Unlikely Fab Five helping drive Edmonton Oilers to winning record in 2023

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The Edmonton Oilers have been a new and improved team in the calendar year of 2023. This is due in no small part to the combined effort of the unlikely Fab Five, five bottom of the roster journeymen who are playing their best hockey

Three of them are on or near their last chance as NHLers, fighting for new contracts. Two of them have been criticized as under-performing veterans, not earning their pay and letting the squad significantly.

In 2023, Edmonton’s record in 27 games is 15 wins and 12 losses, six of the losses in shootouts or overtime for a .667 points percentage, sixth best in the NHL, and second best in the Western Conference. The Oil have averaged an NHL best 4.3 goals for and 3.3 goals against in 2023.

Contrast that to Edmonton’s first 38 games, where they had just a .553 points percentage, 20th in the NHL. Edmonton averaged 3.6 goals for and gave up 3.3 per game. They were outside a playoff spot as 2022 came to a close.

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What’s changed? Connor McDavid, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Leon Draisaitl and Zach Hyman were scoring like all-stars then and are doing so now. The goaltending was iffy then and is iffy now.

But the Fab Five have ignited and launched.

Both Foegele and Kostin, who is in a contract year, are hitting hard, (generally) back checking smartly and making sharp attacking plays with the puck, both firing hard and dangerous shots at net on a regular basis.

Shore and Ryan, both fighting for new contracts, are darting there, there and everywhere, playing smart defence and making equally smart passes and shots on the attack.

Kulak has gone from leaking Grade A shots against to raising his game back to the high level he displayed in the 2022 playoffs, the level that earned. him a four-year contract last summer. He’s moving the puck well, playing with a bit of a snarl and pumping out solid fundamental games on defence, one after another.

All this is seen in their performance at the heart of the game, their major contributions to Grade A shots for and major mistakes on Grade A shots against at even strength. Each has improved markedly in the last 27 games compared to the first 38 as detailed in the chart below.

I won’t get into the nitty gritty details of these high resolution stats, but simply note each players per game improvement when it comes to plus-minus in this category: Foegele +1.07, Ryan +0.83, Kostin +0.37, Shore +2.08 and Kulak +0.95.

Don’t lose your head then if you see coach Jay Woodcroft put out Foegele, Ryan or Shore with a top line. In this calendar year they’ve all been executing their two-way games as well as top line players (though it should be noted, they’ve done so against lesser competition, not the top players on other teams).

With this kind of performance it’s little wonder that without either Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl on the ice this season at even strength, Edmonton has scored 67 goals and given up 60, a 52.8 goals for percentage.

That’s the kind of saw-off that will see a team go far in the NHL playoffs, at least if the big stars remain healthy and pick up their defensive games, and if Edmonton can get any kind of quality goaltending.

As regular Cult of Hockey readers and listeners, I’ve been bullish on this Oilers team since pre-season. I never expected Jack Campbell to struggle so much. I had hoped Kulak would get it earlier, along with other third and fourth line players.

That didn’t happen.

But it’s happening now.

As I say, if the top players on this team can crank up their defensive games — something I fully expect to see down the stretch and in the playoffs — and if the Oilers get decent goaltending from Campbell or Stuart Skinner, Edmonton is going  far in the 2023 playoffs.

How far?

All the way.