Injury to Zack Kassian takes the shine off a rare strong game for Oilers' struggling bottom six

Oilers Zack Kassian and Flames Matthew Tkachuk fight during the first period at Rogers Place on Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020. Photo by Perry Nelson /USA TODAY Sports

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Game Day 15: Edmonton at Ottawa

Edmonton Oilers go right back into action in Ottawa Senators tonight, one day after coming out on top of the Senators 3-1 in a tight contest.

It was a full team effort by the visiting Oilers, who broke open a 1-1 tie on a third-period goal by fourth liner Tyler Ennis, a rare but welcome offensive contribution from the bottom half of the line-up. More on this in a moment.

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This morning’s breaking news involves the loss of winger Zack Kassian to an upper body injury, suffered not two minutes into the first period when he engaged in a wild scrap with Ottawa thumper Eric Gudbranson that saw both fists and bodies being flung about with abandon. Both men went down early in the fight but clambered back to their feet to continue the hostilities. The two dropped the flippers right off a faceoff, just two seconds after Jujhar Khaira had taken on Austin Watson in Edmonton’s first fight of the entire season, also right after a draw.

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After being called out by coach Dave Tippett earlier in the day for not being sufficiently engaged through the opening weeks of the season, Kassian apparently took his boss’s words to heart, even as the feud with Gudbranson likely had its roots in a game-ending scrum the prior time the two clubs met. But his “engagement” turned out to be short-lived; he returned for one uneventful shift after his stint in the penalty box, bobbled the puck the only time he touched it, then repaired to the locker room for the rest of the night. At a guess, a hand injury from punching a visor. The winger was placed on Long Term Injured Reserve this morning, with Devin Shore recalled from the taxi squad to fill the open roster spot. The LTIR designation means Kassian will be out a minimum of 24 days.

At this morning’s media avail, Tippett said Alex Chiasson would draw in to the actual line-up to replace Kassian. Tippett’s actual words were “he’ll be one of the guys coming in tonight”, indicating more changes are afoot. The coach wouldn’t elaborate further other than confirming that Mikko Koskinen will take the net after Mike Smith made a strong season debut in last night’s win. No surprise there, the duo split every back-to-back set all of last season. Best guess here is that Smith will play Thursday in Montreal regardless of what happens tonight.

One thing that Tippett would like to see happen is another solid game from his bottom six, or bottom five as the case may be. (After two games of dressing just eleven forwards, the Oilers were reduced to that number again last night after Kassian left very early.)

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Sad fact is that the Oilers haven’t gotten near enough from the bottom end of its line-up to this point — now a quarter of the way through the 56-game schedule. Let’s focus here on a specific subgroup of five veteran forwards, each 30-33 years old, each with over 500 games of NHL experience, each on a seven-figure contract. The club’s brain trust has every reason to expect more from this group on a night-to-night basis than they’ve been getting to this point.

A quick review, in order of cap hit:

  • James Neal: 829 career GP, $5.75 million AAV through 2023; 8 GP, 2-1-3, -3
    After a late start to the season, Neal has struggled through a slow start. His goals both came in the opening 10 minutes of an 8-5 win over Ottawa, otherwise he’s been quiet. He was badly outplayed by the man he was traded for, Milan Lucic, in last Saturday’s Battle of Alberta (Lucic 1-1-2, +2, 4 shots, 3 hits, 71% shot share; Neal, 0-0-0, -1, 0 shots, 0 hits, 22% shot share). To date, Oilers have taken 43% of the shots and scored 38% of the goals when he’s been on the ice at 5v5.
  • Zack Kassian: 538 career games, $3.2 million AAV through 2024; 13 GP, 1-2-3, -3
    Started the season on the top line but lost his spot after an indifferent start. At his coach’s urging he set out to become more “engaged” last night, but with unfortunate results. Oilers’ on-ice shot share has been 44%, their goal share 40% with Kassian on the ice at 5v5.
  • Alex Chiasson: 526 career games, $2.15 million AAV through 2021; 7 GP, 0-0-0, -4
    Played the first 5 games of the season, then found himself in the press box once Neal was able to return to the line-up. Cleared waivers at one point. On-ice shot share of 39% at 5v5, goal share of 25%. 
  • Kyle Turris: 740 career games, $1.65 million AAV through 2022; 14 GP, 1-2-3, -10
    Brought in to solidify the third line, Turris has been the biggest disappointment of the early season, with the Oilers producing little offensively while leaking goals against on his watch. His -10 goal differential is the worst such mark of any forward in the NHL. The Oilers have taken 42% of the shots and scored just 20% of the goals with Turris on the ice at 5v5.
  • Tyler Ennis: 619 career games, $1.0 million AAV through 2021; 6 GP, 1-1-2, -2
    Another vet who had an abysmal start to the season, coming back from a significant injury in last August’s play-in series and an undisclosed issue at the start of the current campaign. The Oilers have taken 44% of the shots and scored 33% of the goals on his watch.

