Stanley Cup fever has swept through Oil Country, where the Edmonton Oilers are taking on the Los Angeles Kings in a first-round playoff series. But before it becomes too distant of a memory, it’s worth taking a moment to look back on an unpredictable regular season that turned out pretty good for Edmonton.
After starting out 16-5-0, then going on a stretch where they won just twice in 15 games, the Oilers went 31-11-4 the rest of the way, including 26-9-3 under coach Jay Woodcroft after he took over from the fired Dave Tippett on Feb. 10. Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid led the way, of course, but they had perhaps the strongest supporting cast in the era of the Dynamic Duo, with many players stepping up at various points throughout the season.
There are a lot of Oilers who deserve recognition for their contributions in 2021-22. Here are just a few of them who are choice picks for the team awards:
Unlike last season when Darnell Nurse was a slam-dunk for this award, no Oilers blueliner really had a consistent and complete season in 2021-22. Evan Bouchard made massive strides in his first full season in the NHL but still showed his inexperience often. Tyson Barrie had another impressive season in terms of point production, with 41 in 73 games, but not always enough to offset the deficiencies in his own end (his plus-3 rating was worst among Oilers blueliners that played more than 30 games). Cody Ceci was a pleasant surprise, and against all odds might have been Edmonton’s most reliable rearguard, but he’s at best a second-pairing defenseman.
So while he was not equal to last season’s level of play approaching Norris Trophy consideration, and was far too often guilty of defensive lapses, it’s still Nurse who is the best on the backend in Edmonton.
Appearing in 71 games, Nurse recorded nine goals and 26 assists. He led all Oilers players in hits (196) and blocked shots (132), was tops among Edmonton defensemen with a plus-18 rating, and ranked fourth in the NHL logging an average time on ice at even strength of 21:08.
The 27-year-old will be expected to elevate his game in 2022-23 when he begins his eight-year, $74 million contract extension that has made him a lightning rod for some Oilers fans.
This honour could just as easily go to Evander Kane, who has been a fantastic addition to the Oilers since signing a one-year contract on Jan. 27, racking up 22 goals and 17 assists with a plus-25 rating in 43 games wearing orange and navy. But the edge goes to Zach Hyman, given the former Maple Leafs winger’s impact since the first game of the season way back in October.
Signed to a seven-year, $38.5 million contract in the offseason, Hyman has provided depth scoring, two-way play, and leadership to a team that needed all of the above. He finished third to only McDavid and Draisaitl in goals (27) and points (54), as well as game-winning goals (four).
Hyman’s versatility was particularly valuable, as he was utilized in special teams situations more than any Oilers forward other than Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, averaging 2:24 power-play and 1:47 penalty-kill ice time.
Most Improved Player
Kailer Yamamoto went from eight goals and 13 assists in 52 games last season to career-highs of 20 goals and 21 assists in 81 games this season. But the 23-year-old winger should not just receive this award on a year-over-year basis, but on an in-season standard, too.
The 2021-22 campaign began with Yamamoto’s struggles from the previous season carrying over, as he went pointless in Edmonton’s first seven games, and had just five goals and one assist through 26 games. As recently as March 8, he was sitting on just 20 points. Then he erupted, more than doubling his point total.
Over Edmonton’s final 25 games, Yamamoto had the fourth-most goals (nine) and points (21) on the Oilers. He had a run of goals in seven of eight games while playing on the Oilers’ top line with McDavid and Kane in March.
The 23-year-old’s offensive upswing is really just the result of what appears to be a far more confident player who is impacting the game in additional ways: He’s shooting a lot more (after starting with just 34 shots in the first 34 games, he finished the season with 114 shots on goal) and throwing the body more often (after averaging virtually one hit per game for all of 2020-21 and the first half of this season, he recorded 45 hits in the last 24 games, third-most on the team over that span).
While Mike Smith played out of this world in April, going 9-0 with a 1.61 goals-against average (GAA) and .951 save percentage (SV%) to solidify himself as Edmonton’s No. 1 netminder for the postseason, the veteran goalie was either injured or struggling for the first several months of the season.
It was over this time that Koskinen stepped up far more than not. The oft-criticized goaltender provided the Oilers with goaltending that wasn’t spectacular, but was certainly good enough to help the Oilers stay in the playoff picture. In fact, during an interview at All-Star Weekend, no less of an authority than McDavid called Koskinen the Oilers’ unsung hero for the season to that point.
Koskinen finished the season with a career-high and team-leading 27 wins while registering a 3.10 GAA and .903 SV% in 45 appearances.
There’s a great debate raging about who was the NHL’s most valuable player in 2021-22: McDavid? Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs? Florida Panthers forward Jonathan Huberdeau? Johnny Gaudreau from the Calgary Flames?
What can’t be debated, however, is that McDavid was the Oilers’ most valuable player in 2021-22. With all due respect to Draisaitl, who had another sensational season, finishing fourth in the NHL with 110 points, McDavid was on another level. Again.
McDavid led the league with 123 points, finished second with 79 assists, and was seventh with 44 goals, setting career highs in all three categories. He received the Art Ross Trophy for the fourth time in his seven NHL seasons.
Edmonton’s captain also showed an evolution in the intangible areas of his game and leadership, as noted by Oilers goalie Mike Smith, who said in part that “everyone knows what he can do with the puck, but I don’t think he gets enough credit for how he’s really committed to the defensive side of the puck and the battle level, the compete level.”
There might be one more award left to talk about: Playoff MVP. But that’s only if the Oilers have a postseason-run worthy of conversation, and they’re currently trailing 1-0 to the Los Angeles Kings, in desperate need of a win when they host them in Game 2 at Rogers Place on Wednesday (May 4).
Brian is an Edmonton-based sports writer and broadcaster. His experience includes working as a sports reporter for the Edmonton Sun, where he covered the Edmonton Oil Kings 2013-14 Memorial Cup championship season.