers fans can only hope that applies to all 20 guys. How did we get here? And what will it take for the Oilers to dig their way out, beyond the quick-healing McDavid?

That and more in this edition of…

9 Things

9. Want to start off with some good news? The Bakersfield Condors are off to a 3-1 start. The Oilers AHL club, playing more or less the same systems as the big club, has only allowed 7 goals in 4 games entering play Saturday evening.

8. I liked a lot of the things that Klim Kostin brought to the Oilers. I understood the financial reasons for not being able to bring him back. However, what they did not replace was Kostin’s enthusiasm, edge, and swagger. We have only seen brief flashes of that from the rest of the lineup.

7. Sam Gagner has debuted with the Bakersfield Condors after an extended PTO in Edmonton while his work visa details were being ironed out. He has 3 assists in two games. A couple people in the rink for those games tell me that Sam “looks too good for the AHL”. That is not a guarantee that Sam is a lock to be back with the Oilers. I only take it to mean that his recovery from double hip surgery is complete and successful. Step #1.

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6. I have some compassion for the situation Adam Erne is in. In an 11-7 lineup those 10th and 11th guys do not play much on most nights. That means they have the be “good on demand” when they come in cold, relative to the rest of the bench. Most any player who has performed at that level and they will tell you it is tough, akin to the pinch-hitter in baseball. No, I do not think Erne is the perfect fit for this roster. But do not underestimate how tough that role can be.

5. From the black hole that has been the Oilers Defence so far this season, about the only glimmer of light so far has been the return to consistency of Cody Ceci. A lot of people were prepared to write Ceci off after last season. But how quickly we forget that this player was very good for the club the year previous and then played much of this past year hurt. Now 100% healthy again, Ceci has returned to what he was. It would be difficult to replace what Ceci is bringing at his current $3.25m price point.

4. A little bit of what ails the Edmonton Oilers right now is due to circumstance and pure bad luck. Two veteran D-men who this club was really counting on this season missed most of training camp with injuries. And I think that we can assume that neither Mattias Ekholm nor Brett Kulak have started off the season at 100%. And both of these guys were slated to help shepherd much younger players on their opposite flanks. For those who scoff at the value of training camp and moan about the length of the pre-season: Exhibit “A” on its value.

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3. I (mostly) see what you see when it comes to Evan Bouchard. 100%, Evan needs to defend better and generally play with more awareness and intensity. Right now, Bouchard is not defending nearly as well as the guy whose slot in the lineup he is effectively now filling, the traded Tyson Barrie. But let’s recognize that we have a blue-chip offensive talent in Bouchard. He possesses tremendous abilities to move the puck, walk the blueline, read the offensive zone and to shoot the puck at an elite level. The things he normally does really well are actually among the hardest things to do, the most difficult things to teach, and the most expensive to acquire. He needs to clean up his own end. But he’ll never be Rod Langway. You shouldn’t expect that. But along the way, let’s not do to this kid what we did to Justin Schultz. Remember, Schultz turned into a Cup winner after being chased out of town here.

2. There is a lot of noise out there Connor Brown. Specifically, I see calls for him to be optioned to the AHL before his games-played bonus structure kicks in. That is an incredibly short-sighted approach. Remember: The guy is coming back from missing almost an entire season due to a major injury. If you expected Brown to just hit the ground running, then I would suggest the problem is with your expectations and not just the player. I have been watching Brown carefully. His health, conditioning, and speed look just fine. And his defensive game appears sound. Do not underestimate how costly missing actual NHL time is unless you are an elite-level player. I think Brown just needs reps and that there is a very good chance that he will turn into his former self. If the organization lacks patience and Brown gets claimed, then you have wasted a contract structured perfectly for this season’s cap crunch. Do you really think there is a better $775k player out there just looking for a job? And while I get the $3.25m bonus affects next year’s cap, do we not all agree it’s “win now”?

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1.So…what’s wrong with these guys?

It is the multi-million-dollar question, right? How did this team, one picked by many smart hockey people to be not just a playoff contender but a Stanley Cup contender, stumble so epically out of the gate?

Let’s pick a few things and consider if they may be a part or even much of the problem…

-We can start with the team’s .864 save percentage. The goaltending needs to be better, yes. But I am not sure we can get a real, honest read on Jack Campbell and Stuart Skinner until the skaters figure a few things things out in front of them.

-I think there are areas on the Oilers roster where I think Ken Holland can be fairly questioned. Does a real Stanley Cup contender enter into the regular season without a real 4th line Center? I see that as an indictable offence.

-Was it the right thing to bring back both Derek Ryan and Mattias Janmark? And was the Sam Gagner move more of the same? All three good pros. But maybe you need is one or two of those guys? Give yourself more options and dimensions.

-How can a relatively fast team look so slow? I can appreciate the intent behind a better defensive system, but I see a lot of these players thinking their way through games. The best players survive and thrive on instinct. Maybe they just need to go out there and play.

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-Does the incessant blendering of lines unnecessarily screw with the player’s flow? I believe that Jay Woodcroft is a super-smart guy. But I do wonder sometimes if he out-smarts himself, lacks some patience and too often tries to play the game for his players instead of leaving more of it to the guys wearing the skates.

-Is this collection of guys, both players and coaches together, perhaps just not very well equipped to deal with pressure? We all read about the expectations of this group this season. In life, some people thirst for and thrive under pressure. Others are perfectly capable and valuable cogs in the wheel but not always best suited for the pressure cooker. They fit better in a “quieter” role. This is not my observation, I hasten to point out, I do not necessarily believe it. How they performs on a big stage Sunday would goes a ways to answering that.

I do not pretend to have the answers to all of this. And I cannot help but wonder how many of the issues are being compounded by small sample sized in a super-charged Canadian market. The rabid fan base is fabulous, of course, but also comes with it’s inherent challenges. However…

What I have learned from being in senior management roles in big companies is that you cannot be afraid of asking the toughest questions. And equally, you cannot be afraid of receiving the toughest answers back.

It is often the only way to get from good to great.

Now on Threads @kleavins. Also, find me on Twitter @KurtLeavins, Instagram at LeavinsOnHockey, and Mastodon at [email protected]

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