Facing Off is a weekly column debating five of hockey’s hottest topics each and every Monday. From current events like trades and hat tricks to bigger-picture stuff like scandals and expansion — you name it, we’re debating it. Albeit, not always with a serious tone. We’re keeping this column light, so keep that in mind when reading, and feel free to join in on the fun by leaving a comment. Follow us on Twitter (@FacingOff_THW) and get in on the debate there too.
There — now the celebration can commence. Somebody pop the cork!
Shirts off for HORCOFF!
OK, maybe that’s a bit much, but pinch yourselves this morning Oilers Nation, Edmonton is officially going back to the NHL playoffs for the first time since going all the way to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final in 2006.
That was a wild ride, from what I remember, and with more than a decade of pent up emotions, this 2017 run promises to be every bit as exhilarating for however long it lasts — be it four games or four rounds.
— The Hockey Writers (@TheHockeyWriter) March 28, 2017
Fitting that the Oilers clinched their first playoff berth in 11 years on Fan Appreciation Night at Rogers Place since a lot of those supporters were also in attendance at Rexall Place for Game 6 against Carolina in 2006 and all those lean, losing years that followed until some kid named Connor McDavid came along to change the franchise’s fortunes.
There is also a whole new generation of Oilers fans who either weren’t born, weren’t old enough to remember 2006 or weren’t old enough to enjoy one of Rexall’s infamous “heroin” beers back then. I was there for the majority of home games that spring — as a single, ready to mingle twenty-something — and if you fit that criteria today, you’re definitely in for a treat over the next few weeks . . . or potentially the next few months. Fun times ahead in the Alberta capital!
Fans old and young, far and wide stuck by the Oilers through hard times, and owner Daryl Katz deserves a ton of credit too, not only for building that state-of-the-art new arena but for taking several hits to his pocket book — through buyouts and burying players in the minors — as a means of helping his boyhood team get back to the playoffs at all costs. Katz got a bad rap for endorsing the Old Boys Club, but he’s put together quite the empire in Edmonton now and another dynasty could be in the making.
— The Hockey Writers (@TheHockeyWriter) March 25, 2017
OK, getting a little ahead of ourselves again, but the Oilers have punched their ticket to this year’s dance and THW’s writing team of Shane Sander, Rob Soria, Jim Parsons and Marcy Di Michele, among others, are chomping at the bit to finally cover some playoff hockey in the former City of Champions.
The wait is over for them too, and we actually got a head start with this week’s special edition of Facing Off — a two-part collaboration, featuring all four of those Oilers contributors — by weighing in on potential matchups and post-season expectations.
— Facing Off (@FacingOff_THW) March 28, 2017
Picking up where we left off yesterday, today’s continuation debates individual accolades and awards as opposed to team accomplishments and what the future holds.
Who’s the Oilers’ MVP this season: Connor McDavid or Cam Talbot? No, you can’t say both.
SANDER: McDavid — he’s a Hart Trophy, Ted Lindsay and Art Ross candidate, and will be the first Oiler to score 90 points in a season since Doug Weight in 2000-01. If McDavid finishes on top in league scoring, he’d be the Oilers’ first Art Ross Trophy winner since 1986-87 when Wayne Gretzky won his ninth scoring 183 points.
DI MICHELE: The easy choice is McDavid, but I’m going with Talbot for Team MVP. There have been plenty of games that the Oilers had no business being in and Talbot gave them a chance to win. McDavid is an unbelievable player, but it’s clear the Oilers need strong goaltending to be successful and Talbot has provided just that.
— The Hockey Writers (@TheHockeyWriter) March 23, 2017
SORIA: As good as Talbot has been this season, it’s not even remotely close. The fact the Oilers’ goaltending had been bad for the better part of the previous decade has muddied the waters for far too many people. Make no mistake, No. 33 has played a huge role in the turnaround — as has the obvious upgrade to the back end — but let’s not be silly here.
McDavid is not only the MVP of this team, he is by far and away the most valuable player in the league and that too is by a fairly wide margin. Take any of the supposed other candidates off their respective teams, do the same with this one, and I guarantee Edmonton would be the team that is nowhere near where it currently sits in the standings. Nuff said.
