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Missing Link: What will it take to unlock the Oilers’ $3 million forwards Yamamoto, Puljujarvi, Foegele?

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Game Day 12: Dallas at Edmonton

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After eleven games in the 2022-23 season, the Edmonton Oilers are not yet firing on all cylinders.

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Certainly, the NHL club has recovered well from a rocky start to a 7-4-0 record that currently puts it in the so-familiar spot of second place* in its division, tying its final three-place ranking. premieres by Ken Holland. seasons as GM. (*Tied for second with Seattle at 14 points, only second in point percentage at .636)

Focusing here solely on the forwards, Thursday night’s shocking 4-3 loss at home to the New Jersey Devils served as a reminder of an insignificant shortcoming. Namely, a lack of tertiary notation.

Consider that in this game, each of Edmonton’s four lines were burned for a goal against. The Oilers responded with counts by the first and fourth lines, and a power-play goal from a “second line” if such a term is appropriate for the big Leon Draisaitl. The third line? Bupkis. Still.

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That night at least, that third line deficit made the difference.

On the other side of the ice, Jersey’s third line has connected no less than three times, with first star Miles Wood (8th among Devils active forwards in EVTOI/GP) serving as the proxy. Wood’s 3 points corresponded to the season total of Edmonton’s most productive third line (Ryan McLeod), and was another stark reminder that scoring from the bottom of the lineup can make a big difference in a tight game. Alas, so may miss the same.

Let’s change the emphasis of “lines and pairings” slightly and layer the vanguard body in a different way, the one we alluded to in our 10 Match Segment Review earlier this week. This time, we’ll list Edmonton forwards in order of success.

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For each, we list the cap reached plus playtime, boxcar stats, and score rates per game and per 60 in all situations.

The first tier can be (roughly) described as the $10 million group and consists of superstars only Connor McDavid and Draisaitl. The two are tearing it up not just for their team, but league-wide, where they are 1-2 up in the scoring chase. In all situations, both players are producing north of 5 points per 60 minutes. It is exceptional at any price.

Level two is the $5 million group, where the three zack Hyman, Ryan Nugent Hopkins and Evander Kane produce at least one point per game and approximately 3 points for every hour spent on the ice. It’s excellent.

The problematic group is Tier Three, the 3 million players. All three spend an insane amount of time producing an offense of some kind. As expected, all three rank among the top nine in deployment, with Kailer Yamamoto usually serving as 2RW and Jesse Puljujarvi and Warren Foegele book the third line with young McLeod who has a legitimate trading contract.

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The score, however, is not there. Not even close. Instead of the expected ~5 points each, they put together this modest total among them all combined. In 7 hours of ice time.

Individually, they rank around the same level, if not below level four, the $1 million class. Derek Ryan, Dylan Holloway and Devin Shore are the current fourth line at a total cost of around $3 million, about the same as every player in the top tier. Yet looking at the two tiers together, there isn’t much to choose from in the P/GP column, while the P/60 favors the lower group which presents its modest numbers in fewer opportunity minutes.

For many years, I stuck to a simple equation, “salary = expectations”, although in the era of the salary cap, I modified it somewhat to “cap hit = expectations”. In truth, I don’t care about actual paychecks, but the cap reached is capped at the same cap for each team and is a fundamental competitive construct of the modern NHL. The value for the cap hit is essential. And right now, the Oilers aren’t getting much of that whole class of forwards, at least when it comes to scoring goals and points.

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What is interesting for this observer is that these same three exact names were related everything summer long by experts (including this one!) who analyzed the Oilers’ cap crunch and came to the conclusion that one of them would probably have to be traded to bring the team into compliance. Eventually, aided by the cooperation of McLeod and his camp, the List of 21 men solution came into play and ultimately prevailed.

But this option runs into difficulties of a different kind, limiting the flexibility of the roster to such a degree that only 12 forwards make the squad. One outcome is that Yamamoto, for example, might try to play despite an injury that might otherwise sideline him for a while. It may not be a hundred percent, but it’s still the best option available. Another is that a perfectly good replacement player like Mattias Janmark can’t even be called because his salary is a few hundred thousand dollars higher than the man (million dollar class) he could replace, and there aren’t enough space to do so.

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A fairly undeniable observation is that the three men are struggling to play their best game. Yamamoto and Puljujarvi, with their handsome new increases, saw their production dip below last year’s level when they were both $1 million bargain deals. These days, the two struggle to handle the puck cleanly, especially in high leverage situations. The same goes for Foegele, at least around the net. All three seem to have either stone hands or cold stone hands.

None of this increases their commercial value, which makes Holland’s challenge to clear ceiling space all the more difficult.

All have had their moments. Yamamoto super-stealed in the 60th minute in Chicago to kick off the game-winning streak, while Foegele and Puljujarvi combined on an important goal in a narrow win at St. Louis. But such games are the exception, not the rule; indeed, for the latter two, this unique game represents their only point of the season so far.

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Each contributes to other aspects of the game: Yamamoto is a regular from the penalty spot, while Puljujarvi and Foegele have been strong bookends on a mostly effective but wholly defensive third line.

Conclusion: the offensive ability is there, but needs to be unlocked again. The same roster lockdown that limits Holland’s options means those players will continue to be deployed on game night, er, daytime for the foreseeable future. The fervent wish of Oil fans is that at some point the cups will fall back into place and their best game will once again be the rule rather than the exception.

Today’s list

No changes scheduled for Saturday afternoon’s MDT morning against the Dallas Stars other than the likely insertion of Jack Campbell in fillet. We’ll update this segment on Saturday morning as more information becomes available.

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follow me on twitter @Bruce McCurdy

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