Edmonton Oilers Players Off to a Strong Start

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The Edmonton Oilers hit the ice this evening against the Anaheim Ducks for their third game of the year. The Oilers season isn’t even a full week old yet, but they sit atop the Pacific with a 2-0 record, both wins coming against division rivals. A large part of the Edmonton Oilers story so far has emerged from the team’s several new players. From the wings to the third-line centre and back on defence, the positive contributions are arriving at a rapid pace.

Let’s dig into the new Oilers and their strong starts to the season.

NHL free agent frenzy

Zach Hyman – Brilliant On and Off the Ice

When the Oilers signed Zach Hyman to a monster seven-year $38.5 million contract, there was naturally some concern. Two games into the season, however, and Hyman’s impact already has fewer fans fretting about future contract problems.

He started things strongly in Wednesday’s debut with a goal, knocking in a tape-to-tape pass from Leon Draisaitl on Edmonton’s already elite power play.  He finished that game with one point, three shots on goal, and over 17 minutes of ice-time. That included time on both the power play and penalty kill. Hyman’s ability to play in all facets of the game continued in Saturday’s win over the Calgary Flames.

Another added benefit of Hyman’s strong play has been the impact on the rest of the top six. His ability to help drive play has him slotted on the second line with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Kailer Yamamoto. This has allowed the league’s best duo, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, to run together on line one.

This isn’t costing the Oilers either. According to Natural Stat Trick, the combination of Hyman, Nugent-Hopkins, and Yamamoto owns an impressive 11 scoring chances for, opposed to only five against, in addition to controlling the shot share and expected goal percentages.

The eye-test matches the math, with Hyman’s speedy workhorse style blending well with Nugent-Hopkins’ smart and steady playmaking, as well as Yamamoto’s persistent, buzzing attack.

The Oilers have previously been forced to run McDavid and Draisaitl on separate lines due to the inability to stop the bleeding with those two off the ice. The early returns of Hyman show the tantalizing possibility of that restriction no longer applying.

After Saturday’s game, Hyman continued to endear himself to Oilers fans with an excellent segment on Hockey Night in Canada. The city is abuzz with Hyman, its brightest new Oiler.

We Built This Third Line On Rock and Roll (And Strong Forechecking)

You’d be forgiven for forgetting the last time the Oilers had a meaningful third line. It’s been that long. It’s why Holland signed Derek Ryan to a two-year contract in July, and why he traded away young defenceman Ethan Bear for Warren Foegele.

The Oilers simply had to be better in the bottom six, and so far, that looks to be the case. Dave Tippett has crafted an early duo of Foegele and Ryan on the team’s third line, and the two of them have spent the first two games with Kyle Turris and Zack Kassian who returned from injury on Saturday night.

Through two games, the duo is a little shy in the shot metrics but is coming out ahead in scoring chances, expected goals and most importantly isn’t bleeding actual goals at even strength.

The goal differential is the most important feature for this duo – and presumably trio with Kassian as a suspected regular. Can they score enough to stay north of 50% and not give up what the top six earn?

It looks like a distinct possibility. What we are seeing so far is what was advertised. Ryan is a smart, veteran player who puts himself in good positions on the ice. Foegele is a strong, consistent forechecker who is dogged in his pursuit of the puck. This was clearly evident in Saturday’s opening goal, which started with a Kassian keep-in, continued with Foegele’s drive to the net, and ended with a seeing-eye tap in from a net-front Ryan.

Other small positives are Ryan’s faceoff percentage of 64%, Foegele’s four hits in two games, and Kassian’s feisty presence in the Battle of Alberta.

Better Than Expected, Still Miles to Go

The biggest Oilers’ question mark coming into the season was the second pairing of Duncan Keith and Cody Ceci. How the rest of the season plays out for this duo is a mystery, but early indicators aren’t as scary as initially feared.

The results look similar to the Oilers’ third line. Keith and Ceci as a duo are a bit behind in the shot share, but similar to Ryan and Foegele, are 50% or higher in expected goals, scoring chances, and high danger Corsi. Even better, the duo is ahead two to one in terms of even-strength goal differential.  This despite only starting 30% of their shifts in the offensive zone.

In fact, Keith and Ceci as a duo currently have better shot and scoring metrics than the top pair of Darnell Nurse and Tyson Barrie. Part of that is Barrie’s wobbly start to the season and the level of competition each pairing faces, but it’s worth noting regardless.

Perhaps the best moment for these two came in the third period of Saturday night’s game. The Flames had just scored a goal and were trailing by only one. With the game in a delicate balance, Ceci used his legs to open a passing lane for Draisaitl on the breakout. Ceci then promptly found Jesse Puljujarvi with a tape-to-tape pass that sent the young Finn on a breakaway. Puljujarvi fired it home, the Oilers regained their two-goal lead and the game was essentially put away at that point. It was a huge moment for Ceci, who has looked more than capable to start the season.

We’ll need to monitor these two closely as the season progresses and the team faces stronger competition in order to determine if this is a pattern or early season illusion.

Small sample sizes can be misleading but the Oilers and their fans are certainly happy with what they are seeing at this point.

Main Photo: Embed from Getty Images