The Leafs face the Oilers Wednesday night for the first of nine games this season, and four of those nine are over the next eleven days. Yes, we will see the Oilers at Scotiabank Arena twice this week, and then watch the Leafs at Rogers Arena in Edmonton twice next week. Welcome to the compressed and shortened NHL season, and also the reason why we are experimenting with game previews in pairs today.

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Let’s begin this series with a very simplified analysis of the Oilers’ start to the season: they have one win in four games played. The Red Wings, the consensus worst team in the league—though the Blackhawks and Kings might have something to say about that—also have four points in four games.

The Red Wings are leaning on a very past-his-prime Bobby Ryan to lead their offence, and even he has managed four goals in three games this season, which happens to be one more than Connor McDavid has managed this season while once again watching his Hall of Fame potential career die off in the frozen wastelands of Edmonton.

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You might be asking how I can use such a small sample of games to evaluate the Oilers’ chances of success this season. That’s a valid question. My response is: don’t ask me, ask the Oilers fans. They’ve seen this start before, and they know how it ends; out of the playoffs. They are already quitting on the team! It’s not pretty over there. These last two losses against the Habs have already left them pretty broken for this season.

Projected Leafs Lines

Joe Thornton – Auston Matthews – Mitch Marner
William Nylander – John Tavares – Jimmy Vesey
Ilya Mikheyev – Alex Kerfoot – Zach Hyman
[double-shift slot] – Jason Spezza – Wayne Simmonds
[Adam Brooks]

Morgan Rielly – T.J. Brodie
Jake Muzzin – Justin Holl
Travis Dermott – Zach Bogosian
[Mikko Lehtonen as seventh defenceman if Adam Brooks is scratched]

Frederik Andersen is the presumed starter
Jack Campbell

This is the same configuration projected for the last Leafs game, with a seventh defender in place of Adam Brooks as a twelfth forward. Sheldon Keefe probably won’t pick which configuration to use until game time.
Projected Oilers Lines

(based on previous game, with Bear subbing in for Koekkoek, source: Jack Michaels)

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins – Connor McDavid – Zack Kassian
Dominik Kahun – Leon Draisaitl – Kailer Yamamoto
Joakim Nygard – Kyle Turis – Jesse Puljujarvi
Josh Archibald – Devin Shore – Alex Chiasson

Darnell Nurse – Ethan Bear
Kris Russell – Tyson Barrie
Slater Koekkoek – Adam Larsson

Mikko Koskinen is presumed starter
Who even knows the backup

If you want a more concrete look at the Oilers continuing dysfunction to start to the new season, check out the what happened in their last game against the Canadians and their power play. It was a ridiculously penalty filled game so there were a lot of them, and they all features one Tyson Barrie, someone who you have heard of, but have probably tried to forget.

In that game the Oilers had a ridiculous 11:34 of 5-on-4 time and they didn’t convert that into even one goal. In fact, the Habs got one shorthanded in that time. The Oilers managed only one Corsi-for event every 45 seconds of those power plays, and of those only eight turned into shots that weren’t blocked or missed the net entirely.

The Oilers are obviously hurting with the loss of Oscar Klefbom, and Mike Smith, though, I don’t think Smith was really going to turn the tide of any game in their favour to begin with.

This still doesn’t explain how they are so disorganised they can’t make anything at all happen with so many opportunities. The Leafs have a clear path to take advantage of them this week, though expecting that much PP time again is obviously a bit of a stretch. You can also never count out McDavid. The Leafs recognise this.

Everyone in Edmonton has an idea about the top line and whether Leon Draisaitl should play with McDavid to make an absolutely dominating and terrifying duo… with Kassian along to watch from the back, or if they should be split up. Honestly, I can’t parse out what is the best option for them, but the Draisaitl—Nugent-Hopkins—Yamamoto group also does good work on the ice. Yamamoto especially appears to be coming into his own right now as a top-six player. They need to sort this out, but I expect they will instead keep blending the lines to experiment right to the bitter end.

