By Jonathan Willis (The Athletic)

Dave Tippett has been largely unwilling to write off players this season, even while handling a roster which many consider flawed beyond its top-end contributors. The group today looks remarkably similar to the group that exited training camp. This was not surprising during a very successful opening month but became increasingly so during a down December.

Mike Smith, who will start his fourth consecutive game against the Canadiens on Thursday, knows as much about the downs as anybody. After all, it’s Smith, perhaps more than any other single player, who exemplifies Edmonton’s post-October slump. After a brilliant Nov. 2 win over Pittsburgh, Smith went 2-6-1 with a 0.853 save percentage over his next 11 appearances.

To compensate Tippett started leaning on his other goalie, Mikko Koskinen, but as the Oilers kicked off their current five-game road trip last week Koskinen was ill. Smith got the start, played well and Tippett leaned into it for all he was worth. Smith is 2-0-1 with a .918 save percentage three games into the trip, having played well in Buffalo and Toronto and dominantly against the Bruins in what is perhaps Edmonton’s most impressive win this season.

In the aftermath of the Boston game, Smith’s teammates lined up to talk about how hard the goalie worked. Darnell Nurse and Gaetan Haas both used the phrase “each and every” (night/day) to describe his effort, implicitly casting his performance as the reward for that dedicated exertion. Tippett took a similar approach, lauding the work Smith had been doing with goalie coach Dustin Schwartz.

“Schwartzy and him have done a lot of work together, so hopefully his game keeps coming,” the coach said. “You come into a place like (Boston) you need your goaltender to be really solid. He was solid in the net; he moved the puck very well. Really good performance by him.”

It was Smith though who cast his work against the Bruins in the most interesting light. Speaking about the team as a whole, he highlighted one of the key elements that distinguishes hockey from some other major sports.

“You beat a good team like this in their own building, we need to grow our game in a game like this,” he said. “A lot of things done well, full team effort. Every player played a big part in this game, and that’s what we’re going to need. We’re going to need everybody down the stretch here.”

There are higher- and lower-leverage minutes in hockey, but there are no truly unimportant minutes. It’s especially true in net. The backup goaltender might not seem like a critical element until he’s not playing well, at which point he starts costing his team games. The Oilers play at a 103-point pace in games where Koskinen has recorded the decision; with Smith in net this year it’s an 82-point pace.

With the team on the playoff bubble, Smith has managed to backstop it to five of six points on the road. Making the postseason could easily come down to just such a margin.

Tippett has made an honest effort not to lose players along the way as the Oilers have struggled over the last month. It was especially evident with his goalies early, when he would frequently start both Smith and Koskinen for a second consecutive game after a poor outing. Many coaches like to ride the hot hand; Tippett made a point of going in the opposite direction until now.

“(The psychological aspect) was part of our thought process at the start of the year, going (with a rotation of) two and two,” Tippett said Thursday. “We wanted to make sure that our team felt confident in both guys going in. That’s exactly what happened. If you ask anybody in our dressing room who is playing goal tonight it’s not a big concern to them. They think both guys can do the job. I think we’ve established that.”

If Tippett has gone against that standard over the last month, first in December and then on this road trip, he’s had justification. First it was Smith’s deteriorating game, which didn’t allow the coach to use him as frequently. Now it’s a stronger run of play, with Tippett trying to cash-in.

The coach knows he needs two goalies, and for a while it looked like he only had one. Tippett has repeatedly stated his goal of maximizing the performance of each player, and his handling to the goalies reflects both a knowledge that he needs two who can play well and a desire to keep both engaged.

Smith isn’t the only one in the early stages of recovery from a shaky stretch. The club’s highest-profile underperformer of late has been Leon Draisaitl, as incredible as that sounds for a player that (checks notes) currently sits second in the NHL in scoring. After a dominant 25-game run, Draisaitl’s even strength game disintegrated.

Over a five-week, 16-game stretch, the Oilers were outscored 26-4 at 5-on-5 with Draisaitl on the ice. That’s both goalies in, no empty net goals or shorthanded goals exaggerating the situation. With McDavid, without McDavid, it didn’t matter: his line was getting crushed. Some of it was puck luck, but even by expected goals Draisaitl’s lines were getting destroyed by a 2:1 ratio.

Over three games on the road, Draisaitl’s new line has a 3-0 edge on the opposition. The underlying metrics are less flattering but still represent a significant improvement. It’s early, but it’s possible he’s turned a corner, with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Kailer Yamamoto. It’s not a coincidence that Nugent-Hopkins is playing wing while Draisaitl takes the centre duties.

