Edmonton Oilers: Player report card at the halfway mark

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Edmonton Oilers

VANCOUVER, BC – DECEMBER 23: Zack Kassian #44 of the Edmonton Oilers skates up ice during their NHL game against the Vancouver Canucks at Rogers Arena December 23, 2019 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)”n

Zack Kassian

Kassian is in a really good place in his career right now.  Having chemistry with the best player in the game is a great thing.  He’s having a career year right now in a contract year.  Right now he’s got 13 goals and 27 points in 39 games.  He seems certain to get to 20 goals, the first time in his career he will hit that mark.  Right now at 0.69 PPG, he’s on pace for 57 points and 27 goals.  He’s not as much of a certainty as the McDrai duo to reach that, but considering that his career-best is 15 goals and 29 points, even if he only barely gets to the 20 goal mark and, say, 35 points, that’s still a career-high for him.

Kassian is also a guy who creates room for his superstar linemates with his physical play – power forwards still have a role to play in the game, and Kassian is proving he can still play that role after everyone thought he was done after his days in Vancouver.  Kassian is so good at this he leads the team in hits with 109, and also good enough for top 20 in the league.

The beauty part of all this is Kassian is fully aware that his numbers are getting a “Mcdavid bump”, so even though his contract is up and he is due for a raise, his agent won’t be naive enough to ask for, say, $5-8 million a year.  He’s not that kind of player.  There’s no question he wouldn’t be putting up the same kind of numbers without McDavid – he can’t drive the play on his line, he’s a complementary player, albeit a good one.

Don’t be surprised if the Oilers give him a 5-year contract at somewhere in the neighborhood of $3-3.5 million a year.

James Neal

With his hat trick in the game last night against the Rangers, Neal is going to be the next Oiler in line to hit the 20 goal mark as he has 19 right now.  TSN had some ridiculous commentary that since Milan Lucic had outscored Neal in the month of December that the trade was more on an even keel now.

That line of reasoning should be exposed as pure BS.  Lucic’s 3 goals are the only ones he’s scored all year, meanwhile, Neal is here about to hit the same mark he’s hit most of his career, 20 goals – and we’re barely halfway through the season.

There’s no question which one of those guys is the better producer of offense – and thus which one is producing more for their contract right now.  I’d much rather have Neal at $5.75 than Lucic at $5.25.

Now that that unpleasantness is out of the way, although Neal’s numbers are impressive and a sign that he will cover the bet the trade made on his contract, he as a player comes with some caveats that Dave Tippett will have to manage.

1 caveat is Neal is currently riding a 20.4 shooting %.  That’s 8.4% more than his average, which means we should mentally prepare ourselves for a bit of a dip in production as the season goes on.  Not a huge one, but a dip nonetheless.

The other caveat is most of Neal’s production comes on the PP.  Neal currently has 12 of his 19 goals on the PP, which is good enough to lead the team and be #2 in the league in that stat – 2nd only to David Pastrnak.

That is impressive and a big reason why Neal doesn’t simply sit out of the lineup when he goes through stretches of not scoring, but that means he’s only scored 7 even-strength goals all season.

As such, there’s no question Neal belongs on the 1st unit PP, but where does Tippett play him at EV?  I think the Oilers were counting on him being a more balanced player when they traded Lucic for him, and as such at even strength he’s been up and down the lineup all season long at the wing, not really forming chemistry with any center at EV.

Imagine how dangerous of a player Neal would be if he could score as much at evens as he does on the PP. Hopefully, a skills coach is part of his offseason so he can become better at EV minutes – and maybe he works with the McDrai duo on defense too as that’s a big part of EV play.

He’s done his job by being better than the guy he was traded for and being a much better fit on the Oilers.  Now going forward let’s see if he can do even better at even strength.

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Nuge

Nuge’s profile has become lower ever since the McDrai duo arrived on the scene.  At one point he was the 1st line C of the future, now he’s just a solid 2nd line C and part-time 3rd line C when he’s struggling.

Nuge is a good player but seems to be just shy of elite status.  Unlike all the other players on this part of the list, he’s not really standing out in 1 area or another, he’s just a guy who goes out and does his thing.

One thing Nuge is doing really well this year is faceoffs.  Out of all the players who have taken a statistically significant amount of faceoffs, Nuge actually leads the team with 51.7%, a new career-high for him and the 1st time he has cracked the 50% mark in faceoffs.  Let’s hope that holds up for the rest of the season.

He’s also doing decently in his own end, improving on last year’s -13 to a -10 so far this year.  Not great, but an improvement nonetheless.

However, 1 area that puts a damper on his faceoff numbers is that his offense is down from last year.  Great things were expected of Nuge when he put up career highs of 28-41-69 (giggity) in a full season last year, but the 1st half of this year has been rather anemic as he has put up 8-16-24 in 36 games this season – he did sit out a few games with an injury – and if it weren’t for the PP he’d only have 4 goals and 10 points.  Ouch….and you thought James Neal was too dependent on the PP…..

That extrapolates out to 18 goals and 55 points, a 14 point dip from last year and a 10 goal dip from last year.

See what I mean about not quite elite?  If those point totals hold up, that’ll make 4 out of 9 seasons in which he’s come close but not cracked the 20 goal barrier, vs. only 3 seasons in which he has cracked the 20 goal barrier.

His shooting % right now is 9.3%, which is below his career average of 11.6%.  That tells me that perhaps we’ll see more production in the 2nd half of the season, as his numbers no doubt come closer to his career average, and he’s projecting so close to 20 goals now that may tip things in his favor just long enough for him to crack 20 goals.

There’s no question he hasn’t exactly had the best wingers over the years here in his career, so that hasn’t helped him.  We were all hoping that Neal might be that guy, or that Alex Chiasson might be that guy, but neither of those things has proven to be true.

I just hope the Oilers see some success in the next 2 seasons so Nuge doesn’t leave in free agency next year.  He’s got some flaws but he’s still a good player who would be in demand by a lot of teams looking for good centers. That being said, the Oilers need good scorers outside of the McDrai duo, and Nuge is one of those guys we need to step up.  Hopefully, the 2nd half of his season is still a better one.

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