How can Edmonton Oilers best navigate their heavy closing schedule?

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Published Apr 08, 2024  •  Last updated 2 hours ago  •  9 minute read

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oilers flamesVeteran Oilers like Mattias Ekholm and Zach Hyman have logged many hard minutes this season. Photo by Jeff McIntosh /The Canadian Press

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The Edmonton Oilers woke up on Sunday morning to a richly-deserved though all too temporary break in their hectic schedule with plenty of reason to be pleased with themselves. The 9 games-in-15-days run that began with back-to-back losses in Ontario 2 weekends ago, ended with back-to-back wins in Alberta, winding up with a respectable 5-3-1 record over the fortnight. The squad clinched a berth in the playoffs with a convincing 6-2 home win over Colorado Avalanche on Friday night, then gutted out a 4-2 triumph in Calgary 24 hours later. It was a ragged effort at least 3° south of their A game, but just enough to get the job done.

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For sure, it took a full team effort to achieve the maximum 4 points over the weekend:

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  • Stu Skinner delivered a strong game in goal on Friday; Calvin Pickard did likewise on Saturday.
  • The penalty kill unit shone on Friday; the power play chipped in a pair of goals including the late winner on Saturday.
  • The third line scored 3 times on Friday; the fourth line produced the game’s lone 5v5 goal on Saturday, moreover drew the penalty that produced the game winner.
  • The top 6 found various ways to score in both games.
  • So did the defence corps.

They also found themselves in a very good spot within the Pacific Division.

Pacific Division standings Apr 07

The Oil have a pretty comfortable grip on second place, 6 points ahead of Los Angeles (5 games left) and 7 in front of Vegas (6 left). By my math the Oilers need just 5 points in their final 6 games to lock out both and clinch home ice advantage for the first round.

They suddenly find themselves breathing down the necks of Vancouver Canucks who have been leading the division for months. But with that club’s regulation loss to the Kings in Los Angeles Saturday night, Edmonton have pulled to just 3 points back with a game in hand. Moreover, the geographic rivals have a game against each other next Saturday, right here in River City.

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Meaning that for the first time the locals control their own destiny. Win out, including a regulation victory over the Canucks, and the Pacific Division is theirs. In all likelihood it would take less than that, as Vancouver have 4 other games on their own schedule and are apt to drop a point or two along the way. The margin for error is narrow; Vancouver holds the tie-breaker so Edmonton needs to pass them. But in doing so, they would clinch home ice in the second round as well.

A division crown from this of all seasons — when the Oilers were far behind all of the Canucks, Golden Knights and Kings just a few weeks in — would be especially sweet. The locals haven’t won such a title since way back in 1986-87, when they won not just the Smythe Division but also the Presidents’ Trophy and the Stanley Cup.

So surely it’s full steam ahead, right? Not so fast.

After the current respite, the Oilers face the heaviest closing schedule in the National Hockey League with 6 games in the last 9 days of the season. They’ll have a 4 game home stand in just 6 days, followed by back-to-back road games in Arizona and Colorado on the final 2 days of the campaign, Wed-Thu Apr 17-18.

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Worse, the NHL recently moved up the start of the playoffs from Mon Apr 22 to Sat Apr 20, leaving precious little recovery time in between. That will impact all teams, though disproportionately those with a heavy slog down the stretch, none more than the Oilers. The club can make a strong case to get their playoff opener deferred to the Sunday, but that’s still a narrow window for recovery and preparation. Especially, recovery. (Thanks, NHL!)

By way of comparison, divisional rivals Vegas play 4 games in the final week, Vancouver and L.A. just 3 apiece. Edmonton plays 5.

Reminder that the Oil as presently constructed are the oldest team in the loop. A too-heavy itinerary heading into the playoffs might not be ideal for core players in their 30’s like Mattias Ekholm, Zach Hyman and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, or for high-minute guys in their late 20’s including Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. Then there are older vets like Corey Perry and Adam Henrique who have been every-game fixtures in the line-up since their arrival in Edmonton.

Now that a berth in the playoffs has been clinched, is there reason to push the workload of such players during the regular season’s overloaded closing stretch? Well yes… and no.

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The yes side is the pursuit of the division title, and the home ice advantages it confers along with the “weaker opponent” myth. (There are no weaklings among the 8 teams who’ll make it in the West, each of whom has a legit shot at 100 points if they’re not already there.) Ice your best line-up every single night if that is your sole priority.

But the long view suggests readiness for the Stanley Cup playoffs is paramount. And in my world, exhaustion ≠ readiness. No matter who you’re playing, no matter where the games are held. Besides, there’s no point in having home ice privileges in Round 2 if you don’t survive Round 1.

Leaving the Oilers in something of a quandary. How best to navigate the remaining slate?

Oilers sked Apr 10-18

It’s a mixed bag, 3 games against playoff teams (Vegas, Vancouver, Colorado) and 3 against also-rans (Arizona twice, San Jose). Is it possible to achieve non-aligned goals of a) winning as many of those games as possible while also b) not wearing out the core players any more than absolutely necessary?

