Smith suffers setback, battered bottom six under reconstruction as Oilers take on Bruins

Smith suffers setback, battered bottom six under reconstruction as Oilers take on Bruins

Author of the article:

Bruce McCurdy  •  Edmonton Journal

Vancouver Canucks defenceman Tyler Myers (57) looks to pounce on a rebound as goalie Thatcher Demko (35) makes a save on Edmonton Oilers forward Warren Foegele (37) at Rogers Arena on Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021.
Vancouver Canucks defenceman Tyler Myers (57) looks to pounce on a rebound as goalie Thatcher Demko (35) makes a save on Edmonton Oilers forward Warren Foegele (37) at Rogers Arena on Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021. Photo by Bob Frid /USA Today Sports

Game Day 12: Edmonton at Boston

Some more bad news on the injury front for the Edmonton Oilers Thursday morning, as putative #1 netminder Mike Smith has suffered yet another setback in his recovery from a lower body issue first suffered 23 days ago. He has returned to Edmonton, meaning it is highly unlikely he will play in any of the remaining four games on the current road trip.

Koskinen starts in Boston, with Skinner likely to go in Buffalo. Mike Smith has had a setback and gone back to Edmonton for further evaluation, according to Dave Tippett. @LouDeBrusk, @GenePrincipe and I will see everyone on @Sportsnet for Oilers-Bruins tonight at 5 MT.

— Jack Michaels (@EdmontonJack) November 11, 2021

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This injury has regressed from day-to-day to week-to-week to who knows what? With Smith’s 40th birthday approaching seemingly faster than his potential return to the line-up, red flags are popping up left and right. In the immediate short term, though, the good news is threefold:

  • Mikko Koskinen has played extremely well since Smith left the crease midway through Game 3 vs. Anaheim, posting a 7-1-0 record and posting save percentages of .923 or better in 6 of his 8 appearances. He’ll start in Beantown tonight.
  • Stuart Skinner is a heckuva lot closer to being an NHL-calibre goaltender than he was this past January when a similar Smith injury dogged the early-season Oilers. Skinner had a fine showing in his season debut in Detroit Tuesday, and has earned another start tomorrow when the Oilers play in Buffalo. That should ensure that Koskinen is not overworked in Smith’s absence to the degree he was a season ago.
  • The club itself has cruised to a 9-2-0 start, allowing some breathing room for down times. Some, not a lot; the first-place Oilers find themselves just 4 points above sixth-place Vegas in a surprisingly competitive Pacific Division. It’s a good spot, but there remains pressure on the club as a whole to garner some results from the impending back-to-back, with tough games in St. Louis and Winnipeg at the other end of the five-game roadie.

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Injuries are not restricted to the blue paint, where would-be #3 man Alex Stalock is also unavailable, presumably for the season. In the last two games, the Oilers have lost bottom six forwards Devin Shore and Zack Kassian to lower body injuries. Shore has been declared out for 4-6 weeks and placed on injured reserve, while Kassian missed practice yesterday and is considered day-to-day. His absence from tonight’s contest will mark his fourth separate stint missing time to injury since turning 30 this past January, a growing concern for the bruising winger now in his 30s.

The bottom six was already stressed enough without these unwelcome developments. Let’s take a deeper look at the numbers, selected columns from a bigger data table at the brilliant Natural Stat Trick :

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This is on-ice results at 5v5, sorted by average ice time per game which effectively stratifies the team into first, second, and third lines, all nine players of whom have double-digit games played and double-digit ice time. Fourth line duties have been shared among six players who sport single-digit games and minutes.

None of the data is “pure” in that none of these lines have played together every game. In particular, the top six has two major variations, one where  Leon Draisaitl plays LW with  Connor McDavid and  Jesse Puljujarvi , the other where  Zack Hyman slides up to Line 1, while Ryan Nugent-Hopkins moves to LW on Line 2 to make room for Draisaitl at his natural position of centre. (That latter deployment is what we’ll see tonight, at least to start.)

