When it comes to the Oilers forwards, the big story through the first quarter of the season has been the lack of scoring. Before the season there were questions about the defence and even about Devan Dubnyk as the number one goalie but the forwards were supposed to score goals. Lots of them. So far that hasn't happened. You're probably familiar with the numbers: 27 goals total and only 10 of those have come at even strength, including one that was scored on an empty net and two more where the Oilers had their goalie pulled. Those numbers, not surprisingly, rank the Oilers right near the bottom of the NHL.
In the early going the power play helped bail the team out scoring 11 times during a six game stretch to start the season but even that has cooled off now with just three goals in the next six. Coincidentally the Oilers lost five of those six and really should have lost all six but got luck in Columbus. The power play totals can even be a little deceiving when it comes to looking at the contributions of the forwards since four of the goals so far have actually come from Justin Schultz. All in all what we've seen through the first few weeks of the season is anything but what was expected from the Oilers young and exciting forwards heading into the season.
So what's happened? Well a lot of it is just bad luck. Last season the Oilers have had a five-on-five shooting percentage of 8.3%, in the two seasons before that they shot at an even 8.0%. This season they sit well below those numbers at 4.9%. The difference between this season and last is already seven goals or what amounts to one win. It's a frustrating trend for sure but it's not going to last, unless of course, as a team, the Oilers suddenly became much worse shooters over the summers. That seems unlikely to me so I'm going to say they will rebound and pucks will start to find the back of the net sooner than later.
That's the big picture though, how are some of the individual players performing this season?
A quick look at the player usage chart for the Oilers forwards and you get the feeling that the days of giving the Taylor Hall - Ryan Nugent-Hopkins - Jordan Eberle line cushy zone starts and butter soft competition are all but over. They are still seeing a lot of faceoffs in the offensive zone but compared to last year the difference is night and day. They are pushing the puck in the right direct and are creating chances but they simply cannot score right now. Hall has two goals, Eberle three, and Nugent-Hopkins hasn't scored even a single goal yet this season (he also went without a goal in the last eleven games last season). As a group they've been between good and great on most nights but to me it looks like Hall is the player most driving this line right now. On a consistent basis he is the best forward on the Oilers. For the past several years the Oilers number one line was whatever line Ales Hemsky was on, now it's whatever line Hall is on.
Speaking of Hemsky, with the first line carrying more of the load he has had a nice start to the season with five goals and eight points. Paired with Sam Gagner and Nail Yakupov they've formed a solid second line for the Oilers. The early season possession numbers for this group are a little ugly, especially for Hemsky and Gagner, but I think that is more the result of a relatively small sample than anything else. Both have proven themselves to be quality NHL players and I don't think too much should be read into 12 games. The other man on the line, Yakupov, is of course, just starting his NHL career and the early results have been pretty good for him as well. He hasn't exploded onto the scene like Nugent-Hopkins did last year, at least not in terms of points, but he has managed to be exciting in his own way. Late in close games he has been left on the bench by Krueger but given the coach's other options I don't find that very surprising.
Beyond the second line the offence dries up in a hurry. Lennart Petrell is the only Oilers forward not on the top two lines who has managed to score an even strength goal this season. Ryan Smyth and Magnus Paajarvi each have a shorthanded one and Shawn Horcoff managed to score a power play goal before breaking his knuckle. But even without the secondary scoring the bottom six has some positives worth mentioning.
On the good side of the ledger there is Teemu Hartikainen who had a up and down start to the season but has since proven that he can be play in the NHL and has as a result been rewarded with more ice time. Maybe it was just a matter of him realizing he belongs here but when he decides to use his body he can literally take control of a shift and that is a lot of fun to watch. Petrell has also been a good story from the bottom of the lineup as he continues to establish himself as a very good penalty killer and has even shown himself capable of playing above the fourth line if need be. It would be great if he brought just a little scoring but I can't complain about his game too much. Pajaarvi has had a good start to the season too even if he had to bounce back to Oklahoma City for a couple days when the Oilers needed a centre. Paajarvi seems to have been forgotten by a lot of people but he's got a lot of skill and if used right gives the Oilers an actual scoring threat at the bottom of their lineup.
Looking at what hasn't been very good at the bottom of the lineup it's hard to get past a player like Darcy Hordichuk. It's not his fault, it's a failing of management, but employing players who can't play isn't going to help any team win games and when you get forced into playing them, like the Oilers were, it only serves to make an already undesirable situation worse. Thankfully Hordichuk is currently in the AHL with the Barons and so at least this one problem has temporarily solved itself.
If you're looking for a negative in the bottom six that is player related though you have to look at Ryan Smyth. The start of this season has been a slow one for Smyth who, at 36 years old, could well be dealing with a little rust following a shortened training camp. To make matter worse he was moved to centre for four games as the Oilers tried to deal with injuries and the results were, to put it mildly, not good. He looked out of place and took a number of penalties which amounted to nothing more than mental mistakes. Smyth is better than this and I expect he will return to being the effective player we've grown accustomed to seeing over the remainder of the season.
It's been a strange start tot he season for the Oilers forwards. Mostly it's been good, now if only they could get a couple of bounces.