Also sitting out for Edmonton in their last game was Ethan Bear, and that was viewed by many as some kind of punishment for an error in the Oilers previous game which led to a Canadiens goal. It’s a pretty big punishment for a team that’s off to a rocky start and not really much of a message anymore beyond “screwing the team to make a point to one player totally worked one time as a coaching method 40 years ago!” The Edmonton beat writers say Bear will be back tonight. I subbed Koekkoek down to the third line, but Koekkoek is also pretty good. We’ve seen him here in Toronto a lot at Marlies games from his time in the Lightning system on the Syracuse Crunch. If Tippet were smart he would cut his losses and scratch Barrie for Koekkoek instead. I expect this actually will happen at some point in their season.

This series is a big moment for both teams. A Leafs win cements them as meeting the positive expectations established before the season. An Oilers loss exacerbates the negative expectations fans have developed since the start of the season.

The Edmonton Oilers allowed five goals in each of their mini-series opening games against Vancouver and Montreal. They were outscored 10-4 and made some egregious defensive decisions with and without the puck to allow many “easy” goals against.

That trend needs to stop tonight when they play their first road game in 321 days. Their final three regular season games of 2020 were at home, then they played five bubble games (one pre-playoff against Calgary and four v. Chicago in the play-in round) and they started this season with four home games.

Their first road game should be a welcome change of scenery for this team, and Dave Tippett is hopeful it will lead to a more consistent effort.

Tippett elected to stick with the forward lines.

“There are parts of the game that I didn’t mind, so we will give it one more shot,” he said.

It has only been four games, with no preseason, so I understand why he is being patient. I also can see those saying he needs to make a change. In three of the four games the Oilers haven’t produced much 5-on-5.

However, in their four games they have seven goals at 5×5. The Toronto Maple Leafs have six. But Toronto is 3-1 while the Oilers are 1-3. The Oilers have been outscored 11-7 at 5×5, while Toronto has been outscored 8-6.

The difference is on special teams, or 4×4, where Toronto has outscored teams 8-4, while Edmonton has been outscored 4-3. So Edmonton has been outscored 15-10, while Toronto is outscoring their opponents 14-12.

We focus a lot on 5×5 play, and it is important, but so too are special teams and the Oilers PP is killing them because they’ve only scored a PP goal in one game, and allowed a shorthanded goal in two games. They Oilers are even on the PP in GF-GA. Ugh.

Tippett has opted for patience at 5×5. He has faith his top two lines will start scoring, and that is a good bet. The issue is: Can his bottom six either start chipping in offensively, or stop getting outscored?

I wrote in the Game Notes that if TIppett changed his top two lines, that I’d place Nugent-Hopkins with Draisaitl and have McDavid on his own line, rather than McDavid with Draisaitl. But I also said I could see why Tippett won’t make a change. Those lines will score. They have enough skill that they will, regardless of the combinations.

But I probably should focus more on the bottom six and how they can improve. Kyle Turris and Jesse Puljujarvi have been outscored 4-0 at 5×5. Three goals came while they were on the ice together, and the others came when Puljujarvi was with McDavid and RNH, while Turris was with Ennis and Archibald.

My concern with Puljujarvi through four games is his ability to finish. He is skating great. He is the right position, but he has whiffed on shots or completely fanned. While he has nine shots on goal at 5×5, none have been overly dangerous and a few he whiffed on and rolled harmlessly into the goalie. He is making better plays on the boards, he is using his big frame well to shield the puck, and there are many positives, but he needs to handle the puck better. When that happens, he will be much more of an on-ice factor, rather than just a statistical factor.

I like the move to put Nygard with him and Turris — speed on both wings and Turris is a smart player. They just need to make more plays in the offensive zone. They haven’t made many glaring defensive errors, so the four GA is a bit misleading from my vantage point.

