The 2019-20 season propelled an array of excitement, stress, and hope, but then the pause happened—and replaced all hockey-related, hope-related emotions with pure, uninhibited sadness.
When the pause hit, the Edmonton Oilers sat four points ahead of the Calgary Flames, and just three points behind the Pacific Division leaders, the Vegas Golden Knights. It seemed promising that the Oilers would not only make the playoffs for the first time since 2016-17 but would play their Albertan rivals, too.
Several things contributed to their success:
Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl continued to prove their league-wide dominance. General manager (GM) Ken Holland orchestrated magic behind-the-scenes: signed depth players—who turned out to be amazing on the penalty kill, good for second-ranked in the league; called up Kailer Yamamoto at just the right time; and traded Milan Lucic for James Neal, who sits one goal shy of 20.
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And Ethan Bear had a stellar rookie campaign, filling in the Oilers’ need for a puck-moving defenseman, all while Dave Tippett brought a fresh outlook to a team that ended last season on a sour note.
It’s easy to see that numerous players and members of the Oilers organization deserve at least consideration for the 2019-20 NHL Awards: Calder Trophy, Jack Adams Award, Bill Masterton Trophy, General Manager of the Year, Hart Trophy, and the Ted Lindsay Award.
Calder Trophy: Ethan Bear
Obviously, Quinn Hughes and Cale Makar are the frontrunners for the Calder Trophy, but Ethan Bear deserves recognition or some consideration at least.
According to Mark Spector, Bear’s stats compare well to other rookie-of-the-year considerations. For starters, Bear blocked the most shots out of all rookie blueliners—106. The first-year defenseman also has the fifth-most points and even-strength numbers among rookies in his same position.
To top it off, No. 74 led all rookies in ice time and games played (71). He may not get nominated for the Calder Trophy, but it’s nice to see how he compares to other up and coming blueliners.
Jack Adams Award: Dave Tippett
Let’s face it: Tippett’s special teams elevated the overall play of the Oilers. Right now, Edmonton has the number-one power play in the league and the second-best penalty kill. The only other team with both special teams in the top five? The Boston Bruins, who currently sit comfortably in first place in the league.
In 2018-19, under both Todd McLellan and Ken Hitchcock, the Oilers had the second-worst penalty kill, and under McLellan in 2017-18, they ranked 25th when shorthanded. Keep in mind that Holland’s off-season additions and assistant coach, Jim Playfair, helped to tighten the Oilers’ penalty kill. Meanwhile, assistant coach, Glen Gulutzan, brought his previous knowledge to this season’s power play as well.
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The Edmonton Journal points out that there’s “evidence that [Tippett] and the team prioritized shot quality over quantity, especially on special teams. Overall, his results with the Oilers add further weight to his already impressive track record of obtaining rapid results with every new opportunity.” (from ‘Dave Tippett had a history of quickly turning teams around, and he did it again with Edmonton Oilers’, The Edmonton Journal, 27/4/19)
But that’s not all!
The head coach’s goaltending rotation at the start of the season gave both Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen a chance to build confidence and take breaks. For quite some time, Tippett followed a format that had each netminder playing two games and then sitting for two. The head coach didn’t let up on his rotation even if both goalies played an excellent game a night or two before.
The mental game for a goalie can seriously mess with their heads, resulting in poor play, but his rotation at the start of the season may have helped both netminders to see and understand that they are both integral parts of the team. As of right now, Smith has played 39 games, and Koskinen has played 38. The split time grants Koskinen a chance to gain experience and grow into a number-one netminder, while it gives veteran Smith a chance to save his stamina.
One of Tippett’s greatest moves this season? Splitting up the Dynamic Duo for good. The Oilers’ horrific, lifeless 5-1 loss to the Flames in the first game back after Christmas break highlighted that the lines needed a shake-up to stay in the hunt for the playoffs.
On Jan. 2, Tippett debuted the immediately effective line of Nugent-Hopkins, Draisatil, and Yamamoto. The Edmonton Journal pointed out that he moved Draisaitl, who had played left wing all season, to centre, and Nugent-Hopkins, who had played centre all season, to left wing. It definitely took some creativity and smarts from the head coach to pull this off.
