The Continued Struggles of the Edmonton Oilers Bottom Six

VANCOUVER, BC - SEPTEMBER 17: Edmonton Oilers Right Wing Patrick Russell (52) is congratulated at the players bench after scoring a goal against the Vancouver Canucks during their NHL game at Rogers Arena on September 17, 2019 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Vancouver won 4-2. (Photo by Derek Cain/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Just like last season, the biggest problem with the Edmonton Oilers so far is their depth scoring. The continued struggles of the Edmonton Oilers bottom six has been a big story this season. The bottom six has provided virtually nothing offensively. So far, their top line has been doing the vast majority of the heavy lifting. Connor McDavid centres the top line as Leon Draisaitl and Zack Kassian slot in on the left and right wings, respectively. The second line is centred by Ryan Nugent-Hopkins with James Neal and Alex Chiasson flanking him.

From the top six players, the production has been there. The top line has combined for 47 points so far in 11 games. The second line has a total of 19 points. The biggest problem with the players on the second line is that they have not been producing at a high rate during 5 on 5 play. With 10 of the 19 points between them coming on the powerplay, the second line needs to get going at even strength. Even though the even-strength production of the second line has been disappointing, there is still reason to believe that they can turn it around. The same thing can not be said about the bottom six.

The Edmonton Oilers Bottom Six in Need of Scoring

Early Season Success for the Oilers

So far this season, the Oilers have been successful. With 17 points in 11 games, they sit atop the Pacific Division. They have been able to do this based on a few key reasons. There has been unbelievable production from the top line, dominant performances by both the power play and penalty kill, and outstanding goaltending from both Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen. But, the numbers of McDavid and Draisaitl are unsustainable, just like their special teams’ performance, and the goaltending is highly likely to hit a bump in the road eventually.

For the Oilers to be able to navigate any issues as the season progresses, they are going to need drastically improved production on the scoresheet from their depth forwards. So far, their scoring depth is looking like a repeat of a failed 2018-19 season. Last season, only five forwards were able to surpass 20 points. Those five men were McDavid, Draisaitl, Chiasson, Kassian, and Nugent-Hopkins. The only other player who looks likely to surpass that total this season is James Neal. The new addition to the Oilers has fit in well with the Oilers so far as he has already potted nine goals, including six on the man advantage.

The Edmonton Oilers Bottom Six

The Oilers’ already struggling bottom six was hit with a blow yesterday as Josh Archibald was placed on IR, and is expected to be out for two to four weeks. Gaetan Haas was called up to the roster from Bakersfield. At practice today, their third line consisted of, from left to right, Jujhar Khaira, Riley Sheahan, and Patrick Russell. The fourth line is centred by Markus Granlund, with Tomas Jurco and Sam Gagner on the wings.

The six players who occupied the bottom six roles in practice today have only been able to put up two points in a combined 41 games. As the season continues to move forward, the Oilers can not count on Draisaitl and McDavid to produce at a clip just short of two points per game. If the Oilers scoring can not become more balanced, their playoff hopes will be in great trouble this season.

Riley Sheahan

Looking at Riley Sheahan, he has shown in the past that he can put some points on the board. In the 2014-15 season, Sheahan was able to put up 36 points with the Detroit Red Wings. This was his best season, but he was no slouch last year either. He picked up 19 points while playing with both the Pittsburgh Penguins and Florida Panthers. Sheahan is a reliable two-way centre with skill in the face-off circle. So far this season, he has been decent defensively, while being excellent in the face-off circle by winning 55.1 percent of the draws he has taken.

Jujhar Khaira

Jujhar Khaira has spent his entire NHL career in Oilers colours. Before this season, Khaira had 42 points in 154 games. This season, he has yet to get on the board in the 11 games he has played. Jujhar Khaira is viewed as a power forward who utilizes his size well and can play a two-way game. So far this season, Khaira has been virtually invisible on the ice as he is on pace to be worse than last year in blocks, hits, giveaways, takeaways, and plus-minus. If Khaira can not contribute on the scoresheet, he must start elevating his game in other ways. 

Patrick Russell

Before this season, Patrick Russell only had six games of experience. He was pointless in those games. Now, Russell has played 14 career NHL games. However, Russell still has zero points. Russell has the reputation of being able to produce offensively. Last year, he stepped up in Bakersfield as he earned a call-up to the NHL early in the year. In total, Russell ended up with 40 points in 51 games in the AHL. In the AHL, Russell was plus 30, a statistic that has not carried over to the NHL as of yet.

Markus Granlund

Markus Granlund has been a fairly consistent NHL player since the 2014-15 NHL season. Granlund has shown some offensive talent in the past, with 32 points in 69 games being his peak offensive season. This came in 2016-17 with the Vancouver Canucks. Last year, Granlund had 22 points. In the past, Granlund has been extremely effective defensively. Over the past three seasons, Granlund has taken the puck away 87 times, along with only 35 giveaways. This season, he only has two takeaways compared to two giveaways. For Granlund to be effective, he needs to be more active away from the puck.

Tomas Jurco

Tomas Jurco has played the bulk of his NHL career with the Detroit Red Wings. While there, he had his peak offensive season which was 18 points in 63 games. When it comes to goals, he has peaked at eight. Jurco already has two points this season in only nine games. This is a solid number from Jurco as he has never been seen as much of an offensive threat. For the Oilers, Tomas Jurco is the only healthy player outside of the top six who has not been an offensive disappointment so far. 

Sam Gagner 

Sam Gagner is the last member of this forward group. It is unfair to judge his season so far as he has only played one game. In the past, Gagner has been superb offensively. One example being his 50 point season with the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2016-17. Those days are behind him. But, he still brings needed experience to a fairly inexperienced forward group. If Gagner can rekindle even a little bit of his past offensive talent, he will be invaluable to this bottom six as the season moves forward.

Outlook for the Edmonton Oilers Bottom Six

Looking at the bottom six, the line of Riley Sheahan, Jujhar Khaira, and Patrick Russell has not been scoring. If they can increase their work rate and become more reliable around the ice, they will almost certainly be rewarded eventually. All three of these guys can throw their bodies around. If they can do that, then this could be a very effective checking line this season. The line of Markus Granlund, Tomas Jurco, and Sam Gagner has more of a need to affect the game offensively. Granlund has always stuck out for his ability away from the puck. But, this line does not have the same ability to dominate physically, or defensively. So far this season, Jurco has been the biggest contributor offensively. However, Sheahan, Khaira, and Russell have been much more effective in terms of their all-around game. 

Injuries to Depth Forwards

At the moment, injuries are playing a role in these struggles. Joakim Nygard, who may be the most talented Oilers forward offensively, excluding the top six, picked up 35 points in 52 games last season in the SHL. Nygard has been injured since October 16th. This has resulted in him being placed on the IR and missing the last five games. The loss of Josh Archibald also forces the Oilers to make some lineup changes. This may be a positive though as the team may need a spark to figure things out.

Looking Ahead to the Rest of the 2019-20 Season

Looking forward to the rest of the season, the Edmonton Oilers bottom six must start scoring. The performance of the top line led by McDavid and Draisaitl is unsustainable. And, the Oilers are going to need to be able to trust that everybody can pitch in offensively when called upon. Due to the dominant work of the top line, and the high-level goaltending that the Oilers have gotten so far this season, the Oilers have legitimate playoff potential. However, it is going to come down to whether or not the bottom six that Ken Holland and the Oilers have cobbled together, can pull their weight not only offensively, but in all facets of the game. 
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