There may be no more important a seven games series (or less depending on how things go) than the one that’s about to get underway between the Edmonton Oilers and the Calgary Flames. The Oilers have been in the playoffs before and while they made it to the second round in 2017, the team has suffered disappointment after disappointment. This is the year where the story surrounding the Oilers can change.
And while the fate of players like Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Darnell Nurse, Zach Hyman and Evan Bouchard is secure, for many players on the team, this series will determine their future with the organization. If the Oilers win this series, it will not only be because McDavid elevated his game even further than he already has, but because others stepped up to help. For those players, it could ensure their spot on this roster. On the other hand, some will work their way out of the team’s offseason plans if they fail to be difference-makers. Let’s take a look at the latter.
Jesse Puljujarvi Needs to Take Another Step
The analytics community will argue Jesse Puljujarvi is getting the shaft. Whether it’s a lack of playing time or not enough credit from the fan base and media, his most avid, number-crunching supporters will die on the hill that Puljujarvi does so many good things for the Oilers that his lack of goal scoring isn’t a huge concern. Underlying numbers be damned, if he doesn’t start scoring, his spot on this team might be up for grabs next season.
GM Ken Holland may know that Puljujarvi is a useful player. Head coach Jay Woodcroft may know that too. But, it’s not as simple as that. Puljujarvi has to prove he’s a better option to keep around than Evander Kane or Kailer Yamamoto. So too, the Bison King needs to demonstrate that moving him along to fill other holes and letting a player like Dylan Holloway take a run at the job opening is a bad idea by management.
Puljujarvi has an opportunity to force Holland’s hand here. Conversely, he could show the GM that he’s not a guy you lean on in big moments and important games, which is what this team needs to be built around moving forward.
This is a series built for a player like Zack Kassian. The key for the physical forward is to get involved early, set a standard for how the Oilers are prepared to play, but not take stupid penalties in the process. Most people expect the Flames to take it to the Oilers physically. Kassian has an opportunity to spin the narrative by bringing the fight to the Flames.
Calgary has a number of agitators that could get under the skin of the Oilers stars. It’s Kassian’s job to get under the skin of guys like Matthew Tkachuk, Johnny Gaudreau, and Elias Lindholm. If he can do so, these forwards have shown they can be taken out of the game mentally and because they tend to play on the same line, it would be easier to shut down the Flames’ most potent weapons, thus limiting their overall scoring.
Kassian is also a player on the verge of being a guy the Oilers look to trade to free up much-need cap space. There will be teams that like the element he brings and the Oilers need to move money this offseason. He needs to convince Holland not to dump his $3.2 million salary.
The Oilers seem to like Brett Kulak. A local kid who has shown any doubters that the Oilers didn’t overpay to acquire him from Montreal at the trade deadline, there’s a good chance they try to bring him back next season, regardless of the outcome of this series. That said, if he doesn’t play well, he becomes a player the Oilers “don’t need” to re-sign. If he does play well, he can help his cause when it comes to the amount of money the Oilers are willing to pay to retain him.
Kulak has the opportunity to cement his spot on the Oilers’ left side for next season, one that will include Darnell Nurse and Duncan Keith. Should he not be reliable and productive in games in this series, Edmonton could bring back Kris Russell for the league minimum and feel ok with the decision to let Kulak walk. And, if they decide not to re-sign Russell, they could give an opportunity to a player like Philip Broberg or Markus Niemelainen.
Kulak is probably Edmonton’s top choice for that third-pair next season. He simply needs to not give them a reason to change their minds.
Jim Parsons is a senior THW freelance writer, part-time journalist and audio/video host who lives, eats, sleeps and breathes NHL news and rumors, while also writing features on the Edmonton Oilers. He’s been a trusted source for five-plus years at The Hockey Writers, but more than that, he’s on a mission to keep readers up to date with the latest NHL rumors and trade talk. Jim is a daily must for readers who want to be “in the know.”