Bill Masterton Trophy: Connor McDavid
I don’t think McDavid deserves to just be considered for this award—he deserves to win it.
No. 97 cemented his superhuman status via the powerful Whatever It Takes documentary that unveiled his intense road to recovery, where he opted to avoid surgery. If he went the surgical route, he likely would’ve missed the entire 2019-20 campaign, and his knee may not have ever been the same. His intense rehab allowed him to return in true No. 97 form—the season wouldn’t have been the same without him.
The Oilers captain spent 7 days a week, 10 hours a day rehabbing his knee. Meanwhile, fans had no idea that their superstar was undergoing such intense treatment and that his injury was so bad—Sportsnet notes that “he fully tore the posterior cruciate ligament, tore the medial and lateral menisci, fully tore the popliteus muscle, tore the posterior capsule and sustained a tibial plateau fracture.”
At just 22 years old, No. 97 had 24 hours to decide if he was going to undergo surgery or go the rehab route.
Thankfully, the superstar healed just fine and returned in true McDavid fashion and eased all worries by scoring a flashy game-winning goal in the opening match of the season against the Vancouver Canucks.
The captain had 97 points in 64 games before the pause happened. If this entire situation doesn’t emulate “the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey,” I don’t know what does.
General Manager of the Year: Ken Holland
Some of us felt underwhelmed after Holland’s first summer with Edmonton—excluding the monumental Lucic-for-Neal swap. Over the offseason, the GM brought in numerous bottom-six additions: Markus Granlund, Gaëtan Haas, Tomas Jurco, Riley Sheahan, Josh Archibald, and Joakim Nygård.
The most notable of these additions? Sheahan and Archibald. They both played significant roles on the Oilers’ successful penalty kill.
Holland’s low-risk signings allowed young players like Tyler Benson and Yamamoto to gain experience and develop in the American Hockey League. At the start of the season, the GM stated that he wanted the young players in the organization to work their way up rather than get demoted and lose confidence in the process. This technique worked extremely well for Yamamoto, who impacted the Oilers as soon as he arrived.
The GM also signed Mike Smith to a smart one-year, $2 million deal. This signing provided much-needed veteran experience in the net alongside second-year NHL goaltender, Koskinen (note: the 6-foot-7 netminder did play 4 games with the New York Islanders in 2010-11).
At the trade deadline, Holland excelled. He brought in players to complement McDavid— Andreas Athanasiou and Tyler Ennis, who both had goals in the double-digits when they came over. The GM also added veteran Mike Green to the blue line, but he ended up injuring himself shortly after getting traded.
In exchange for the speedy Athanasiou, the possible-McDavid linemate Ennis, the puck-moving blueliner Green, and Ryan Kuffner, the Oilers traded away Sam Gagner (aka the fallen soldier), Kyle Brodziak, a conditional pick (fourth-round 2020 or third-round 2021), two second-round picks in 2020 and 2021, and a fifth-round pick in 2021.
Overall, Holland brought depth and secondary scoring (holding out for Ennis and Athanasiou) to the lineup, and he played it smart with the Oilers’ young guns and waited for the right time to call them up. Yamamoto found immediate success, while Benson didn’t look totally ready to crack the roster.
It’s definitely likely that Draisaitl will receive the Hart Trophy, the Ted Lindsay Award, and the Art Ross Trophy (this one is a shoo-in, especially if the NHL jumps right into the playoffs). He’s had a spectacular season and has proven that he can thrive without McDavid by his side.
It would be nice if No. 97 received a nomination for the Hart as well, but as Sportsnet notes, “[Brad] Marchand, McDavid and [Alexander] Ovechkin have tougher cases for the Hart because none of them are the MVP of their own teams despite having strong seasons.”
It’s great knowing that the Oilers have two Hart-worthy superstars, newfound depth thanks to Holland and Tippett, reliable goaltending, and an up and coming strong defensive core. Now, if only we could see this team play in the 2019-20 playoffs—they deserve it!