May 30, 2023

The first game without Evander Kane is hard to make a full judgement of how the next 3-4 months will go for the Edmonton Oilers. It wasn’t the Oilers’ offence that lost them the contest, again it was poor defence and goaltending. They adjusted to Kane’s absence by promoting Dylan Holloway to the second line, where he played in the preseason.

Evander Kane Edmonton Oilers
Evander Kane, Edmonton Oilers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Since Kailer Yamamoto was also out in the game against the Carolina Hurricanes on Thursday, Mattias Janmark, one of the Oilers’ most recent call-ups, was inserted into the lineup. Head coach Jay Woodcroft again decided to go with 11 forwards and seven defencemen since they have a 4-2-0 record this season and 12-4-2 overall under Woodcroft when doing so. But after a 7-2 loss, there are some concerns about the team and whether they can survive 3-4 months without Kane.

Dylan Holloway Looked Good on the Second Line

As mentioned above, Holloway was promoted back to the second line to replace Kane against the Hurricanes (from “Dylan Holloway gets the push into top 6, Jack Campbell keeps the net as Oilers face Hurricanes”, Edmonton Journal, Nov. 10, 2022). He was there most of training camp and made the team based on his production in the top-six alongside Leon Draisaitl. It was a bit harsh to punish Holloway for one rookie mistake early in the first game of the season, but he has played in the bottom six since then.

I thought Holloway showed lots of positive signs. Made plays with the puck, used his speed to create chances. I’d keep him on that line for Saturday.

It’s been a very unlucky start to an NHL career. With every mistake Holloway seems to make, the puck finds its way into the back of the Oilers’ net. He didn’t get an opportunity back in the top-six until Thursday night because the lines had been shuffled around and there was no room for him. Even the third line was working well together, which limited the rookie’s role in the lineup.

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In limited ice time, Holloway showed why he deserved to move up the lineup to fill the void. He skates as hard as he can on every shift, whether it’s with the puck, backchecking, or on the forecheck. He is growing more comfortable with the puck on his stick and has done everything right offensively, except score. However, if he keeps up his strong play, regardless of a few mistakes, he will start to produce and make up for some of the lost offence.

What if Holloway Can’t Find His Scoring Touch?

It’s not enough to just work hard. The team needs results from certain players. If they don’t come soon, Woodcroft and company will change up their lines again. Everyone in the top-six must score and play a strong overall game, but we’ve seen what happens to players who can’t produce. Yamamoto played the first 12 or so games in the top-six and produced just three assists, while every other player on the top two lines was averaging a point per game or better. He has since been demoted to the fourth line, where he immediately showed why he should be playing higher in the lineup.

After Puljujarvi’s lack of offensive production in the second half of last season, he was taken off the top line – where he shined in the first half – and played bottom-six minutes down the stretch and in the playoffs. It impacted his confidence and didn’t help him improve.

Kailer Yamamoto Edmonton Oilers
Kailer Yamamoto, Edmonton Oilers (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The Oilers do have other options to insert into the top-six. A key thing to note is that they may run 11 forwards and seven defencemen more often, so the depth forwards can be utilized better. Ryan McLeod is a solid option, but he has been so good at leading the third line. He has the speed and skill to play in the top-six and has done so in the past. The Oilers will have to be confident in letting someone else lead the third line if they decide to promote McLeod.

Warren Foegele has elevated his game in the past couple of contests and has been playing more meaningful minutes. If we see this trend continue, he could get a crack at the top-six. He is utilizing his speed, physicality, and skill in handling the puck, which is helping him get more chances offensively. He has stepped up and is playing like the player the Oilers hoped they were getting in the trade with the Hurricanes. As a natural left-winger, he could fit right in.

The final option would mean more line shuffling by shifting Zach Hyman to left wing. He’s comfortable on both wings so it shouldn’t impact his game, in which case, both Puljujarvi and Yamamoto would likely be tasked with playing on the top two lines at right wing. Regardless of which line they play on, this would depend on at least one of them finding their offensive game.

Oilers Will Sink or Swim Based on Defensive Game

The Oilers again failed to keep the puck out of their net against the Hurricanes. There were turnovers and some poor defensive play by the forwards, but the defence and goaltending must be better. Losing Kane from the lineup won’t impact the Oilers defensively nor will it change the lapses in judgment and mistakes made by the defenders.

Related: Oilers’ Penalty Kill & Defence Pulling Team Under

The team dropped from 25th (3.50 GA/GP) to 28th (3.73 GA/GP) in the NHL in goals against per game after allowing seven in the loss to the Hurricanes. Starting goaltender, Jack Campbell, has had a horrible start to the season, posting a 4.27 goals-against average and a .873 save percentage. Those are by far the worst numbers of his career, and he is being paid $5 million for four more seasons after this one.

The penalty kill is also abysmal, killing off 70.8 percent of their penalties. Though Kane has been a penalty-killer in the past, he has played 22.8 short-handed minutes in 57 regular-season games with the Oilers, far less than his career average.

Losing Kane is a big deal to the team, but the Oilers have been thriving where he contributed most. The team needs to play better defensively and in net if they are to survive his absence or simply start winning. I’m sure someone can start to produce in the top-six and make up for his offensive output.

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