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Add it all up and that’s $13.75 million in cap hit — an average of $2.75 million per player — tied up in 5 guys who have produced a combined 5-6-11, -22 in 48 appearances in the season to date. All are well below the break-even point in flow of play metrics and in goal share. Nowhere near good enough.

That said, this post has a happier tone today than it would have had I written it yesterday as initially planned. Ennis, acquired last trade deadline from Ottawa, had by far his best game of the season in his old barn, darting and dangling his way into dangerous spots all night. He was rewarded with the game-winning goal — the first of the season scored by any Oiler not named McDavid or Draisaitl.

Another former Senator, Turris, also had a better showing. No goals at either end on his watch — itself a step in the right direction — with the Oilers controlling the shot clock to the tune of 6-1 during his 9 minutes at evens. Baby steps.

Yet a third erstwhile Sen, Chiasson, draws in tonight to replace the injured Kassian. Perhaps a whiff of the humid Ottawa air will get him going as well. Chiasson did have his best game of the season vs. the Sens in Edmonton last week, providing heavy screens on two Oilers’ powerplay goals, but like the other guys named above he needs to find more ways to contribute at both ends of the ice.

Neal had his two goals in that same game, but otherwise has been a step behind on too many nights. He was better on Monday with a 7-4 shot share and a dangerous powerplay chance from the edge of the crease that forced one of Matt Murray’s best saves.

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One shouldn’t expect a hundred goals from this group, but it’s reasonable to expect more than they’ve delivered, individually and collectively, through the first quarter of the season. Timely contributions from down the line-up can often make the difference, as they did last night. More, please.

Tonight’s (projected) line-up

This is based on what we know, though Tippett did suggest there will be other changes. Likeliest possibility is on the third pairing, where Kris Russell hobbled down the tunnel for a brief period last night. Wouldn’t be surprising to see the 33-year-old get the night off on any given back-to-back, but especially this one. One or both of Caleb Jones or Slater Koekkoek could draw in, with Koekkoek the favourite for penalty-killing purposes. Jones did himself no favours when he failed to fill the shooting lane on powerplay goals scored by Auston Matthews and Drake Batherson. He hasn’t seen the ice since the second of those in what seems to be a loud-and-clear message from his coach.

The club’s other 33-year-old skater, Neal, may also be questionable after absorbing some friendly fire in his net-front role last night. If he’s unable to go, look either for Shore to draw in or for Tippett to go back to seven defenders.

The taxi squad is now down to just three members, with three others having been recently activated to replace the injured Ethan BearGaetan Haas, and now Kassian.

Meanwhile, at the top of the line-up, things continue to go well:

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Last night it was Draisaitl’s turn to shine in a first-star performance that featured the game-tying goal and an assist on the winner. The Oilers haven’t had a 1-2 punch of this magnitude down the middle since the days of Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier. The trick now is to get the supporting cast up to speed.

Recently at the Cult of Hockey

STAPLES: Player grades: Mike Smith & the grinders come up big in Oilers win

STAPLES: Tippett says it’s an “understatement” that Oilers need more from Zack Kassian

STAPLES: Draisaitl’s lack of even strength goals explained

LEAVINS: 9 Things for Sunday, Feb. 7

McCURDY: Leaky goalie, porous defence leads to loss versus Calgary

Follow me on Twitter @BruceMcCurdy

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