The last game ever for New Jersey at Rexall Place.
The Time: 9:00 PM EST
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+2; Radio - 880 AM WCBS
The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (10-7-1) at the Edmonton Oilers (6-12-1; SBN Blog: The Copper & Blue)
The Last Devils Game: On Tuesday night, the Devils began a road trip through Western Canada with a game in Calgary. The first five minutes or so seemed decent, though Calgary kept pouncing on the counter-attack. The Flames would strike first. Cory Schneider was caught just away from the right post for T.J. Brodie to come in and put a low shot into the net. A few minutes later, Schneider came out to play a dumped in puck. It took a bounce that would end up being bad for New Jersey. Joe Colbourne took the loose puck, flung it to the middle, hit off David Jones, and then Matt Stajan stuffed it into the empty net. It was 0-2 and the Flames began pinning the Devils back. The Devils would get on the board fairly early in the second, though. The fourth line crashed the net and Bobby Farnham came out of the chaos, jamming a puck past Karri Ramo. Alas, the Flames responded thanks to Adam Henrique losing a puck behind the Devils' net. Colbourne took it, passed it in front to an open Jones, and it was 1-3. It appeared a comeback was in the works when a lovely zone entry by Mike Cammalleri and a lovelier pass from Lee Stempniak to Jordin Tootoo yielded a power play goal. But the Devils' offense just struggled to get going against a leaky Calgary team. They lost pucks, missed passes, and increasingly got pinned back. There would be no desperate finish, though Stempniak and Cammalleri came close near the end. The Devils lost 2-3. Brian bravely stayed up and recapped the game here.
The Last Oilers Game: A day after New Jersey lost to Calgary, Edmonton hosted Chicago. The game actually started fairly well for the Oilers as they out-shot the Hawks, 11-3. However, things took a turn for the worse and familiar when Chicago scored the game's first two goals. Duncan Keith didn't take long to convert a second period power play; and Artemi Panarin doubled the visitors lead at the 14 minute mark. But the Oilers weren't getting housed, they kept it competitive, and Jordan Eberle pulled a goal back within the second period. Fairly in the third, Benoit Pouliot scored at point-blank range to tie it up. Andrew Shaw set the Oilers back with a score a bit past the halfway mark of the period. But the Oilers played valiant hockey - and got rewarded. Leon Draisaitl had an excellent game and capped it off with an equalizer with less than three minutes to go in regulation. Overtime would be necessary to decide this one. Alas, it wasn't a happy ending for Edmonton. A defensive breakdown yielded a breakaway for Marian Hossa, who busted a slapshot to end it over a minute into the fourth period. The Oilers lost 3-4, but OilFaninYYC's recap at the Copper & Blue focused on the positives - namely that the Oilers played a good game against a perceived contender.
The Goal: Possession - in the literal sense - matters. What doomed the Devils in Calgary was that they just had pucks bouncing off or straying from their sticks throughout most of the game. Not only were passes just not being collected, but simple carries by Devils would just be lost. While the ice wasn't perfect, the Flames had little issue adjusting and so they were able to move the puck smoothly. The turnovers made by the Devils' sticks gave them ample opportunities to do just that. If they want to be able to get points and make the most of opportunities against Edmonton, then they need to actually have the puck to do so. Put it another way: the Devils experienced the opposite of what transpired on Tuesday when they smashed Pittsburgh. It's not a coincidence.
Backup!: Schneider didn't have a good game on Tuesday. He gave up two dubious goals early on. While he had to be better as the game went on - and he was - it helped dig a hole for the Devils in that game. With that in mind, I'm fine with the announcement that Keith Kinkaid will get this start. Tom Gulitti wrote about the news in this post at Fire & Ice. It allows Schneider to take a step back and get ready for Vancouver on Sunday night. It also gives Kinkaid some minutes now before he likely has to take some against a very tough Montreal team next week as part of a back-to-back set. I do hope the Devils are a better puck-handling team and put up better coverage on defense than they did on Tuesday. Kinkaid has only played three games, but his percentages per NHL.com aren't exactly confidence-inducing if the game breaks down like the last one.
Other Changes for NJ?: Maybe not at forward. Gulitti noted that Mike Cammalleri was not at practice; Patrik Elias took his spot on that line in his place. However, this later post by Gulitti quoted John Hynes that he expects Cammalleri to be fine for the game. The remainder of the Devils' forward lines remained the same in practice, so I don't think there will be any changes unless Cammalleri or someone else gets sick.