PARSONS: Talbot has been great, but I don’t know how you can pick anyone other than McDavid. I believe he’s the MVP of the entire NHL this season and not because I’m biased toward the Oilers. At barely 20 years old, it’s frankly amazing what McDavid’s done for this organization already.
FISHER: I’m shocked nobody tried to break the rule and go with co-MVPs. A solid case can be made for Talbot, and Marcy is certainly not alone in that thinking, but it’s McDavid for me too. Rob makes a really good point about where the Oilers would be without McDavid, and while I don’t think they would be a lottery team again like last year, I highly doubt Edmonton would be a playoff team if No. 97 had missed 20-plus games to injury this season. But then you must also ask yourself: where would the Oilers be if Talbot had been hurt for 20-plus? Yeah, it wouldn’t be pretty either way. I mean, sure the Oilers have scored a few touchdowns and provided plenty of run support, but Talbot has stolen his share of wins for Edmonton and is responsible for several points in the standings too. Co-MVPs? Todd McLellan might think so.
Who’s the Oilers’ unsung hero this season? Yes, you can name two if need be.
DI MICHELE: I’ll go with Patrick Maroon and Adam Larsson. Maroon has been the perfect complement to McDavid. Larsson has been a steadying force on the blue line, and after all the press he got because of the Taylor Hall trade, he’s hopefully won over fans with his play.
SORIA: This is certainly a tougher one to answer than the MVP question, but still not overly difficult. How anyone but Mark Letestu gets the nod here is beyond me. Letestu ranks eighth on the team in points (33), seventh in goals (15), and he’s tied for first in power-play goals (10) with Leon Draisaitl. I dare you to go and find me another fourth-line centre who can do that.
PARSONS: For me, there is a long list of guys on this team who deserve some credit for the seasons they are having. From Letestu, who has rebounded from last season and changed the Oilers’ power play, to Zack Kassian, who is making a case to be re-signed. But my vote goes to Larsson, who is silently erasing any doubt that the Hall trade was a bad move. Larsson had so much pressure to perform here and he’s done so over and over again. He leads the team in hits (228, seventh in the league), he’s second in plus-minus (+18), he’s physical and nasty, and he’s putting up slightly more offense than expected (17 points). This Oilers team is a much better team with him on it. He’s stabilized the entire defense.
SANDER: Maroon — we talk a lot about the Oilers’ secondary scoring and how Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins are having down years, but Maroon has really softened that blow. The Oilers took a flyer on Maroon and he’s rewarded them with 25 goals this season — third most on the team, just one behind McDavid and two back of Draisaitl. When Maroon scores, Edmonton fans cheer a little louder and he’s made himself into a folk hero similar to what Fernando Pisani was in 2005-06.
FISHER: No shortage of unsung heroes on this team, with Maroon, Letestu and Larsson all fitting the bill, but I’ll give a little love to Kris Russell too. The Oilers were the laughing stock of the analytics world when they signed him late in the offseason, but Russell has really solidified Edmonton’s top four on defence and been a terrific soldier for McLellan. There is no disputing that the Oilers are a better team with Russell than without him in the lineup — Edmonton’s longest losing streak of the season (five games) occurred when Russell was sidelined in November and his presence was sorely missed by Andrej Sekera.
In saying that, my vote would probably go to Larsson. I don’t want to kick Taylor Hall while he’s down — and out of the playoffs again, on another last-place team — but the Oilers are clearly better off with Larsson. A lot of people laughed at Peter Chiarelli for making that trade too, but who’s laughing now? I don’t think there are too many Edmonton fans who wouldn’t make that deal again in hindsight, and you can bet Larsson is getting Talbot’s unsung vote.
Who’s been the most surprising Oilers player this season? And who’s been the biggest disappointment?
SORIA: As poorly as Benoit Pouliot’s season has gone, it falls well short of what Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins have produced in 2016-17. Both were expected to deliver and neither one has lived up to their advancing billing. To be fair, their seasons do appear to be outliers of sorts when compared to career norms, especially Eberle, but the lack of impact they’ve had on most nights cannot be argued.