The Archibald-Shore-Chiasson line started last game quite well, but then the OIlers had almost six minutes in powerplay time and they didn’t see the ice. Shore has been an upgrade over Khaira. The goal against last game wasn’t even a scoring chance. Koskinen needs to stop the Romanov shot. I put zero blame on them for the goal against. They need to grind out some offensive zone time. Shore has helped in the faceoff dot as he is 8-8 at 5×5.

One positive for the Oilers at 5×5 through four games has been their faceoffs. Draisaitl is 59%, McDavid 54.7%, Turris 53.3% and Shore at 50%. Now they need to turn that into more scoring chances and goals. Draisaitl has been very good on the PP as well, going 17-7 (70.8%), while McDavid won the only draw he took. Shore has been perfect on the PK winning all five of his draws, while Draisaitl is 50% (2-2) and Turris is 3-7 (30%). Shore chipping in with a SH goal helps even more.

LINEUP
Oilers

RNH – McDavid – Kassian
Kahun – Draisaitl – Yamamoto
Nygard – Turris – Puljujarvi
Archibald – Shore – Chiasson

Nurse – Bear
Russell – Barrie
Koekkoek – Larsson

Koskinen

Ethan Bear draws back in and William Lagesson comes out. Lagesson didn’t do much to change my opinion of him. He battles hard, but isn’t quick enough and doesn’t move the puck well enough to be a regular. I still question the organization’s decision to expose Anton Forsberg to waivers over Lagesson. I realized Lagesson got the Oilers $25K closer to cap so they could use more of LTIR space, but I don’t think that was enough to warrant exposing Forsberg. And I said that prior to the Smith injury. Lagesson is number eight on the active roster, but I’d have Evan Bouchard ranked ahead of him as well, so he’d be ninth.

“Our powerplay has been together for a long time and it has had lots of success. It has also had a few lulls where we weren’t as focused as we need to be. Our goals come from shooting quickly, and we have had a few good looks, but didn’t get the bounces,” said McDavid about the Oilers powerplay.

“It is a bit different, but they’re such talented guys they can put the puck wherever they want. I think it is a good look for us and gives us a few more one-timer opportunities. We haven’t had much conversations (about being a righty instead of a lefty), we are just trying to feel each other out and I think we will get clicking,” said Tyson Barrie regarding the Oilers PP.

I won’t be surprised at all when Oilers score on PP tonight.

The Oilers have had 18 powerplays through four games. They are getting 4.5 PP/game which is a big jump from the 2.68 they have averaged over the previous three seasons. If they can keep drawing penalties their PP will become a big difference maker.

McDavid has drawn three penalties, Bear and Yamamoto two and Koekkoek, Draisaitl, Nurse, Turris, Nygard and Chiasson have drawn one. Nygard has now drawn 10 penalties in 34 NHL games.

Andersen

Leon Draisaitl doesn’t have a goal yet this season, and Auston Matthews has none at 5×5. He does have a powerplay goal though. These are two of the best goal scorers in the league. Draisaitl has the second most goals (93) in the NHL the past two seasons, while Matthews is fourth with 84. Matthews has the second most 5×5 goals (53) and Draisaitl is third with 50. Both of them will start scoring more very soon.

The Leafs haven’t been as bad as the Oilers 5×5, but they’ve been outscored 8-6. Their top four is not as good as Montreal’s, and I expect the Oilers top-two lines to generate more chances, but the Oilers bottom six needs to win the battle against the Leafs’ bottom half of the lineup and third pairing. They can’t keep getting outscored by opponents.

TONIGHT

GAME DAY PREDICTION: My head says the Oilers woes continue, but I’m going with a hunch that McDavid and RNH reward their coach by sticking with them and score some timely 5×5 goals. Edmonton wins 5-4.

OBVIOUS GAME DAY PREDICTION: McDavid, Matthews and Draisaitl all score a goal.

NOT-SO-OBVIOUS GAME DAY PREDICTION: Oilers get a goal from their bottom six.

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