Last summer, the Stanley Cup Playoffs began differently. COVID-19 had nearly cancelled the National Hockey League’s 2019-20 season, and the shortened schedule, with unequal games played amongst the 31 clubs, meant a decision was made to expand the list of qualifying teams from 16 to 24. This change required the addition of a best-of-five preliminary series for all but the top teams in each division. The Edmonton Oilers drew a feisty opponent in the Chicago Blackhawks, while the Pittsburgh Penguins took on the Montreal Canadiens. With Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby heading the two higher-seeded teams, they were naturally favoured to advance. That wasn’t the case.
An aging dynasty, the Blackhawks were familiar with playoff hockey, while Edmonton had made only a single appearance since 2006, and it showed as they dropped three of four games and were eliminated. The lack of depth beyond the OIlers’ first line was strikingly obvious, as were the question marks in net. The Eastern Conference series followed a similar format; after a loss in Game 1, the Penguins tied the series in Game 2, only to drop the next two decisions. Disappointment for fans and players alike, especially because the teams that beat them made little noise in the following round.
Groundhog Day All Over Again
Fast forward to 2020-21, and these two teams were in the dance once again. Both clubs clinched home-ice advantage in their round one matchups, facing teams they’d handled easily in the 56 game regular season. Edmonton’s offensive stars were scoring at will, their goaltending looked solid, and they’d handled the opposing Winnipeg Jets with ease all year. Pittsburgh had captured 12 of 16 standings points from the New York Islanders as well, and at least one pundit expressed his intention of writing down Crosby’s name for the Hart Trophy.
Edmonton’s postseason lasted barely a week, swept by an injured and imbalanced Jets roster, and while it did take multiple overtime games to put them away, that’s little solace to a fanbase that is now returning to very familiar territory, watching other teams battle for the Cup long after theirs has been eliminated. The Penguins made a better run at things, lasting six games, two of which required overtime, but the Islanders, led by former-Oiler Jordan Eberle and almost-Oiler Matt Barzal, knocked off the top regular-season team from the MassMutual East Division. Both clubs now look toward next season, their best players a year older, and their next playoff games well beyond the horizon.
Losing is Never Easy, But Not All Losses Are the Same
Pittsburgh’s franchise has been great for a long time. Winning the 2005 lottery that gave them Crosby, and drafting Evgeni Malkin at the same time due to the NHL’s lockout of 2004-05, meant their time at the bottom of the standings was over. Sid and company delivered the goods, winning a Cup early on in his career and then two more in the last decade. Multiple members of those championship teams are destined for the Hockey Hall of Fame, and none would say their window has closed either. This loss will hurt, as they all do, but they’ve already been to the top of the mountain, and after all, you don’t win every year.
The Oilers’ disappointment cuts deeper. There are no recent past victories to fondly remember. The dynasty of the 1980s has been over for so long that only seven players on the roster were even born when their last Cup win occurred. The 2006 run might be fresher in more memories, but it ended in heartbreak, a heartbreak that continued for a decade and arguably has yet to end. McDavid’s in-season point totals were incredible, and he has a legitimate complaint about the refereeing in the four-game series his team just lost, but he will turn 25 next season and has had only one decent playoff run.
Edmonton should cruise to a playoff berth once again next season, in a Pacific Division with the Vegas Golden Knights (and the Seattle Kraken) as the only serious competition. General manager Ken Holland said this wasn’t the year to go for it, a statement seemingly supported by the team’s recent results, but also a damning criticism of the roster he’s constructed over the past two seasons. Many will say that the Oilers’ upcoming cap flexibility will put them on the road to success, but the money has to be spent wisely, and Holland’s track record on that front, both in Edmonton and his longtime spot with the Detroit Red Wings, isn’t great. The team must take a major step forward in its immediate future or Holland, and head coach Dave Tippett will hear calls for their proverbial heads.
Crosby has been a Penguin his whole career. His contract runs through the 2024-25 season, and few could see him ever wearing another team’s sweater. He’ll retire as a Penguin, just as Mario Lemieux did, and his impressive collection of hardware will place him amongst the game’s all-time greats. McDavid’s massive deal, which rightly made him the league’s highest-paid player, expires only one year later. It’s far less certain that he’ll remain an Oiler after that, and should the team continue to flounder, exiting early or missing the playoffs entirely over that period of time, who could blame him if he goes? Holland might have been right, as this doesn’t seem like it was the Oilers’ year to go “all in,” but every season between now and then, better be, or all bets are off.