The Edmonton Oilers have missed the gun

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The problem of being billed as a Stanley Cup contender, as the Edmonton Oilers most certainly were heading into this season, is that if that team proceeds to be facing the wrong way when the gates open, it gets a little more focus, and generates a little more alarm than the first two weeks of the season should.

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That’s where the Oilers find themselves now, having won only one of their first five games. And it’s been ugly losses that have the Oilers faithful just a little more ornery than they might already be. They lost opening night to the Canucks (the Canucks!) by a touchdown and PAT. Three nights later they lost their home opener to that same Vancouver team. And they got their clocks cleaned by the Flyers, a team that might not even be on Step 1 of their rebuild (though clearly something is in the air in the South Philly stadium complex).

Perhaps what’s so frustrating for the Oilers is that their opening stumble is for the most familiar reasons, i.e. neither of their goalies has functional limbs so far this season. The preseason was full of talk that Jack Campbell looked great and was poised for a bounce-back season — what he would exactly be bouncing back to is a real question looking over his career — once again proving that the preseason in any sport doesn’t matter in the least. Campbell has a .902 save percentage. Stuart Skinner, who usurped the starting job last year before laying a funny-smelling egg in the playoffs, has been even worse, with an .814 and -5.1 goals-saved-over-expected in just two starts (!). Goalie questions in Edmonton are a winter tradition, they’re just getting in early apparently this season.

Making things worse, Connor McDavid hurt himself and is going to miss a week, or two. When it first happened on Saturday night most of Northern Alberta stopped breathing, but they dodged the kill shot with him only being out for a short time. He will miss the Heritage Classic outdoor game against the Flames on Saturday, which makes a short-term absence sting just a little more.

Oh, and did the Oilers need a rat jumping off a sinking ship? Whether you do or don’t Evander Kane is always right there for ya! One wouldn’t think that being bumped off the top six for one game would ruffle anyone’s feathers too much, but you don’t know Evander, who’s never needed much of an excuse to be a royal pain in everyone’s ass.

The Oilers also haven’t gotten a single goal in five games from anyone below the top six, another consistent problem up there but one thought to be solved. Perhaps that was the thinking of shifting Kane down that he took oh so well.

But beyond all that, things aren’t all that bad for the Oilers. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has taken to his return to playing center on the second line, allowing Leon Draisaitl and McDavid to play together full-time, when healthy. RNH’s line has been dominant possession-wise and chance-share-wise (66.7 expected goal share), though McDavid and Draisaitl had struggled in their own zone (47 xGF percentage).

But most of all, the Oilers just can’t buy a bucket so far. At even-strength, they’re shooting just 6 percent, 25th in the league. Combine that with the Oilers’ inability to get a save anywhere or at any time, and they have the league’s fifth-worst PDO (shooting percentage plus save percentage at even strength). The Oilers penalty kill is ranked as one of the worst at 71 percent so far this season, but their xGA on the kill is eighth-best in the league. Again, they’re just not getting any stops. They should get more stops than they are, though it’s a real question if they can ever hope for the goaltending to be any better than league average. Is that enough?

The good news is that the defensive pairing of Evan Bouchard and Mattias Ekholm has been excellent while taking the dungeon shifts. Which has freed up Darnell Nurse and Cody Ceci to be a more offensive pairing, with which they’ve also flourished. It’s probably the best top four the Oilers have sported in the McDavid era. That should, in theory, take some pressure off their goalies one day soon, assuming either of the goalies can emerge from the land of wind and ghosts.

In addition, while the bottom six haven’t punctured twine yet, they have been on the good side of things territorially. Not all of them are going to shoot literally 0 for much longer.

There’s plenty of hockey to play, but Oilers Nation will see the Knights’ 6-0-0 start and wonder just how much more distance, even this early, they can cede to the defending champs (though the yearly Mark Stone-has-something-fall-off-him enters the calculus). Campbell and Skinner don’t have that much runway to figure it out before the alarm bells really start ringing. Sure, it’s still early, but the wind and cold come to Edmonton faster than anywhere else in the league, both figuratively, and literally.

Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate and on Bluesky @Felsgate.bsky.social

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