We’re about to find out what Oilers are capable of

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There is probably no team in the NHL under more pressure for a fast start this season than the Edmonton Oilers.

They were the biggest disappointment in the league a season ago, their coach is the odds-on favorite to be the first one fired this season, and their season-opening game nearly one week ago — a 5-2 loss to the New Jersey Devils, in Sweden — was about as ugly and one-sided as any game they played a year ago.

After a five-day break and a trip halfway around the world, they are finally back in action again on Thursday night in Boston.

[Related: Which NHL coaches are on the hot seat?]

Even though it is only the second game of the season coach Todd McLellan is already putting some players on the roster “on notice” to turn their games around.

“There could be a lineup change or two,” McLellan said before Thursdays’ game when talking about bouncing back from the tough season opener.

“There has been a lot of meetings, or discussions, with different players, pairs of players, lines, that type of stuff. There are a number of players that are on notice that may be given an opportunity to turn their performances around from what we saw in Sweden, and tonight would be a good night to establish yourself in the lineup as a consistent player, rather than being a bit of an anchor if you will.”

Reminder, again, that this is only game two.

Among the changes that we know are getting made for Thursday is that Kyle Brodziak, one of the offseason depth additions by the front office, will be a healthy scratch after playing just 9:35 in the opener.

Increasing the pressure on McLellan and the Oilers is that their early season schedule is as nightmarish as it could possibly be. After taking a trip overseas to open their season against a fairly good Devils team, the rest of the month is filled with a who’s who of the NHL’s best teams on an almost nightly basis as they travel their way back to Edmonton from Sweden.

After facing the Bruins on Thursday, they have a weekend trip to New York to face the still-winless Rangers.

Things get infinitely tougher after that as their next 10 games on the schedule include Winnipeg, Boston again, Nashville, Pittsburgh, Washington, Nashville again, at Chicago, and then home for Minnesota and another matchup with Chicago. All of that before heading out on a four-game road trip that takes them to Washington, Tampa Bay and Florida.

That is … harsh.

That means over the next three weeks their schedule features games against all four of the top teams in the standings from a year ago (Nashville, Winnipeg, Tampa Bay and Boston — with two games against both Nashville and Boston), two games against the defending Stanley Cup champions, a high-powered Pittsburgh team, another top-10 team from a year ago in Minnesota, and two games again a Chicago team that, while not quite what it used to be, still has enough good players to make it a challenge.

Brutal. Just brutal.

While no one clinches a playoff spot in October, the first month of the season still goes a long way toward determining what sort of season your team is in for. Points are so difficult to make up in the NHL that a slow start this early in the season can pretty much ruin a season before it even begins.

“It’s easy to say, ‘Aw, we have 81 (games) left,’” said Milan Lucic earlier this week, via Sportsnet’s Mark Spector. “But we kept doing that last year. ‘It’s OK, we have 60 games left.’ ‘It’s all right, we have 55 left.’ Then, all of the sudden it was like, ‘Whoa, we’ve got 40 games left and we’re completely out of the mix here…’”

The Oilers won just three of their first 11.

They were far from the only team that never recovered from a bad start. The Florida Panthers, for example, were the hottest team in the NHL in the second half of the season and had the second best record in the league after Feb. 1 (going 24-8-3 over their final 35 games). They still missed the playoffs because of the early hole they put themselves in. The Arizona Coyotes were an extremely competitive team in the second half of the season, going 16-9-2 over their final 27 games and still finished with one of the league’s worst records after starting the season with just one win in 14 games.

Basically, these early season games do not get the same attention that regular season games in March tend to get during the playoff push, but they are still extremely important when it comes to the success or failure of every team in the league.

Everyone needs to start fast, but given the circumstances around the roster, the expectations, and where the team placed a year ago there is probably no team that needs more than the Oilers. They did not get much of a favor from the schedule makers, either. We are about to find out what this team is made of very, very quickly.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.


Stars aligned with new coach DeBoer, Nill-constructed roster

Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
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DALLAS — General manager Jim Nill sensed things were coming together for the Dallas Stars even before the season started with new coach Pete DeBoer and a roster mixed with proven veterans, up-and-coming young players, and even a teenaged center.

At the NHL’s All-Star break, after 51 games together, these Stars are leading the Western Conference.

“Every year you start, you put a team together, and there’s always going to be question marks,” said Nill, in his 10th season as the Stars GM. “You have ideas how you think you’re going to come together, but there’s always the unknown. . This year has been one of those years where right from the start, you could just see everything was kind of jelling.”

The Stars (28-13-10, 66 points) have their trio of 2017 draft picks that just keep getting better: All-Star winger Jason Robertson, goaltender Jake Oettinger and defenseman Miro Heiskanen. The seemingly ageless Joe Pavelski, at 38 and already re-signed for next season, is on the high-scoring top line with Robertson and point-a-game winger Roope Hintz. Wyatt Johnston, their first-round pick in 2021 and half Pavelski’s age, has 13 goals.

There is also the resurgence of six-time All-Star forward Tyler Seguin two years after hip surgery and 33-year-old captain Jamie Benn, who already has more goals (19) than he did playing all 82 games last season.

