All-Star weekend has come and gone, a double dose of the Battle of Alberta is just around the corner, what a way to get back in the swing of things.
Coming out of the break the Edmonton Oilers find themselves 2nd place in the Pacific Division. It’s nice to see the team right in the thick of it, just a point back of the Vancouver Canucks and tied with the Calgary Flames, Vegas Golden Knights and Arizona Coyotes. The final two months of the season are shaping up to be a race for the ages within the division.
The trade deadline will provide us with a lot of intrigue between now and February 24th but there are a number of other storylines to focus on as well.
SEVEN HUGE GAMES
The Oilers don’t have any games left against the Canucks but they have a total of seven games remaining against the teams they are battling with in the Pacific. Connor McDavid and company will face the Flames twice in the next week and then again to wrap up the season in early April. Their final game against the Coyotes will take place on February 4th and then they face the Golden Knights once in February and twice in March. These seven divisional games may determine whether or not the team makes the post-season. From a wild card perspective, the Oilers will also face the Jets two more times this season.
Kailer Yamamoto has done an excellent job since being called up and placed on the second line alongside Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, will Tyler Benson be able to do the same? Benson has been far more productive offensively in American Hockey League than Yamamoto but will it translate to success in the NHL? The team could give Benson a look prior to the trade deadline and if he fits in on the third line they can save any assets they may have been willing to move to bring in some help.
The local product is in rarified development air for the organization. He played two years in junior after being drafted and has now played over 100 games in a year and a half in Bakersfield without having a sniff of the big league. In no way can you say he’s been rushed but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s ready.
If the Oilers are going to make the playoffs at least one of Mike Smith or Mikko Koskinen will have to play very good hockey over the final two months of the year. In a perfect world both keepers would be steady enough that Tippett could go back to the two and two rotation that worked so well at the beginning of the year. Smith was hot before the break and if he can keep that going the Oilers may be able to get a step ahead of everyone with three of their first four games after the break being against the Flames and Coyotes.
We haven’t seen much of Koskinen lately but the good news is that he should be well rested if the team needs to run with him over the final couple of months. The Oilers have two days off four times in February but just once in March so both goaltenders will likely end up getting plenty of work.
DOES KHAIRA CONTRIBUTE?
There are a couple of different questions to ask about Jujhar Khaira right now. Can he work is way back into the line up this year? Has he played his way out of the teams plans moving forward? Khaira hasn’t played since January 9th against Montreal. He was scratched against the Flames and then didn’t play against either the Preds or Coyotes and it’s sad to say but they didn’t miss him. Prior to coming out of the line up he had gone 14 games without scoring a goal and actually only had two assists over that same stretch.
He had carved out a role on the penalty kill but at this point he can probably be replaced in that area of the game as well. It’s been eight years since Khaira was drafted and the fact that we are still asking these questions about him is probably all we need to know. The frustrating thing is he’s shown glimpses of being a legit power forward but those flashes have been few and far between.
RACE FOR THE ART-ROSS
A spot in the playoffs is obviously priority number one for the team and their fans but if you can mix in an epic race for the Art-Ross Trophy you might as well enjoy it. McDavid and Draisaitl are still first and second in league scoring with 76 and 75 points respectively. Nathan MacKinnon will likely be the biggest threat to steal the Art-Ross away from Edmonton. Colorado’s superstar has 72 points with David Pastrnak sitting just behind him at 70. The Oilers dynamic duo are both on pace to finish with more than 125 points this season. If the team can secure a post-season spot with a few games left in the season it will be fun to focus on McDavid and Draisaitl battling for a scoring title.