At the other end of the spectrum would have to be the emergence of Matthew Benning. The youngster took little time in adjusting to play at this level, and while he still has a ton to learn, it can be argued he’s already of the Oilers’ three best blueliners — even if his head coach doesn’t use him as such. Benning’s ability to move the puck has been an absolute godsend, as half the back end still struggles mightily to get the puck to the forwards in full flight — especially No. 97.
PARSONS: Most surprising has to be Maroon. He showed in a brief stint last season that he could score, but I don’t think anyone expected him to come in this season and put up 25-plus goals and 40-plus points. He’s fit right in with McDavid where that spot was designated for Milan Lucic.
Most disappointing might be a tie between Pouliot and Nugent-Hopkins. Pouliot’s season isn’t all that surprising, but his lack of production is disturbing. Nuge seems to be doing a lot of the right things, but just isn’t getting the offensive production the Oilers need out of a $6-million, second-line center.
— The Hockey Writers (@TheHockeyWriter) March 10, 2017
SANDER: Letestu good and Pouliot bad. When the season started, many viewed Letestu as an overpaid fourth-line center. As of today, he’s only one goal behind both Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins, and Letestu is a solid two-way presence on both special-teams units.
Pouliot, however, is having the worst year of his career and his 14 points are the lowest total he’s put up in nine years. With two years remaining at $4 million each, Pouliot is likely to be left unprotected in the expansion draft and could end up being a buyout candidate.
DI MICHELE: I guess we shouldn’t be surprised at Draisaitl considering how high he was drafted, but he has looked like a stud all season long. The complete opposite would be Nugent-Hopkins, who has really taken a step back in all areas of the game. I have to wonder if he’s in the future plans.
FISHER: No mention of Talbot? He’s been the biggest positive surprise for me this season. I didn’t expect him to thrive in a 70-plus game workload and become a top-10, arguably top-five goaltender in the league. Most were anticipating a breakout season for Talbot and some of the signs were there — especially after backstopping Canada to gold at last year’s worlds, with a shutout in the championship game — but I never imagined he could get to this level even with Edmonton’s improved defence.
I’m glad Marcy mentioned Draisaitl too, because he’s exceeded my expectations as well. Truth be told, in my preseason fantasy projections, I labelled Draisaitl as overrated and Nugent-Hopkins as underrated. Boy, I couldn’t have been more wrong there, but I don’t think anybody was predicting Draisaitl to challenge for the top 10 in league scoring. He’s now leading the 2014 draft class in scoring and might go first overall in a redraft. Would the Panthers trade Aaron Ekblad straight up for Draisaitl? They’d have to think about it. Draisaitl has certainly separated himself from the Sams — Reinhart and Bennett — in becoming a fantasy stud.
Nugent-Hopkins has been the dud so far — I was predicting his first 60-plus point season and he’ll fall short of 50 — but something tells me he’s going to step up in the playoffs. That whole second line will have something to prove in the postseason. I don’t have as much hope for Pouliot, but even he’s picking up the pace lately.
How many award nominees and winners will the Oilers have this year: Hart, Ted Lindsay, Art Ross, Vezina, Jack Adams, GM of the Year? Who is the most deserving?
PARSONS: McDavid for the Hart, Ted Lindsay and the Art Ross are all real possibilities. Talbot should be in the conversation for the Vezina, but I don’t think he can beat out goaltenders like Devan Dubnyk and Sergei Bobrovsky. Same can be said for McLellan as the Jack Adams coach of the year. I think he’s in the conversation, but not the winner. If McDavid keeps up his pace, I think he’ll clean up this year. He’ll probably get the Bridgestone Messier Leadership Award as well.
— The Hockey Writers (@TheHockeyWriter) March 22, 2017
SANDER: Six nominees, three winners. Call me optimistic but McDavid is a shoo-in candidate and could win the Hart, Ted Lindsay and Art Ross. Talbot has been the busiest goaltender in the league, playing 68 games — a remarkable 89.5 per cent of his team’s games — while still being amongst the league leaders in goals against (2.37 GAA) and save percentage (.920). Talbot should be a Vezina nominee. McLellan also deserves some Jack Adams praise since he’s improved the Oilers by 23 points already — the only bigger point increase for a team is by John Tortorella and the Columbus Blue Jackets (29). Chiarelli should get some respect for his work as Oilers GM as well.
