1. Can the young players excel in more challenging roles without Taylor Hall around?
Last season the Oilers had two players that were able to consistently drive the play: Connor McDavid and the now departed Taylor Hall. Without Hall in the Oilers lineup, it could be a challenge for some of the team’s other young stars to generate offence night in and night out. If you happen to be skating alongside McDavid it shouldn’t be a problem, but not everyone gets to play that role. What can we expect from the likes of Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Nail Yakupov, and even Jesse Puljujärvi this season, will they be able to take on bigger roles and manage to come out ahead?
This question is especially relevant when it comes to Leon Draisaitl. After a tough rookie campaign, one that saw Draisaitl returned to junior shortly after the new year, Draisaitl made a real impact with the team in his sophomore season. But his offensive numbers with and without Hall have to make you wonder just who was driving the bus when that pair was on the ice together. Together they helped the Oilers score 2.86 goals per 60 minutes, when Draisaitl was on the ice without Hall that number drops to 1.54 goals per 60 minutes (stats courtesy of corsica.hockey). It’s worth noting though that the team’s share of both shot attempts and shots on goal were higher when Draisaitl played with someone other than Hall compared to when he played with Hall. Is that difference just a blip, the result of a much smaller sample of play, or does it point to something else?
And if Draisaitl isn’t yet ready to centre a line taking on tough competition on a nightly basis, can the Oilers depend on Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to take on that role and keep his head above water? At even strength last season, the Oilers scored a measly 45% of the goals when Nugent-Hopkins was on the ice, that’s just not good enough. What about Yakupov, does Hall’s departure open up a spot somewhere in the lineup for him and will he be able to capitalize on the opportunity? What about Puljujärvi, he’s looked good in the preseason but what happens when he faces real NHL level competition, and will he be able to handle the grind of an 82 game season?
Right now there are more questions than answers with this group and if the answers to these questions don’t work out the way that the Oilers are hoping it could be another long season for the team. There is a lot of talent in this group though, if even a couple can seize the opportunity the Oilers could surprise a few people.
2. Did the team do enough this summer to address the blue line?
Adding Adam Larsson to the mix is going to be huge for the Oilers. There is no denying that the blue was weak spot for the Oilers last season, and for multiple seasons before as well and lthough he comes with a few question marks of his own – Is there more offensive upside buried in there somewhere? Is he the top pairing player that the Oilers think he is? – there is little doubt that he’ll going to make the Oilers better in their own end of the rink. Will it be enough though to reshape what was one of the league’s worst defenses last season?
The answer to that question is probably not. The Oilers needed to add two right handed defencemen capable of playing top-four minutes, they added one. That leaves Oscar Klefbom, Andrej Sekera, and Brandon Davidson, or maybe Darnell Nurse, to round out the team’s top two pairs. All four of those players are left handed so someone is going to have to play on the wrong side; Klefbom is returning from an injury that kept him out of the lineup from early December on; and it’s questionable whether either Davidson and Nurse is ready to take on the role.
The Oilers are gambling that this will work out, that someone will be able to step up and fill that hole in the top-fourr. More likely there will be a lot of nights when the team’s play in the Oilers end of the rink will be reminiscent of seasons past.
3. Can Cam Talbot carry the load?
If the Oilers are going to have any chance at making this a successful season, it’s going to come down to the play of Cam Talbot. This team is going to go as far as Connor McDavid can drag them, but as good as McDavid is, he won’t be able to overcome another season where the Oilers get AHL level goaltending for the first couple months of the season.
From opening night on, the Oilers are going to need Talbot to play like the goalie that we all saw from January on last season, after he reclaimed the starting job from Anders Nilsson. That was a goalie who, more often than not, gave the Oilers a chance to win. And that’s all the Oilers need from him. If he steals a game for them here and there, great, but he doesn’t have to do that every night, he just needs to give the team a chance to win. If Talbot can’t do that though, and the Oilers have to again turn to a backup, Jonas Gustavsson almost certainly won’t be able to, and Oilers fans know how that story ends.