One factor that potentially works in Edmonton’s favour, at long last, is roster flexibility. After three seasons of LTIR hell, Ken Holland and company have been able to accrue a small surplus in 2023-24. The amount is relatively small in hockey terms, but with the schedule dwindling its potential impact is profound.

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Oilers cap Apr 07This from the excellent PuckPedia.com shows a variety of figures. The “projected” cap space of $226,606 converts into an ever larger “current” cap space as the days dwindle. Sunday’s calculation (shown here) is essentially $226K * 192 days of the full season divided by 12 days remaining = $3.625 million in annual cap that could theoretically be added to the roster. By Monday, the divisor diminishes to 11 days remaining, and the current cap space swells to $3.95 million; by Tuesday, 10 days and $4.35 million. That’s enough to add 4 or 5 players at or near NHL minimum before Edmonton’s next game.

“But shouldn’t they use all of that leftover cap to pay down Connor Brown‘s bonus?” the alert reader might object. Alas, the math is entirely different, according to an actual expert.

That being the ever-accommodating Hart Levine of PuckPedia, with whom I touched base. Hart responded: “It doesn’t really help their ability to absorb bonuses because they used LTIR earlier this year. So while I’m showing they have $227K Projected Cap Space, their Projected Cap Hit is $83.475M, so even with no call ups they can only absorb $25K of the bonuses. So call ups just are eating into that $25K, pretty insignificant.”

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The other thing that has changed is the 23-man roster is no longer in play after the deadline. Nothing stopping a team from carrying 25 or 26 players on the active roster, as long as they are cap-compliant.

Meaning the Oilers can recall a few players from Bakersfield for the closing stretch without the need to waive anybody on the current roster. The trick is how best to do so without ripping apart the Condors who are in a playoff push of their own.

The good news is that the farm club recently clinched their own postseason berth and are currently just battling for position. The bad news, at least for Condors fans, is that the system’s first order of business is to graduate players to the NHL, something that might be happening in the very near future, at least for that hectic closing week.

By all accounts the AHL squad has a few players ready to go, several of whom have already played with the Oilers this season. In their most recent game, forward Dylan Holloway scored a hat trick and added an assist in Bako’s 5-2 win over Calgary Wranglers, bumping his “season” totals to 10-6-16, +7 in the 18 games he has played since getting reassigned in mid-season. D-man Philip Broberg chipped in with a goal and an assist, raising his own boxcars to 3-29-32, +9 in 46 games. Behind both, netminder Jack Campbell returned to the line-up and backstopped another win, pushing his record to 17-12-0 with a save percentage of .921. He’s been running hot for months.

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Quite possible the Oilers could recall all three and even have room for a fourth, perhaps a veteran forward like Sam Gagner or Adam Erne, or a younger one like Raphael Lavoie. Each of those guys saw time with the Oilers during the season as well. So why not a couple of NHL tune-up games down the stretch in case they are needed during the long playoff run?

Such a mass recall added to the current 22-man roster would give the Oilers a standard game night line-up plus 3 extra forwards, 2 additional d-men, 1 more goaltender, and a whole lot of options.

How best to go about it? Let’s start with some basic assumptions, firstly that Edmonton will want to ice its best possible line-up against Vegas on Wednesday and again vs. Vancouver on Saturday. But the Arizona contest squashed in between the two next Friday would be an ideal time to get the call-ups a game. Same goes for the San Jose encounter the following Monday, which leaves just the back-to-back at Arizona and Colorado to wrap things up. Those games might be meaningful in the standings, but that’s far from a guarantee. Neither is a divisional contest.

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So who would come out? Likely nobody for the Vegas match, but after that there are 5 games in the last 7 days. In a perfect world no key player would play more than 4 of them, and 3 would be ideal.

Why, for example, should 38-year-old Corey Perry play both ends of either remaining back-to-back? Any reason not to give McDavid, Draisaitl, Hyman, Nugent-Hopkins a break for one or other of the Arizona games?

Might the 3 games vs. also-rans be the time to try out a Broberg-Troy Stecher d-pair, giving each of the regular twosomes a night off?

In the specific case of the goaltenders, why not 2 starts each for Skinner and Pickard and 1 for Campbell over those final 7 days, with the latter also available to serve as backup to give the main men a true night off in there somewhere. (And lest you think Kris Knoblauch is opposed to load management, consider that Pickard has started 8 of the last 18 games for the Oilers, Skinner just 10. That’s a sustainable 2 games a week for the #1 man, about the same rate he’s been playing all along; when the schedule got denser Pickard was asked to carry more of the load.)

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Which is not to say that these suggestions are the specific answers, just that a multiple recall would create all kinds of options. On one side of the equation, a few extra players who could benefit from a couple of tune-up games. On the other, a larger number of experienced players who won’t likely benefit from 5-in-7 just before the playoffs.

So why not treat it instead like a mini-preseason, with liberal substitution from night to night. Try to pick the spots astutely enough to have a chance to win each game, win the division, and even win the Art Ross if possible. But always, always keep the larger goal front of mind.

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