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The other columns represent the team’s percentages of shot attempts, shots on goal, high danger chances, and expected goals with each player on the ice. Actual goals are outlined in red at right, where we’ve included both goals for and goals against per 60 minutes as well as actual goal share.

There’s a little bit of jitter in there: Hyman’s excellent underlying percentages suggest he’s been a bit unlucky in the distribution of actual goals, Draisaitl and RNH the opposite. But as a whole, the top six has kicked butt, as might be expected given the quality of players involved.

But as has been the case for so many years in Edmonton, everything the top six gains at even strength, the bottom six seems to give back. The upgraded third line — which has largely been intact as shown here — was scoring early on, but that has dried up recently even as the group has continued to bleed goals against the entire time. All three members of the line have yielded over 4 goals per 60 to this admittedly-early point. Those goals for percentages are not pretty, and the raw numbers aren’t either: the Oilers have 5 goals for, 10 against with Warren Foegele on the ice, 3-8 for Derek Ryan , 5-8 for Kassian.

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The various players who have appeared on the fourth line, meanwhile, have played little, with poor shot, scoring chance, and goal shares for the most part. Colton Sceviour has been the shining light to this point, with Oilers actually having the better of play and a 0-0 score line in his 25 minutes of action. The rest? Not so much.

An unproductive bottom six is hardly a new problem for the Oilers. As a group it is best defined by 5v5 time with none of McDavid, Draisaitl and Nugent-Hopkins on the ice (the bottom line here ), as that high-end trio has effectively defined the top six for years without three of them ever playing on a single unit for more than a rare shift here and there.

  • 2017-18: 82 GP, goal share 35-55=39%
  • 2018-19: 82 GP, goal share 26-45=37%
  • 2019-20: 71 GP, goal share 34-55=38%
  • 2021 . :   56 GP, goal share 24-45=35%
  • 2021-22: 11 GP, goal share 5-12=29%

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Key number of that last bullet point is “11 GP”. It’s too early to panic, but not too soon to observe a troublesome trend of a long-standing problem getting worse than ever. It’s a sore point that Ken Holland will need to solve if his Oilers are destined to become a true contender.

With Shore and Kassian joining  Josh Archibald on the sidelines, the curent version of the bottom six is down a few quarts, moreover with Dylan Holloway also sidelined there are no forwards knocking the doors down on the farm either. Best approach for now is to share the bottom six time among the healthy forwards at Dave Tippett’s disposal, and to hope for chemistry to develop on at least one of the units.

This is not a problem that is apt to fix itself without outside help, ideally at the 3C position. Alas, the list of candidates at that position who are both affordable and available is vanishingly small, especially this far from the trade deadline.

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Tonight’s line-up

In Kassian’s absence, Kyle Turris moves up to the third line. He’s had defensive issues of his own at both centre and wing since his arrival in Edmonton a season ago. Sceviour provides a reliable defensive presence on the fourth line, centred by recently-recalled Ryan McLeod . On the port side,  Brendan Perlini gets another opportunity to recover his pre-season magic.

All of which is bad news for Tyler Benson , who will remain in the press box despite of the absences of Shore, Kassian and Archibald. He’s gotten just 3 opportunities to play to this point, and didn’t stand out in any of them. One is left to wonder how many more looks he might get before the window closes.

The defence corps remains unchanged from the sextet that struggled in Detroit on Tuesday, while Koskinen gets the start between the pipes. Game time is officially 5: 00pm MST on Sportsnet One, following a ceremony honouring former Bruin and Oiler Colby Cave .

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Recently at the Cult of Hockey

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McCURDY: Segment review of Oilers Games 1-10

STAPLES: Ryan McLeod gets another chance

LEAVINS: Assessing McDavid — 9 Things

Follow me on Twitter @BruceMcCurdy

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