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Behind Enemy Lines: Previewing the Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames and Dallas Stars

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The Canes’ three-game week highlights the end of their four-game Western Conference road trip.

NHL: Winnipeg Jets at Edmonton Oilers
Connor McDavid
Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

Edmonton Oilers

Tuesday, 9:00 p.m. at Rogers Place

NHL: Winnipeg Jets at Edmonton Oilers Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

The Carolina Hurricanes continue their inaugural road trip of the season with their only visit to Edmonton on Tuesday night. When they arrive, they will square off with one of the more potent attacks in all of the NHL. Defending Hart Trophy winner Connor McDavid leads the Oilers early in the season with five points in his first four games, which is what you would expect from a player who tallied 100 points last season as he led the Oilers to their first playoff appearance since the surprise meeting with the Hurricanes in the 2006 Stanley Cup Final.

So far this season, the Oilers have gotten off to a bit of a rocky start, both in terms of record and team health. A 1-3 start has been aided by both a dry spell in scoring and extremely leaking defense and goaltending. In the past week, the Oilers gave up a combined 11 goals in two games, while only recording three goals of their own. However, the bigger loss may be that of Leon Draisaitl, who exited the Oilers game on October 9th after a collision with the Jets’ Jacob Trouba. Draisaitl is dealing with concussion symptoms as well as an eye injury, and there is currently no timetable for his return.

The loss of Draisaitl is understandably huge, as proven by the offseason commitment the Oilers organization made to both McDavid and Draisaitl. The Oilers signed both players to 8-year contracts, with McDavid’s valued at $100 million and Draisaitl coming in at $68 million. While both players are young stars, their combined future cap-hit is around $21 million, making the production of each player a necessity for Edmonton. Without Draisaitl, the Oilers are looking to Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Milan Lucic and Patrick Maroon to chip in a bit more in helping McDavid carry the offensive load in the early going this season.

Additionally, while in may in fact be possible for McDavid to carry this team offensively for long stretches, the Oilers simply must figure out their back-end. In four starts, starting netminder Cam Talbot has been borderline terrible, actually being removed from two of his last three outings, after arriving in Edmonton last season and playing at a Vezina-finalist level. Four games is certainly a very small sample, and that sample actually includes an opening night shutout against the Flames, but if the Oiler attack is diminished, they need Talbot to play some of his best hockey now.

On the blueline, the Oilers are still without Andrej Sekera who is recovering from his ACL tear in last season’s playoffs. In the meantime, the defensive core of Darnell Nurse, Kris Russell and Adam Larsson must do more to suppress offense on their end, as the Oilers have allowed close to 39 shots per game in the early going.

While the Oilers are certainly a dangerous team, and their home building is a difficult place to play, the Canes may be catching the Oilers at the right time.

What to Watch For

  • Will the Hurricanes eventually play their backup goaltender, Cam Ward? The Alberta native would seem to be a candidate to make a start in his home province, but the slow schedule in the early going has made it tough to find a spot where the Canes would like to remove starter Scott Darling from between the pipes. Expect that to change this week.
  • Where will the Canes find their offense? While Jeff Skinner has been off to a fine start, the rest of the Canes attack has been below-par so far. The old familiar bugaboo of not scoring has led to back-to-back 2-1 defeats. Look for the Canes to try to do anything they can to get the offense going.

Calgary Flames

Thursday, 9:00 p.m. at Scotiabank Saddledome

NHL: Ottawa Senators at Calgary Flames
Jaromir Jagr
Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

Leaving Edmonton, the Hurricanes make the trip south to Calgary to face the Flames. The Flames are off to a quick start at 4-2-0, and actually have a bit of a break before facing the Hurricanes on Thursday. Three-time All-Star Johnny Gaudreau has paced the Flames with eight points over the first six games.

But the biggest changes have come on the back end, with additions to their talented defensive core and in goal. By adding Mike Smith in net (as well as former Cane Eddie Lack, who is the new backup), the Flames are going with their third different starting goalie in as many seasons. The musical chairs has been spurred by deficient play, but also defensive struggles at times which belies the talent assembled on the Flames blueline. In the early going, Smith as been exceptional, posting a .929 save percentage in starting all six contests.

