2) Mattias Ekholm and the blue line
When Mattias Ekholm arrived in Edmonton from Nashville in a trade last season, it proved to be a watershed moment for the Oilers. The team finished the regular season with a phenomenal 18-2-1 run, to clinch 50 wins for the first time since 1986-87.
More importantly, Ekholm’s arrival shored up the blue line and overall defensive play, with the average goals allowed per contest dropping from 3.34 to 2.67. On an individual level, he also helped Evan Bouchard improve both his confidence and level of play.
In this respect, Ekholm and Bouchard highlight everything which has gone wrong defensively for the Oilers up to this point of the 2023-24 campaign. At the time of posting, the team has the second-worst goals against average in the NHL.
The goalie tandem of Jack Campbell and Stuart Skinner have had their issues at times, but the reality is they’ve also been hung out to dry too many times by their teammates. In fact if it wasn’t for the duo, several of the final scorelines would have been even more ugly this season. (Skinner’s performance in the 3-0 loss to the Rangers in particular comes to mind.)
Want your voice heard? Join the Oil On Whyte team!
For Ekholm, his poor start to the season was impacted by a hip flexor injury he suffered during his offseason training program. He ended up missing all of the preseason games and the disastrous season-opener in Vancouver.
Due to this, the 33-year-old has struggled to find his form, even though coach Jay Woodcroft was initially confident he would be fine right out of the gate. And even though the player finally looked like himself against the Flames, keep in mind this is just one game, and against another team which has also looked poor up to this point.
The knock-on effect of Ekholm’s struggles, has been the form of Bouchard. As much as he is proving to be an excellent offensive threat, he’s made far too many costly mistakes at the defensive end of the ice.
Another player who was expected to perform well but has struggled, is Darnell Nurse. As an overall result, a lot of fingers have been pointed at the Oilers’ deployment of a new defensive zone coverage prior to this season.
However, while there have indeed been some struggles with the change, it was always going to take time to adjust (and is gradually shown some progress). In truth, the majority of the goals have come as a result of mistakes, many of which could have easily been avoided; again, this alludes to the previously mentioned lack of focus and consistency which can, and must, be resolved.