Where does '100 points for McDavid' fit on Edmonton Oilers' priority list over the final 10 games?

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The Edmonton Oilers remain some distance away from mathematically clinching a playoff spot, what with the Vancouver Canucks still having enough games to catch up that in theory they could still finish in first place in the North. We all know that isn’t going to happen, but some of those games have to be played before it becomes a mathematical certainty, likely some time next week when the Oilers meet the Canucks four times in a six-day span. They’ll first have a chance to put an insurmountable difference between themselves and Calgary Flames with a win in either of the two games the Alberta rivals will play later this week.

But things are certainly trending inexorably in that direction, hastened on their path on Monday night when Edmonton thumped Winnipeg 6-1 while both Vancouver and Calgary dropped 2-1 decisions in regulation. Put another way, Oilers superstar Connor McDavid scored more goals last night (3) than did the other 5 active teams in the North (1 or 2 each).

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The Oilers now sit solidly in second place in the division, their lead over Winnipeg a slender one point but with two games in hand. They are also second in the division in goal differential, and in both Goals For and Goals Against when parsed on a per-game basis. Over the past 10 games Edmonton has the best record in the division, and with two games in hand retain an outside chance of catching Toronto for first place.

So I’m gonna call it right now: the Edmonton Oilers will make the playoffs. I’ll go further out on that limb and fearlessly predict that McDavid will win the scoring title no matter what transpires down the stretch.

10 more games remain on the slate, 5 of them in the next 7 days (Wed-Thu-Sat-Mon-Tue) followed by 5 make-up games vs the Canucks and Montreal Canadiens in the final 10 days of the extended calendar.

What should be Edmonton’s priorities down the stretch? Is it, for example, more important for McDavid to reach the unlikely pinnacle of 100 points in a shortened season or for him to have plenty of gas in the tank for the second season? Here’s my take:

  • Keep winning games. No reason to change that fundamental imperative, which will achieve the overlapping goals of clinching a playoff berth, finishing in as advantageous a position as possible, and having the team humming on all cylinders when the post-season finally does arrive. A win in the very next game, at Winnipeg tomorrow night, would put the club firmly in the driver’s seat for home-ice advantage in Round One.
  • Don’t overwork the top players. While it’s true that the Oilers have achieved goal #1, winning games, by pushing the likes of McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and Darnell Nurse to copious ice time north of 25 minutes on many nights, it’s a reasonable objective to scale that back by, say, 10%. That could be achieved by rolling the lines a little more frequently, and by reserving the late-game push for the very closing minutes of tight contests. And in games that aren’t close? Last night McDavid played a season low 16:03 while still managing to dominate the game. That’s the ideal.
  • Get some playing time for as many players as possible. The injuries to Jujhar Khaira and Zack Kassian are a problem on one level, but an opportunity on another. Their absences have opened the door for James Neal and Ryan McLeod to be activated on an emergency basis, leaving the Oilers with three more post-deadline moves that will allow them to activate the likes of forwards Tyler Ennis, Kyle Turris and/or Patrick Russell, and especially promising rearguard Evan Bouchard down the stretch. (They used the first move on Joakim Nygard.) And where the team had been so tight to the cap as to make further activations problematic, the reassignment of Kassian and his $3.2 million cap hit to Long Term Injured Reserve alleviates that particular stress. As I read it, Ken Holland has free rein on the cap front to use those three remaining moves as he sees fit.
  • Give the new guys plenty of opportunity to acclimatize. Last night Dmitry Kulikov and Ryan McLeod both made their Edmonton debuts. Believe it or not, it was the first time since Smith returned in Game 14 that an Oiler played his first game of the season with the club. Such has been the nature of Holland’s “29-man roster” in a pandemic season and Tippett’s liberal use of the taxi squad that the feeder system has been something of a closed loop until now. Kulikov started with Adam Larsson and may become a fixture there, but don’t be surprised if Tippett at least gives him a look with other partners. Ditto for McLeod who looked very comfortable playing between Devin Shore and Josh Archibald, but look for there to be plenty of churn in the bottom six down the stretch.
  • Don’t overuse Mike Smith. The big stopper has been enjoying a superb season since recovering from an injury that cost him the first 13 games. His stats are better than at anytime since his career season with Phoenix Coyotes way back in 2011-12. Dave Tippett was his coach then, too, and he continued to ride Smith hard in the playoffs, right to the conference finals. Difference now is that Smith is 39 years old. While he’s started 25 of the Oilers’ 33 games since his return, it would make sense for that to be scaled back somewhat down this hectic closing stretch. Mikko Koskinen is a more-than-capable backup, while Alex Stalock is on the roster and waiting in the wings for some game action. Tippett addressed this question in today’s media avail, keywords “prepared” and especially “fresh”. One approach would be to give Smith a full game off here and there, dressing Koskinen and Stalock on those occasions.

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  • Spot the other veterans carefully. First sign of that came last night when Tippett chose to sit 33-year-old Kris Russell rather than 23-year-old Caleb Jones to make room for Kulikov. Presumably that was a merit-based decision as well, but the fact remains that with more healthy bodies than places to put them, the coach can judiciously deploy his older players, give them plenty of ice when they are in the line-up but a night off here and there as well. On the back end, include the likes of Tyson Barrie and Adam Larsson on that list of veterans, in the process opening the door for young Bouchard to get some reps.
  • Give McDavid plenty of opportunities… within reason. The superstar might be on course for 100 points, but that unlikely milestone is surely well down Tippett’s priority list. Or even McDavid’s own, based on his postgame comments last night. Far, far better that he is healthy and fresh for the playoffs. Worth restating from above, there’s no real good reason to push the guy for 25-27 minutes a night, especially in back-to-back or 3-in-4 scenarios that will prevail in the coming fortnight. He’ll still get his chances on the first line and first powerplay. Even scaled back to, say, 20 minutes a night, do you want to bet against him scoring 19 points over the final 10 games? Me neither.

Recently at the Cult of Hockey

McCURDY: Player grades from Oilers’ 6-1 triumph over Jets

STAPLES: Zack Kassian to LTIR

STAPLES: Ryan McLeod to make NHL debut in the ‘peg

LEAVINS: Oilers looking to get bigger on defence

McCURDY: Injury scare at Oilers practice bold-faces the value of Mike Smith

Follow me on Twitter @BruceMcCurdy

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