There’s something special in the air in Northern Alberta this spring, and no, it isn’t the smell of oil refineries working overtime. There’s a sense that the 2021-22 version of the Oilers is the deepest, most battle-tested group since 2006. The additions of Brett Kulak and Evander Kane are bringing back memories of the Oilers adding Chris Pronger, Jaroslav Spacek and Sergei Samsonov in the 2005-06 season. It feels a bit similar, but of course, it’s not the same. These Oilers are definitely not your Father’s Oilers. The current group looks like they might have the right chemistry to make it all the way to the promised land in the 2022 playoffs, with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl leading the way.
All season long, you could see how close-knit this group has been. Whether it was players coming to the defence of Mikko Koskinen after former coach Dave Tippett threw the giant goaltender under the bus, seeing a recharged Kane smiling with youngsters Jesse Puljujärvi and Kailer Yamamoto, or even watching the inspiring way that McDavid took young Ben Stelter under his wing, there’s something special happening here in Oil Country.
McDavid and Draisaitl Look Battle Ready
In the final game of the 2021-22 NHL regular season against the Vancouver Canucks, many were expecting both McDavid and Draisaitl to be in the lineup with an opportunity to increase their personal stats. With both players sitting out and resting, the Oilers defeated the Canucks 3-2 in a shootout in what felt like a preseason game. Having the talented duo sit out the final game of the season only reinforced what they both spoke about all season long – that individual statistics and accolades are great but they are truly focused on winning the big prize. McDavid and Draisaitl, like so many NHL greats before them, have tasted post-season disappointment. In 2017, the Oilers blew a 2-0 series lead and lost in seven games to the Anaheim Ducks.
In 2020, the Oilers lost to the Chicago Blackhawks in the best-of-five qualifying series 3-1. And, in 2021, there was more heartache as the Oilers bowed out in four straight to the Winnipeg Jets. Like the Oilers of the early 80s, the Detroit Red Wings of the 90s, and even the recent back-to-back champion Tampa Bay Lightning, it took heartbreak to propel these franchises onto Stanley Cup glory. With both McDavid and Draisaitl in the prime of their careers and hungry to break through, their time is now.
What About the Oilers’ Defence and Goaltending?
That’s one of the biggest questions as the Oilers get ready to face off against the Los Angeles Kings in the first round of the playoffs. With the addition of Kulak at the trade deadline, as well as Cody Ceci and former Conn Smythe winner Duncan Keith last summer, the Oilers’ defensive group is as good or better than last season. Sure the Oilers miss Adam Larsson and possibly Ethan Bear, but this current D-core has been getting the job done all season in Muhammad Ali Rope-a-Dope style. It’ll be interesting to see if Darnell Nurse is ready to go, as he was injured late in the season against the Colorado Avalanche on April 22.
After an up and down year in goal, the Oilers’ duo of Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen seems to have steadied the ship. Smith returned to form in the final two months of the season and is currently one of the hottest goalies in the NHL, winning nine games in a row.
He’s rested after sitting on the injured reserve list for most of the season, and that should help the 40-year-old netminder. Smith also looks like he has something to prove. Already known for his intensity and conditioning, he knows this is his final and possibly best chance to compete for a Stanley Cup. The way he’s played down the stretch, Smith definitely looks like he’s ready to go.
Meanwhile, Koskinen is coming off his best season as an Oiler and has the full support of the team should he be called on to replace Smith. If either Smith or Koskinen gets hurt, the Oilers can also call up Stuart Skinner from Bakersfield of the American Hockey League. Skinner has looked good in his time with the Oilers this season and can be relied on to provide solid insurance if one of the two veteran netminders were to go down with an injury during the playoffs.
Oilers Play Their Best Against the Best
One of the reasons Oilers fans can start to believe is how well the Oilers have played against the best teams in the NHL this season. Whether it was their wins over Colorado, Tampa or the Florida Panthers in the second half of the season, or the split against the Calgary Flames, the Oilers are capable of going head-to-head with the best.
A second-round Battle of Alberta playoff series would be great for fans in Alberta and across the league. Despite the Flames finishing ahead of the Oilers in the Pacific Division, you have to wonder whether Flames head coach Darryl Sutter overplayed goaltender Jacob Markstrom this season. And though Johnny Gaudreau, a.k.a. Johnny Hockey, has had a terrific season in a contract year, you have to wonder how he’ll perform in the playoffs. Sure the Flames are tough and can score, but do they have what it takes to go all the way? They might. But a battle against the Oilers would definitely be worth watching. You have to think that if the Oilers and Flames do meet in the second round of the postseason, the winner of that series could very well go on to represent the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup Final.
It’s Time to Start Believing, Oilers Fans
If you’re a fan of the Oilers, the team has given you the opportunity to believe again. With all of the challenges this season, including firing their coach, bringing in new coaches Jay Woodcroft and Dave Manson, as well as all of the second-guessing of general manager Ken Holland’s decisions, there’s a chance the team could go all the way. And right now, a Stanley Cup championship for the Oilers doesn’t seem too far-fetched.
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D. Edward Bochon covers the Edmonton Oilers. His background is in marketing writing where he worked with the Edmonton Oilers, the Edmonton Football Club (now known as the Elks), and the Edmonton Rush of the NLL.