DI MICHELE: McDavid will definitely be nominated for the Hart, even though I think it should go to Sidney Crosby. But McDavid will win the Art Ross. He may also get the Ted Lindsay. Some might feel that Talbot should be in the conversation for the Vezina, but that trophy is Bobrovsky’s all the way.
SORIA: Talbot has been outstanding but will fall short of being nominated for the Vezina and rightfully so. He has certainly been among the upper echelon of goaltenders in 2016-17 but is not quite worthy of being in the final three on the ballot. Same deal for coach McLellan. The Oilers have enjoyed a tremendous turnaround in the standings during his second season behind the bench, but so have the Blue Jackets and Toronto Maple Leafs — not to mention the job Joel Quenneville has done in Chicago.
However, where Edmonton will hit it out of the park is the Hart Trophy and Ted Lindsay Award. For me, the Art Ross is already a done deal, and there is little question McDavid will be nominated for the other two. The popular belief appears to be that Crosby could have the inside track on both, but I am not sold on the idea. Players across the league recognize just how good the Oilers’ young captain is and while I suspect the voting for the Lindsay Award will be extremely tight, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if the kid wins it.
As previously mentioned, in my mind, the Hart Trophy race should not be particularly close but, in all likelihood, it will be. As much as some may want to give Crosby and others their due for putting together spectacular seasons, there is no good reason for McDavid not to be named the MVP of the league. McDavid has carried this team from start to finish and taken a perennial loser to Pacific Division contender in what was his first full season in the NHL. Add to that a scoring title and what might still be a 100-point season and suddenly it becomes rather overwhelming.
FISHER: McDavid should clean up, I concur, and that Lindsay vote is going to be very intriguing to see if the players themselves feel the torch has been passed from Crosby to McDavid this season. Both of them are going to put forth a strong finishing kick, but McDavid has a leg up right now in my opinion. He’ll be flirting with 100 points by season’s end, but wouldn’t it be fitting for him to finish with 97? Either way, that should be enough for the Art Ross. Crosby likely hangs on for his second Rocket Richard, but 50 goals would seem out of reach now. All things equal, I tend to value goals more than assists, but I don’t think all things are equal in this case. Crosby has a better supporting cast, so McDavid’s accomplishments are more impressive to me. That would really be something if McDavid were to sweep the Art Ross, Hart and Ted Lindsay awards. Of course, he’d trade them all for a Stanley Cup!
McDavid is going to win the Hart and the Art Ross in his sophomore season, just like Crosby did in his second year.
— Peter 🇺🇸 (@proth87) March 29, 2017
If Talbot does end up setting a franchise record for wins in a single season — eclipsing Grant Fuhr’s 40 victories — then he deserves to be a Vezina finalist. A runner-up to Bobrovsky.
With a better showing at the trade deadline — a more aggressive approach towards turning Edmonton into a contender — Chiarelli could have been a frontrunner for that GM award. He’s still worthy of a nomination, and I honestly don’t know who my winner would be there.
I’ll give McLellan an honourable mention for the Jack Adams, but he’d be behind Tortorella, Quenneville and Mike Babcock on my ballot — likely in that order.
Who won this round of Facing Off? Feel free to weigh-in with your opinions in the comments below. We will be checking in periodically to both defend and expand on our initial answers. If you want us to face-off over a topic, we’re open to suggestions as well.
Larry Fisher is a senior writer and head scout for The Hockey Writers, having been an at-large contributor for THW since August 2014. Fisher covers both the NHL and the WHL, specializing in prospects and NHL draft content, including his annual mock drafts that date back to 2012. Fisher has also been a beat writer for the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets since 2008, formerly working as a sports reporter/editor for The Daily Courier in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada from 2008-2019. Follow him on Twitter: @LarryFisher_KDC.