In the first intermission of Saturday night’s game between the Edmonton Oilers and Winnipeg Jets, winger Evander Kane was interviewed by Scott Oake of “Hockey Night in Canada.”
Kane told a national audience, “I didn’t play much in the first period, so I thought might as well get into a fight and take seven or eight minutes in the box.”
That kind of frustration from a veteran who sees his ice time squeezed is expected, even at some level welcomed by the coaching staff. Kane is a valued member of the team, a veteran and a leader. His injuries a year ago had a significant impact on the Oilers.
Edmonton needs him to be a major contributor.
Connor Brown’s signing over the summer appeared to be an astute move by management, and his two-way play so far this season is as advertised. The long layoff of nearly a year has had an impact on his touch around the net.
Both men have been moved down the depth chart, but in the case of Kane it took too long and his replacement (Mattias Janmark) was an unusual choice favoring a veteran over a younger man (Dylan Holloway).
That decision runs counter to Oilers coach Jay Woodcroft’s past. Since arriving in February 2022, the coach has elevated the roles of Ryan McLeod, Evan Bouchard, Stuart Skinner, Vincent Desharnais and others.
This year, both Holloway and defenceman Philip Broberg are being slow-played when there are opportunities available for both men.
What’s going on?
No way out
The Oilers’ underlying numbers at five-on-five are strong this season, but the outscoring results are poor. At some point, the fever should break. Until then, the coach is limited due to the 21-man roster made necessary by the salary cap.
There are many issues regarding this year’s cap, and next year’s cap, that have to be considered.
Brown’s bonuses kick in soon and there will be no appetite to move away from the commitment. In spite of troubles in his (so far) rare scoring situations, it’s clear Brown has real acumen defensively and that’s of value to this team.
Kane’s issues are a bit of a concern due to the nature of his injuries one year ago. His patented shot has been on display far less this season. That’s a concern for both men in 2023-24. Here are the shots per 60 numbers for the last four seasons:
All numbers five-on-five shots per 60
Both men have seen their shots per 60 halved from the last healthy season. When those veterans come around, both should be productive in feature roles.
Ironically, it is Brown whose numbers away from the puck (53 percent expected goals) are superior to Kane (36 percent).
Woodcroft has moved the wingers down the depth chart, but is limited by the cap; the 12 forwards currently on the roster are the only chess pieces the coach can move around.
He does have options. The fact he isn’t using them suggests he believes the veterans are close, or he doesn’t trust the options available to him. Here are the wingers on the roster currently, with shots per 60 and expected goal percentage
All numbers five-on-five
The highlighted group (five players) represents the most productive options for the wings on the top two lines. Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins often swap out of the centre position depending on the coaching decisions for the next game.
Connor McDavid’s most common wingers so far this season are Draisaitl and Kane. The captain is 3-1 goals with Draisaitl, 1-4 goals with Kane. Why doesn’t the coach run Dylan Holloway in the Kane role? McDavid-Holloway have spent three minutes together. Whatever defensive issues the young winger has, the results can’t possibly be as devastating as the first five games of McDavid-Kane.
Draisaitl’s most common linemates are Kane (1-1 goals) and Zach Hyman (4-2 goals).
Why not Holloway?
Woodcroft went to Janmark to replace Kane. However, he is using Holloway more this season, in fact the increase (two minutes) represents a significant push for the young forward.
In looking at the deployment by game discipline, it’s clear Woodcroft believes Holloway can help him on the PK. One reason? Blocked shots. Holloway is averaging almost one minute per game on the PP and has three painful shot blocks in about five minutes of playing time.
His five-on-five ice time has also increased by a minute. His increase in shots per 60 year over year (5.2 to 9.4) tells us this is a young player who is spiking as a contributor. He’s doing it away from the impact centres, and there’s a chance he will blossom in real time given opportunity.
Holloway’s AHL career shooting percentage (12.8) and NHL number (5.7) indicate he’ll need more than 10 shots to score a goal as a mature player with the Oilers. That’s a concern, but his shot rate so far this season, with increased playing time with one of McDavid or Draisaitl, may give the team another option when the veterans are not performing.
Woodcroft does value the player but has yet to give him the push his numbers say are warranted.
Why not a recall?
There are two problems with a recall.
First, the club doesn’t have any forward in the minors who is NHL-ready for one of the current roles available. Raphael Lavoie has played well in Bakersfield and Xavier Bourgault scored in Saturday night’s game. Both could see a recall later in the year, but the smart play is to let both men have success with the Condors through Christmas or later.
Second, there’s no cap room to add a roster player. Edmonton is 21-men deep. McDavid will miss one to two weeks but there is no cap benefit (or any other benefit) to McDavid being hurt.
The Oilers, for better or worse, are stuck at 21 men. It is limiting, as has been evident in the first five games of the season.
What is the solution?
Woodcroft would be wise to go back to his previous success.
The team’s roster moving forward is just 20 men. Chances are the club will dress seven defencemen and 11 forwards during this time.
This would be an excellent time to send Adam Erne down and recall a centre (possibly Lane Pederson or James Hamblin).
Woodcroft’s success down the stretch in 2022 and in the postseason that year came via asking his top players to take on massive minutes versus elites, using unproven talent in significant roles, and backing off minutes for those who couldn’t handle the workload.
Applying that right now is even more difficult due to McDavid’s injury.
That said, increased playing time for Broberg (possibly second pair with Mattias Ekholm) and less time for Evan Bouchard (third pair until he’s confident again) could help.
Up front, running Holloway with one of Draisaitl or Nugent-Hopkins would give the skill lines more speed and a player who appears to be blossoming in real time.
Woodcroft is a good coach, perhaps a great one. His current roster decisions run out of time with what has worked before.
It’s time to push some of the kids into the spotlight.
(Photo of Connor Brown and Evander Kane: Andy Devlin / NHLI via Getty Images)