The Stars have a plus-40 goal differential, which is second-best in the NHL. They are averaging 3.37 goals per game, more than a half-goal better than last season when they were the only team to make the playoffs after being outscored in the regular season. They are also allowing fewer goals, and have improved on power plays and penalty kills.

“Where we sit at this break, I think guys are happy with that,” Seguin said, before being asked the keys to the Stars leading the West and on pace for a 100-point season with their new coach.

“Our style, our team speed, our puck speed, being predictable. All the clichés, knowing where the puck’s going. Really how we play the five-man unit,” he said. “Our pace this year, it’s been a lot quicker. There’s been some solid depth scoring this year while we’ve got one of the best lines in hockey.”

The Stars went into the break on their only three-game losing streak of the season, all 3-2 overtime losses at home.

“Those aren’t real losses,” said DeBoer, who twice has gone to the Stanley Cup Final in his first season with a new team. “I’m happy where we’re at. I like how we’re playing.”

Plus, Dallas won’t have to worry in the playoffs about 3-on-3 hockey, which has been the only real stain on their season so far. Only one team has more than its 10 losses after regulation.

“We’ve played a lot of good hockey. We’ve made a lot of good strides in our game,” DeBoer said. “We still have another level we have to get to when we get back, but there are a lot of good things that have happened. They’ve worked to have us where we are right now in the standings. Good spot to be in.”

The Stars have 31 games left in the regular season. The first four after the break at home, like the last four before their week-long hiatus.

Robertson’s 33 goals rank sixth in the NHL, and the 23-year-old has the same number of assists while averaging 1.29 points a game even after he missed most of training camp before signing a four-year, $31 million contract. Pavelski has 48 points (14 goals, 34 assists) while playing every game, and Hintz 46 points (20 goals, 26 assists) in only 43 games.

Oettinger, who is 21-7 in regulation, has a .923 save percentage and 2.26 goals against average since signing his three-year, $12 million contract. That deal came after 223 saves in a seven-game playoff series against Calgary last May, capped by 64 in the series finale that went to overtime.

Nill said Robertson’s production has improved even with the league adjusting to the high-scoring forward, and that Oettinger is proving to be one of the league’s best goalies. But they are just part of what has been a tremendous team effort.

“They kind of had that mojo right from the start, and it was kind of this team’s got the right mix,” Nill said. “It’s come together well, and it’s shown in the standings. It’s been good to watch.”

Canucks’ Ilya Mikheyev to have season-ending knee surgery

Ilya Mikheyev
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VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Vancouver Canucks right wing Ilya Mikheyev is set to have season-ending surgery on his left knee.

Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin said Friday night the 28-year-old Russian forward tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the team’s first preseason game Sept. 25. Mikheyev will undergo surgery next week and is expected to be ready for training camp in the fall.

Mikheyev was originally listed as week-to-week with the injury and played 45 regular-season games, finishing with 13 goals and 15 assists. He scored in his final appearance Friday night, a 5-2 home victory over Columbus.

Mikheyev signed a four-year, $19 million contract as a free agent last summer.

Maple Leafs’ Matthews out at least 3 weeks with knee injury

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Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews will miss at least three weeks with a sprained knee.

The team announced the reigning MVP’s anticipated absence Friday, two days after Matthews was injured in Toronto’s victory against the New York Rangers.

Matthews is expected to miss at least six games and could be out for a few more. The timing of the injury coinciding with the NHL All-Star break and the Maple Leafs bye week prevents this from costing Matthews more time out of the lineup.

After being voted an All-Star by fans, Matthews is now out of the event scheduled for Feb. 3-4 in Sunrise, Florida. The league announced Aleskander Barkov from the host Florida Panthers will take Matthews’ place on the Atlantic Division All-Star roster.

Matthews, who won the Hart Trophy last season after leading the NHL with 60 goals, has 53 points in 47 games this season.

Caufield opted for surgery with Habs out of playoff race

caufield surgery
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MONTREAL — Montreal Canadiens winger Cole Caufield said Friday he wouldn’t be having season-ending surgery on his right shoulder if the team were in playoff contention.

But with the Canadiens near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the 22-year-old Caufield said he decided to have the surgery to protect his long-term health. The procedure is scheduled to be performed by Dr. Peter Millett on Wednesday.

“I didn’t want to stop playing,” Caufield said. “I had a couple tests done to look at it more clearly but, in the end, like it could’ve been one more fall and it could have been even worse.”

Caufield, who leads the Canadiens with 26 goals in 46 games, had three different medical opinions on his shoulder before concluding that his season was over.

“I think they’ve seen a lot more than I have and they know the differences and what they like or don’t like about it,” he said about the medical opinions. “Long term, I think this is what’s best but for sure it was tough to sit out that game against Toronto on Saturday night.”

Caufield initially felt the injury in an awkward fall during Montreal’s 4-2 loss at Dallas on Dec. 23. He said his right shoulder popped, and he replaced it himself.

Caufield felt it again in the Habs’ 4-3 loss at Nashville on Jan. 12. The club announced on Jan. 21 that Caufield would miss the rest of the season.

Caufield is nearing the end of his three-year, entry-level contract and will be a restricted free agent this summer.