The Edmonton Oilers won the first of a back-to-back series against the Vancouver Canucks on Saturday. With the win, the Oilers now sit second in the Pacific Division with 101 points and only two points back of the division-leading Anaheim Ducks. Should the Oilers defeat Vancouver again on Sunday and Anaheim fail to register a point in their matchup versus the Los Angeles Kings, the Oilers could take over the lead in the Pacific, earning their first division title since 1986.
Such high stakes means some very difficult decisions for the coaching staff. Near the top of that list was what to do with Cam Talbot.
Decision #1: Play or Rest Cam Talbot?
Having already broken Grant Fuhr’s single-season wins record for an Oilers netminder, coach Todd McLellan broke the news immediately following Saturday’s win that Edmonton’s backup netminder, Laurent Brossoit, would be starting in net on Sunday. This gives some much-needed rest to an Oilers starting goaltender who, while successful when played often, could use a day off. There is a lot to be said for feeling rested heading into the postseason and Talbot does not need a poor outing to shake any of his understandably sky-high confidence.
Decision #2: How Important Is Winning the Pacific Division Title?
The answer to that question seems rhetorical. How could a team so proud and competitive not want to win every game? Based on emotion, competition, heart, pride and the chance to make history, there is no doubt that the Oilers will try to bury the Canucks and put a stamp on the regular season with this final game. On the other hand, based on pure strategy, there could be another decision to contemplate.
Winning the Pacific Division means playing the Calgary Flames versus playing the San Jose Sharks. One team is heading in a negative direction, the other, not so much. Both teams finished the season 4-6-o in their final 10 games, yet Calgary appears to be the stronger team.
The Flames seem to match up better with the Oilers, possessing speed and skill and young raw talent who are on the upswing of their NHL careers. San Jose is a more proven and playoff experienced team who is one season removed from being in the Stanley Cup Finals. They’re also older and slower than Calgary, with a few key injuries plaguing the team.
The Oilers stand a good chance to come out victors in either scenario, but there may be some within the organization who feel the odds increase depending on who the opponent is.
Decision #3: Resting Connor McDavid
McDavid is a mere two points away from being a 100-point player. If you asked him, he’d likely tell you that the individual stats don’t mean anything if the Oilers don’t win; but, inside, he’s aching to be the first Oiler to hit 100 points since Doug Weight did it in 1996. An Art Ross Trophy, emphasized by a 100-point season is a big deal.
Despite all that, there are some out there in the hockey media — the Hockey Night in Canada panel who posed the question after the Oilers won Saturday night being among them — who would suggest the Oilers are considering not playing McDavid on Sunday. Elliotte Friedman weighed in that he’d rest the superstar. His reason? Resting McDavid would avoid any potential injury heading into the playoffs.
The motivation behind such a comment makes sense. It just doesn’t make a lot of sense. Resting McDavid has one positive. It has a ton of negatives. First, it might cause a fan uproar. As badly as McDavid probably wants 100 points, the fans want it more. Oilers fans are looking for a superhero and while McDavid’s season proves they already have one, fans around Edmonton and the NHL badly want to see McDavid reach the milestone. Second, McDavid would remember it. There is absolutely no way on earth McDavid doesn’t want to play and if you tell him he can’t, all while taking away his chance at a 100-point season, that could be something that sticks with the megastar.
— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) April 9, 2017
Having McDavid “sit one out” is not the type of message the Oilers want to send, is it? Are they afraid of what could happen? Any player can get hurt at any time in the season. What makes the final game so concerning? What are the Oilers telling McDavid? What does it tell his teammates? What does it say to everyone who has hitched themselves to the McDavid wagon?
Decision #4: Who’s in the Starting Lineup Sunday?
There have been a few key lineup changes over the past two weeks for the Oilers. The most obvious are the switching in and out of Eric Gryba and Anton Slepyshev. Between those two players, Matt Benning and Iiro Pakarinen, all have done suitable jobs. Who gets the nod and who are your go-to guys in the postseason? Those are the guys you play on Sunday.
Edmonton could go with a more proven and experienced player in Gryba. He’s ready to take on the big, heavy teams, but he’s not as skilled. Benning is fresh, young and possibly prone to making more mistakes. That said, he’s got much more raw talent.
Edmonton could also go with a better special teams guy in Iiro Pakarinen. Doing so means they might be giving up some tenacity and forechecking in Slepyshev. Is Matt Hendricks completely out of the picture? If so, there is no way he should go on Sunday.
No matter what happens in the final regular season game for the Oilers, four decisions may set the tone for how the regular season ends and the playoffs begin. Some of these decisions seem like easy ones to make. All could have consequences.