On defense, Jon Merrill and Eric Gelinas rotated while playing with David Schlemko. Gulitti stated the pairings largely remained unchanged. I'd like to see Gelinas take Merrill's spot for a game soon, if not tonight. Merrill was really poor in Calgary. He was very good against Pittsburgh but just about every Devil was that night. He hasn't done a whole lot to "jump off the page" to make his case as a regular. I think a night off for him may do some good to allow him to re-focus. It would also keep Gelinas from being too idle, possibly give him an incentive to play a smart game. That said, I doubt there will be changes in the lineup aside from Kinkaid in net.
Oilers Set the Example: Consider the names: Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Nail Yakupov, Darnell Nurse, and Leon Draisaitl. Those are Edmonton's last five first-rounders after Connor McDavid - who is out injured - and they are all playing on this roster right now. They also have many other drafted players that are active such as Jordan Eberle, Oscar Klefbom, Anton Lander, and Brandon Davidson. Clearly, they've found recent success through the draft.
They have the worst record in the NHL right now.
The Oilers have usurped the Islanders as the franchise that proves that drafting high and drafting well alone won't make a great team. The team has been recently hit by the flu and McDavid being out certainly stings. Yet, they continue to get high picks even after getting multiple first overall picks in recent memories. The issues with the Oilers lied in management, coaching and their tactics, defense, and goaltending. They've made a lot of changes and every year it's the same hope: this year, it'll get better. They have the worst record in the NHL right now. But that can change.
Signs of Hope: There is legitimate reason for the Oilers faithful to think things are getting better. Todd McLellan is the head coach, Peter Chiarelli is in at team president and general manager, and those two aren't dumb. At least, not as dumb in management as, say, Kevin "I know a thing or two about winning" Lowe. Five of their twelve losses were by one goal. As OilFaninYYC stated in this recap at the C&B, they did play a good game against Chicago and have had some other good performances.
Here's something the fans can also feel better about. The Oilers aren't sitting near the bottom of possession. On the contrary, War on Ice lists their CF% as 48.9%. While that's not good, it's better than ten other teams as of this writing - including the Devils. Let's go a little deeper at War on Ice. Their SF/60 rate at even strength is still a low 26.5, but their SA/60 is only 29.5. That's also not good, but their current lowest shots against per sixty-minute rate at evens ties their best mark in the last eight seasons. The Oilers are still prone to some massive brainfarts on defense, but the goalie isn't getting shelled as much at evens. That's another positive.
If the Oilers can build on these positives, then they could have a team that isn't 30th about a quarter of the way through the season. I believe them when they say that things are better than before, as indicated in this article by Jim Matheson at the Edmonton Journal (warning: auto-playing video). But as they also know the results need to happen. In time, they'll come - provided someone in ownership doesn't push for a panic button. Again.
The Ace: Look at Taylor Hall. He's not just Edmonton's most productive forward. His eight goals and thirteen assists give him twenty-one points, tied for the fourth most in the NHL prior to Thursday's games. Hall is a massive volume shooter. His eighty shots on net is the third most in the NHL right now, too. Take a look at these even strength stats at War on Ice: Hall is a positive possession player, he leads the team in even strength points, and he's drawn five more penalties than he's taken. Hall is a stud. He'd get a lot more attention if he was on a better team, but don't sleep on him tonight. The Devils must be aware of #4 on the ice at all times.
They should also be aware of his recent linemates as well. Teddy Purcell and Draisaitl have been with Hall in their recent overtime loss to Chicago, per Left Wing Lock. Purcell has been OK with four goals and six assists to go with 44 shots. He has had issues in possession, but that may right itself with more time next to Hall. Draisaitl is definitely an X-factor for this one. He had a fantastic game against Chicago and he has one of the more frightening stats I've seen so far this season: 31.6%. That's his shooting percentage; he has six goals on nineteen shots. Talk about hot. That won't continue for the season, but it's a concern for this game. He's second behind Hall in even strength points and he's been good in possession per War on Ice. That could continue for the season provided head coach Todd McLellan keeps the two young forwards together.
