For the Edmonton Oilers, goals are going in at an alarming rate

In the playoffs last spring, the Oilers gave up an average of 3.5 goals a game — too much. Now it’s gusted to an awful 4.5 a night

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As the old adage goes: they don’t ask how they ask how many.

Whether the Edmonton Oilers were dreadful around their net with their checking or lack thereof in Minnesota Tuesday night, or they’re giving up goals off the rush like they were early and often in Game 1 in Vancouver, the how doesn’t matter.

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It’s the how many. And it’s 27 allowed in six games, 18 of those even-strength.

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The Oilers are 1-4-1 and sit 31st in the standings in a 32-team league, with only San Jose, who were expected to be a lottery contender coming into the season, worse. They have one point. In the playoffs last spring, the Oilers gave up an average of 3.5 goals a game — too much. Now it’s gusted to an awful 4.5 a night.

What is the system in the Oiler end they are trying to implement anyway? There has been ample talk that the team has gone away from man-to-man in their end. Clearly, there have been too many goals allowed in high danger areas, around the crease, with Oilers players either unaware, or showing a lack of urgency to box out a player or take his stick, or cover the slot/blue-paint.

In the loss in Minnesota, the Oilers gave up 13 chances from the inner slot area and the Wild scored five times.

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“You guys in the media call it zone and it’s been popularized by the team with the best record in the NHL last year in Boston,” said Woodcroft. “Through training camp and through the first five games of regular season it had performed pretty well…we had given up one defensive zone goal.

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“That was the home game loss to Vancouver (4-3), a tip-in by (Nils) Hoglander around net. We weren’t good enough there. Same story last night (Minnesota). Our net play could certainly be better.”

Everywhere really. The Bruins have given up seven goals in their 6-0 start. The Oilers gave up five goals in 20 minutes, in the third period in Minnesota. Woodcroft feels the earlier season goals were often off individual errors or off rush chances, lapses, individual reads. OK, we’ll give him that. But there’s ample discombobulation in the Oilers end, too, whether that’s for 10 seconds, 20, thirty.

Whatever, goals are going in at an alarming rate.

Eight to Vancouver. Seven to Minnesota.

“It is a different system (this year) and it was embraced by everybody in our organization as an area we wanted to go,” said Woodcroft. “Anytime you’re working through different things, there’s growing pains.”

Edmonton Oilers
Connor Brown #28 and Darnell Nurse #25 of the Edmonton Oilers speak during the second period against the Philadelphia Flyers at the Wells Fargo Center on October 19, 2023 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Photo by Tim Nwachukwu /Getty Images

What we’re seeing is a lot of Oiler players standing next to a guy who is popping the puck past either Jack Campbell or Stuart Skinner. Not checking anybody. It’s a given in the NHL: look after your house and that’s around the cage.

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“You’re there, you’re at your desk and the work’s not getting done. Can we be harder around our net? Yeah. The Minnesota game came down to the blue-paint and that was the focal point going into the game. We can be firmer and a lot more detailed in that area,” said Woodcroft.

Bouchard continues to be a lightning rod with the puck and without. He struggled badly before Mattias Ekholm was acquired from Nashville Feb. 28, then Ekholm shepherded him defensively. Bouchard is an excellent offensive player, but he’s reverted to not being aware of his checking responsibilities.

“The best two-way hockey Evan’s played is in the playoffs two years in a row,” said Woodcroft. “Not just measuring himself with the power play or points production is. That’s typically the hardest hockey when you’re getting to the second or third round of the playoffs.”

“Do I believe it’s in him? Yes. Do I expect more around our blue-paint, more competitiveness, hardness in that area. Yeah I do,” said Woodcroft, whose one D pairing with Darnell Nurse and Cody Ceci has been pretty good. But Bouchard and Ekholm, who missed all of training camp with a hip issue, have had trouble as a tandem, and Ekholm was fantastic last season.

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Maybe they cut Bouchard back for a bit, move him to the third pair and let him work the point on the power play. Ekholm did get a snippet of work with Philip Broberg in Minnesota—that was the plan going into camp before Ekholm was out—but maybe that’s a reach as a second pair for Broberg who is averaging 12:50 minutes. Maybe they move Brett Kulak up.

“Evan’s not alone (defensively. Our entire group can be harder,” said Woodcroft.

Marco Rossi
Minnesota Wild forward Marco Rossi celebrates after scoring against the Edmonton Oilers. AP Photo

One thing is clear: It’s time to stop with the “the season’s early and there’s lots of games left” mantra as the losses mount.

“I think the players know where we’re at (standings), but talk’s cheap. You have to show it (getting some wins),” said Woodcroft as the Oilers prepare for the New York Rangers Thursday night.

The confusion on the ice, leaked onto the bench in Minnesota with three too-many-men penalties. The three bench infractions tied an NHL record for a single game. It’s happened seven times in history. The most recent was the Coyotes in 2012.

“Obviously there was some miscommunication with some guys, some guys jumping on when their check or their change didn’t fully come off the bench. I don’t think the people who jumped on affected the play, but there was certainly a violation,” said Woodcroft.

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“We can do a better job. Individually you are responsible for your change. Now things alter when you’re 11 forwards and seven D because sometimes forwards aren’t playing their natural position.”

This ‘n that

  • One Oilers player who has been consistently good in the first six games is winger Warren Foegele, who had two goals in Minnesota. “You talk about players raising their game when a team needs them and Warren’s playing with some passion and at a work rate that we’re really happy with,” said Woodcroft…
  • Sam Gagner had two assists in his first game in Bakersfield Tuesday, helping on goals by Lane Pederson and Ben Gleason…
  • Evander Kane has had two strong games in a row, getting the Gordie Howe hat-trick with a tip-in goal, an assist and a fight with Connor Dewar…
  • Blake Wheeler, who signed with the Rangers after Winnipeg Jets bought him out, has struggled. He doesn’t have a point in six games…
  • Six Oiler forwards—Mattias Janmark, Connor Brown, Dylan Holloway, Ryan McLeod, Derek Ryan and Adam Erne—have no points. They’ve had 33 shots as a six-pack with Holloway’s 11 the most. There’s no wiggle room with the Oiler cap situation to have extra bodies to wheel in and out of the lineup, but this is half the Oilers forward complement.

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