To continue to bolster the blueline, the Flames added Travis Hamonic in exchange for draft picks in a deal with the Islanders. Along with Hamonic, T.J. Brodie, Dougie Hamilton, and veteran captain Mark Giordano, the Flames have what should be a solid defensive core. It remains to be seen if they can play up to their expectations as the season progresses.

Lastly, to continue to add depth to their scoring, the Flames made a late move in camp, as they added the ageless Jaromir Jagr to their stable of forwards. While Jagr was only added in the final week or so of camp, he has appeared in three games thus far, notching one assist. Look for Jagr to play a role in providing depth scoring for a team littered with capable NHL players.

What to Watch For

  • Youngsters Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Matthew Tkachuk (all under 25), as well as solid veteran Mikael Backlund are the headliners on the offensive end. Will the Canes top two pairs be able to keep the two lines populated by these players off the score sheet? Even if that is the case, will the third pair, which is missing Trevor van Riemsdyk, be able to handle the depth of the Flames, which features players such as Kris Versteeg, Sam Bennett, Troy Brouwer and Jagr?

Dallas Stars

Saturday, 8:00 p.m. at American Airlines Center

NHL: Dallas Stars at Nashville Predators Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The revamped Dallas Stars are off to a bit of a slow start to begin the 2017-18 campaign. While a home and home with the Arizona Coyotes early in this coming week may be just what the doctor ordered, the 2-3 start may have been easier to expect with so many key new faces in Dallas.

For starters, the biggest addition was goaltender Ben Bishop. After 3+ seasons in Tampa Bay, Bishop spent a short stint after the trade deadline last season in Los Angeles. He signed with the Stars after they traded for his rights in May, inking a six-year, $29.5 million extension. His presence provides the Stars with the starting-caliber goalie they have needed for multiple seasons. While Kari Lehtonen remains in Dallas, it is clear that Bishop is the top man in Big D.

To continue their offseason changes, the Stars knew they had to improve their blueline to go along with their goaltending, as last season the Stars finished next to last in goals against. By working with the Vegas Golden Knights during the Expansion Draft, they were able to bring in Marc Methot, who was last seen in Ottawa helping lead an extremely defensive-minded Senators team to within an overtime goal of the Stanley Cup Final. Methot provides an additional defenseman, along with John Klingberg, that hopes to improve, even if the depth is not quite available at the position as of yet.

Lastly, the offensive acquisition of the offseason was the signing of Alexander Radulov. After a four-year absence from the NHL, Radulov returned from Russia and put together a very solid season for the Canadiens, producing 54 points and 18 goals in Montreal. The KHL veteran accepted a five-year, $31.25 million deal in Dallas, which will keep him in North America longer than any of his previous forays into NHL hockey. To go along with the offensive winger Radulov, the Stars added veteran, defensive-minded center Martin Hanzal to round out a very busy offseason of player acquisition.

Beyond the players, however, perhaps the biggest change in Dallas is the return of the Stars’ Stanley Cup-winning bench boss, Ken Hitchcock. After six seasons in St. Louis (and additional stops in Philadelphia and Columbus), Hitchcock returns to Dallas, and brings along his more defensive style. While significant adjustments are being made, the hope in Dallas is that Hitchcock can provide a more disciplined defensive structure, while not curtailing the offensive exploits of players such as Radulov and superstars Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin.

In the early going the results have been mixed. The defense has improved, as they have allowed only 13 goals in 6 games, but the offensive has suffered, with only 11 markers on the season. Sample sizes are too small to draw real conclusions at this point, but the philosophical change in Dallas will take time to sink in. For now, the Stars hope they can simply win enough games to stay relevant for when the equilibrium they hope to reach can be found.

What to Watch For

  • The hockey world lost a talented broadcaster earlier this month as Dave Strader passed away following a brave battle with cancer. Look for Strader’s NHL on NBC colleague and friend John Forslund to provide some sort of tribute to a wonderful broadcaster.