There is a lot of excitement around the Edmonton Oilers heading into the 2021-22 season. With their core of young superstars having another year under their belt, several promising prospects pushing for roster spots, and some key offseason additions, hopes are high that 2022 is the year the Oilers finally take that big step forward to Stanley Cup contender status.
Of course, it will take a lot for that to happen. Some, like Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl being in the Hart Trophy conversation, are virtual locks. Others are less certain. Here are three such bold predictions for the Edmonton Oilers in 2021-22:
Yamamoto Will Bounce Back
After watching Kailer Yamamoto form a dynamite line with Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins in 2019-20, registering 11 goals and 15 assists in 27 games following his recall from the American Hockey League (AHL), Oil Country was giddy with the forward’s potential going into last season. In fact, one of THW’s bold predictions for the Oilers in 2020-21 was that Yamamoto “hits a new gear.”
That didn’t quite happen. While he got off to a good start, notching three goals and three assists in Edmonton’s first seven games, Yamamoto’s offensive production began to trail off and eventually went into an all-out tailspin. Yamamoto would finish the regular season with just eight goals and 13 assists in 52 games, scoring only once over his last 25 appearances. He was held to one assist as Edmonton was swept by the Winnipeg Jets in the first round of the playoffs.
The disappointing season certainly didn’t give Yamamoto much leverage as a restricted free agent this offseason, and after several weeks he only recently agreed to a one-year, $1.175 million extension that was even more team-friendly than most expected.
Call it a “prove-it contract,” an opportunity for Yamamoto to show Edmonton he is worth signing to a lengthy contract for bigger money. The 23-year-old is gambling on himself to perform up to the level he demonstrated in 2019-20. And there’s plenty of reason to believe he will.
Even as his point-production dropped off a cliff last season, Yamamoto’s effort was never lacking. In such respect, he was the same player, only snake bitten where he once couldn’t miss. He wouldn’t be the first young player who hit the skids following a breakout season. There’s no shortage of All-Stars who have endured a “sophomore slump.”
Early lineup projections have him reuniting with Draisaitl and Nugent-Hopkins on Edmonton’s second unit. Nugent-Hopkins himself is coming off a subpar season and figures to rebound as well. With Drasiatil continuing to do Draisaitl things, it’s not hard to envision the trio making magic again, with Yamamoto right in the thick of it.
Edmonton Will Have at Least Six 20-Goal Scorers
The Oilers have five players with multiple twenty-goal seasons to their credit, including Draisaitl (five times), McDavid (five times), Nugent-Hopkins (four times), Kyle Turris (three times), and Zach Hyman (twice). They also have Darnell Nurse and Jesse Puljujarvi, who, with 16 and 15 goals, respectively, in the shortened 2020-21 campaign, scored at a rate that would have hit the 20-goal mark in a regular length season. And the same can be said of Yamamoto two seasons ago. Except for the 32-year-old Turris, none of those mentioned above players are past their prime; most are just entering it.
Additionally, Tyler Benson, Warren Foegele, Ryan McLeod, and Brendan Perlini have been 20-goal scorers in the Canadian Hockey League and/or AHL; all are under 25, and in the right situation, could hit 20 at some point in the NHL.
So it doesn’t seem at all unreasonable to suggest that in 2021-22 the number of Oilers scoring 20 goals could be six or more, which would be the most since 1991-92, 30 years ago.
McDavid Will Set a New Career High in Points
Edmonton’s captain had a season for the ages in 2020-21, racking up 105 points in 56 games. His 1.875 points per game were the highest average of any player in the last 25 years, and McDavid set an all-time NHL record by recording a point on 57.38% of his team’s goals.
As impressive as his point total was, it was only the third most McDavid has recorded in a season. His NHL career-high is 116, set in 2018-19 when he played 78 games.
In a normal-length season, 1.875 points per game projects to 153.8 points. Granted, that’s an incredible pace to maintain over 82 games, but McDavid is just the kind of generational talent who can do it. It’s also worth noting that he has increased his points per game average every season since he entered the NHL in 2015. And at age 24, he’s not even at his peak yet.
So if he plays anything close to 82 games, McDavid should establish a new career-high in points. And he may flirt with becoming the first NHL player to reach 150 points since Mario Lemieux with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1995-96.
Bonus: The Oilers Will Finish First in the Pacific Division
The Pacific Division isn’t exactly going to be a murderer’s row in 2021-22. California is hockey’s rebuild state as there’s a lot of work ahead for the Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings, and San Jose Sharks. The Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks seem stuck in neutral, and the Seattle Kraken are new to the dance. Seemingly, it’s only the Vegas Golden Knights that stand in the way of Edmonton finishing atop its division standings for the first time since 1986-87, when Wayne Gretzky led the Oilers to the best record in the Smythe Division.
Vegas is one of the favorites to win the championship, and after being upset by the Montreal Canadiens in the 2021 Stanley Cup semi-final round, the Golden Knights were reminded it’s about peaking in June, not January.
As for Edmonton, there is new energy throughout the team, already palpable in the preseason, that suggests they’re going to go all out from Day 1 this season, and if some of the prior predictions come to fruition, the Oiler upstarts might overtake the Vegas veterans for the top spot in the division. The postseason, of course, is an entirely different animal. But we’ll save the bold playoff predictions for next spring.
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.