“We want to get him up and skating in that middle lane,” Tippett said. “When he can control the middle of the ice those other guys are pretty good with him.”

(Jeff Vinnick / NHLI via Getty Images)

The comment highlights the differing requirement of playing down the middle as opposed to playing on the flank. Draisaitl has had some high-profile moments lately where he wasn’t moving his feet. Rather than placing him in a position where doing so was less vital, Tippett deployed him in a slot where it was essential. It’s the same sort of steer-into-the-wind mentality he took early with the goalies.

“Leo’s had a tough month there but he’s really taken the steps to build his game back up again,” Tippett added. “I give him credit. He’s trying to do the right thing all the time, he’s trying to be in defensive position, he’s trying to take care of the puck a little more. There’s things that he’s trying to do in his game that are really trying to move it forward and I think we’re seeing the results of that now.”

Ultimately all a coach can do is support his players, after which it’s up to them. Draisaitl has been publicly critical of his play, but Tippett credits him with putting in the work to turn it around. Smith has struggled, but the coach and the team generally praise his willingness to work.

Riley Sheahan is another good example of a player who the coach has stuck with despite lows. Anointed the Oilers’ third-line centre out of training camp, he has faced a steady diet of good opponents and defensive zone starts. One of the other factors in Tippett’s decision to play Nugent-Hopkins and Draisaitl together, in fact, was the desire to have a Sheahan-centred designated checking line.

That role was one that Sheahan notably struggled in early. Fifteen games into the year, the opposition had outscored the Oilers 9-0 at 5-on-5 with the veteran centre on the ice. Expected goals painted a less grim picture, but still not a pretty one: just 3.3 for as opposed to 5.2 against. Tippett didn’t waver, and Sheahan appreciates the way he trusts in his players even through the difficult times.

“Over the course of a long season you need everybody,” Sheahan said. “So many guys are able to play, in different roles. The coach showing confidence in you is huge.”

The reward for Tippett has been improved play. Over the last 25 games, Sheahan’s unit is minus-3 by actual goals and just minus-1 by expected goals. Given the context of those numbers, both in terms of quality of competition and territorial disadvantage (Sheahan starts three shifts in the defensive zone for each one in the offensive end) that’s minimal bleeding which other lines should be able to make back in more favourable deployment.

The lack of panic and the continued trust even in tough stretches has been

key to Tippett’s handling of the Oilers. Asked about laying the foundation as a new coach prior to the team’s strong road performance he didn’t sound at all like a man running a team which had lost 10 of its last 15 games.

“The coach has to get to know the players,” he said. “The coach always has an idea of where players fit and the roles they’re going to go into. As you go through you start to learn more and more about players and where you think their strengths are and where you want to make sure you can maximize what they can do and places where you think somebody else might be better in that spot. It takes a while. As you go on every day is a grind, but it’s a good grind. You’re learning about your group every day. Hopefully you’re getting better every day.

“I give our group credit. We jumped out early and played pretty well. There (are) a lot of things that were strong in our game: our special teams have been pretty good, our goaltending was good. We’ve had a little dip lately, but our players recognize how we have to play. It’s just a matter of trying to do it night-in and night-out.”

It isn’t that Tippett is unaware of the team’s issues. At times he has been visibly angry. He has also spoken bluntly about its shortcomings. Consistently, though, he has worked to build players up when they fall into ruts rather than sidelining them or embarrassing them publicly.

It’s often said, not least by GM Ken Holland, that the NHL is not a development league. That’s true, but it doesn’t mean the need for personal and professional development goes away. It is perhaps a secret to Tippett’s longevity — six years in Dallas, eight years in Arizona — that in the grind of trying to win every night and the countless objectives a coach needs to pursue that he has never lost sight of the need to keep players from the top to the bottom of his lineup involved and productive. Winning remains the priority, but even with as long as he’s been in the game Tippett still feels the pain of taking out players.

“That’s always a concern,” he said. “One of the hardest things a coach does is tell players, or have players sit out, because everybody wants to be a part of it. Whether it’s a goalie or an extra player or guys in and out of the lineup, those are the things that bother coaches the most. They’re good people, they want to play.

“Ultimately you’ve got to try and figure a lineup that gives you the best chance to win. You try to keep everybody engaged but you’ve got to focus on trying to win every night.”

Statistics from Natural Stat Trick and Hockey Reference.

(Photo: AP Photo / Jeffrey McWhorter)