The Second Unit: What makes this match-up difficult will be that the Hall line's construction means there's a a not-so-easy second line for New Jersey to deal with this evening. Nugent-Hopkins, Eberle, and Pouliot is that second unit. While they have not been as productive, they will be ones to watch. Nugent-Hopkins is tied with Draisaitl on the team in points with six goals and eight assists of their own. Eberle missed significant time already this season. He's back and while he only has the two goals in six games, he will get back into form. He did score against Chicago; that time may be coming where he represents another threat up front. Pouliot is similar to Purcell. They have the same amount and distribution of points; they're good enough to provide additional offense without being a "name" player.
Bottom Six Notables: The issue with teams like Edmonton is that their bottom six is filled with players that don't chip in much, they tend to get pinned back more often than not, and they just don't provide enough value to the team. There are two exceptions among this group, though. The first is Nail Yakupov. He's been ice cold with no points in his last five games. He was hot earlier this season, which built up the bulk of his eleven points so far this season. Giving him space and not respecting him could be a recipe for disaster. The second is Anton Lander. While Lander has no points at all in nineteen games, he's done one thing really well: drawing penalties. Lander's penalty differential is plus nine according to War on Ice, which is the most in the entire NHL. The Devils would be wise to watch their hands and their sticks when he's out there.
What of McDavid? Is He Hype Worthy?: McDavid is injured, so we won't see him against the Devils until February. In his thirteen games, he put up five goals, seven assists, twenty four shots, and a 51.59% CF% at evens. He's still fourth on the team in scoring. That's a rather good stat line for a eighteen-year old rookie. Yeah, he's worth the hype.
So Why Does Edmonton Keep Dropping Games?: The back end, the back end, and the back end.
It's been a point of recent emphasis on the Copper & Blue, as sunilagni focuses on what's wrong with Mark Fayne. Poor Mark Fayne! He misses Andy Greene and a team that seemingly coaches stringy team defense. It's possible that he's not a fit there. Problem is, who really does? Again, Edmonton is negative in possession and while their SA/60 at evens isn't bad, it isn't all that good either. Look at the Oilers defensemen by CF% at War on Ice; only two are positive and one of them is Davidson, who was one of the few who didn't do well in that recent loss to Chicago. This isn't good. They're not as free as previous teams, but the Devils should theoretically be able to pressure them and hope they fall under it.
But the bigger concern is in net. The Oilers have a team even strength save percentage of 90%, which is the third lowest in the league per War on Ice. If we include all situations, it's 89%. That's, well, very bad. That's not a guarantee the Devils will score a bunch tonight. Calgary had the worst and they only got two past Ramo, albeit on only twenty shots. But it explains quite a bit about how the Oilers have such a bad record despite shooting pretty well and their top two lines performing like top two lines. The duo of Cam Talbot and Anders Nilsson were brought in to provide improvements. That has not happened yet.
Gulitti reported that Anders Nilsson will start this game for Edmonton. Nilsson has the better even strength save percentage between the two. It's only 90.3%, though. He also has a worse penalty kill save percentage at 83.3%. Not that Talbot has been shining with a 84.9%. For all of the good a McDavid return could be, if the Oilers aren't going to get league-average goaltending, then they're not going to go to too many places. It seems simple, but if there's an area that Chiarelli really should address for the future, it's this. Unless Talbot and/or Nilsson show themselves to be league-average sometime this season.
As for this game, it's imperative the Devils actually challenge Nilsson. They can't just stumble their way to twenty shots and hope that's enough. They need to make their attempts get on frame and beat the Oilers to loose pucks for additional chances. They need better puck control to make that possible.
One Last Thought: The Devils did technically get goal contributions from the the bottom six in Calgary: Farnham and Tootoo scored. But if the Henrique and Zajac lines come up empty, then it can be for naught. My fear for this game is that it becomes an open, up-and-down game where it's all about the offense. I don't know if the Devils' offense can compete with an Edmonton offense that's firing on most or all cylinders. If the Henrique and Zajac lines play better, then it's more possible than I may otherwise think. It would be in New Jersey's interest to slow the game down, make it more about possession and methodical puck movement than it would be about speed, and put the Oilers on their heels in that way. We'll see if that happens tonight.
Your Take: The Devils will continue their road trip into Edmonton tonight. What do you think will happen? Do you think the Oilers are on their way up? Will the Devils put out a better performance than they did in Calgary? Can the Devils have better control of the puck this evening? How do you think Kinkaid will perform? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments. Thank you for reading.