The Edmonton Oilers are 3-0 after rallying to defeat the Anaheim Ducks 6-5 on Tuesday, Oct. 19, at Rogers Place. With six points, Edmonton sits atop the Pacific Division standings just over a week into the 2021-22 NHL season. As usual, it’s the MVP duo of Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid leading the Oilers. The last two Hart Memorial Trophy winners are tied for the NHL lead with eight points apiece. But there have also been some surprise standouts for the Oilers, players whose unanticipated contributions have helped Edmonton maintain a perfect record through three games.
One of this season’s imperatives was to give an opportunity to the offensively gifted blueliner who was drafted 10th in 2018. Evan Bouchard, who just turned 22, spent far too much of last season in the pressbox (75 percent to be precise — 42 of 56 games), stunting the promising defenceman’s development.
Bouchard’s chance was expected to come playing on the third defensive pairing, while seeing some time the power play. No one expected he would be deployed much, if at all, on the penalty kill. Yet here he is, logging nearly 20 minutes per game, and has played more shorthanded (3:37 average) than any Oiler besides star workhorse Darnell Nurse. However, it’s not just about how often he’s on the ice; It’s that he’s thriving when he’s out there.
Bouchard leads the Oilers with nine blocked shots, is first among Edmonton defencemen with a plus-2 rating and has the best 5-on-5 Corsi (55.0 percent) and Fenwick (58.7 percent) of all Oilers who have played in every game. He’s also fifth on the team with nine shots. On Tuesday, he scored for the first time this season — a critical goal midway through the third period that put Edmonton ahead to stay.
With no goals and one assist in his first three games as an Oiler, Cody Ceci may not fit the description of a standout, per se. However, his performance has certainly been a pleasant surprise to those who expressed doubt in the veteran defenceman that signed a four-year, $13 million deal with Edmonton this summer.
After a somewhat rocky preseason, Ceci has paired with fellow offseason addition Duncan Keith to form a rock-solid pairing whose primary mandate is to shut down the opposition’s top scoring threats. Oilers coach Dave Tippett has shown trust particularly in Ceci, who is fifth on the team in ice time at both even strength (16:58 per game) and when Edmonton is shorthanded (2:25).
Ceci’s detractors have long cited his advanced stats, and while his even-strength Corsi (47.3 percent) and Fenwick (52.7 percent) are far from spectacular, they rank among the better rates on the team and are improvements on his career metrics. He’s blocked seven shots so far and has a plus-1 rating.
It’s hard to say what’s a more telling stat: that with two goals, Zack Kassian is tied for second on the Oilers with 50-goal scorer Draisaitl and his linemate Jesse Puljujarvi or that, with two goals, Kassian has as many as he scored in the entire 2020-21 NHL season.
The maddeningly inconsistent power forward was MIA last season, recording just five points in 27 games resembling nothing of the menacing scorer who was awarded a four-year contract extension worth $12.8 million in January 2020. He’d tailed off so much there were suggestions of leaving the 30-year-old exposed in the Seattle Kraken Expansion Draft.
But the theory has always been that Kassian is driven largely by the energy of the crowd, which would explain if not excuse his season-long disengagement while the Oilers played in empty arenas for the duration of 2020-21. Playing again before thousands of fans, Kassian looks like the version of himself that had 30 goals, 60 points, and 171 penalty minutes in 138 games spanning the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons.
Kassian scored both his goals in Edmonton’s win against Anaheim. In three games this season, he’s dished out 11 hits, and ranks sixth in the NHL with 24.47 hits per 60 minutes. During Tuesday’s post-game media availability, Draisaitl said the Oilers’ best line might have been the trio of Warren Foegele, Kassian and center Derek Ryan.
The contributions of these players are indicative of the increased depth the Oilers enjoy this season, and fuel Edmonton fans’ optimism of a run at the Stanley Cup next spring. The Oilers will look to more surprise standouts to step up as they hit the road for the first time this season, with games at the Arizona Coyotes and Vegas Golden Knights on Thursday (Oct. 21) and Friday (Oct. 22), respectively.
Brian is an Edmonton-based sports writer and broadcaster. His experience includes working as a sports reporter for the Edmonton Sun, where he covered the Edmonton Oil Kings 2013-14 Memorial Cup championship season.