What started out as the toughest road trip of the 2021-22 season has turned into a revelation for the Edmonton Oilers. The Oilers played some of their best hockey of the season against the Eastern Conference-leading Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers, and the Carolina Hurricanes in late February and matched the Eastern powerhouses punch for punch. They finished 2-2-1 overall on the trip and deserved a better fate, but there were some positive signs that this team is coming together at the right time.
The best evidence of that was on the final stop of their trip in Chicago on March 3 when they literally rolled out the red carpet for Duncan Keith. Keith was preparing for his first game back against the Chicago Blackhawks since being traded to Edmonton in the offseason and it was emotional for him since he won three Stanley Cups in the Windy City. The Oilers players, coaches and trainers made it a special day for the veteran rearguard by welcoming him into the dressing room with a canopy of sticks and a red carpet to Keith’s stall. Overall, this gesture was a good sign for many Oilers fans, as this team looks like a close knit group, and that’s what is needed to go far in the playoffs.
The Oilers Still Need Some Tweaks — Especially in Goal
Solid, consistent goaltending is all the Oilers need to be recognized as one of the NHL’s elite teams. Even though Mikko Koskinen recently gave them the level of play they’ve been hoping for all season, he also regressed near the end of the trip and almost cost the team points in the ultra competitive Pacific Division. The Oilers seem to rally around Koskinen, but after close to three seasons with the organization, Koskinen has proven he can’t carry a big workload.
Another major issue with the goaltending is that Mike Smith has not regained his form from last season, and the team’s best goaltender this season might be Stuart Skinner, who is currently with Bakersfield in the American Hockey League. General manager Ken Holland still needs to pull off some sort of miracle to get a legitimate starter before the NHL trade deadline on March 21. The Oilers fanbase is hoping he can.
Playoff Race in the Pacific is Getting Tighter
The Oilers are right in the thick of the playoff hunt in the Western Conference. The Calgary Flames look like they might walk away with the Pacific Division, but the Vegas Golden Knights, Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks, and Oilers are separated by one or two points for second and third place. Edmonton has to continue their strong play under head coach Jay Woodcroft to make it into the postseason, and barring any more injuries, they should be able to do so. If anything, this recent road trip, labelled the team’s toughest trip of the season, has proven that they have what it takes to keep up with the best teams in the league.
Will the Oilers Improve Before the NHL Trade Deadline?
Goaltending aside, it’s unclear what Holland will do on or before the NHL Trade Deadline. The Oilers could use help on defence and add some scoring depth to their bottom-six forward group.
Dylan Holloway is trending up in his time with Bakersfield and looks like he could possibly be a March or April callup. He might be the forward help the Oilers look to rather than trading away assets. The team is also waiting for forwards Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jesse Puljujärvi and Zack Kassian to come off the injured reserve list. Nugent-Hopkins and Puljujärvi will be welcome additions for the playoff push and so will Kassian, provided he can regain his form. Kassian hasn’t quite played up to what he’s capable of, and there is hope that he still has something left to give to help down the stretch.
McDavid and Draisaitl Always Give the Oilers An Advantage
Being part of the NHL elite is something Oilers fans have been expecting since the organization drafted Connor McDavid, first overall in 2015. With Leon Draisaitl now established as one of the top three players in the world, the team should always have a chance to win when the two are in the lineup.
As the 2021-22 NHL season starts to focus on the postseason, you have to believe the Oilers are a team no one wants to play. You can tell that this is a close team who want the best for each other, and those are the kinds of teams that can cause a lot of damage in the playoffs. Holland needs to strengthen the goaltending now, and if he does, the team should have a legitimate chance to win a round or two in the playoffs. The Flames may look like the clear favourite to come out of the Pacific, but goaltender Jacob Markstrom only has an 8-6 playoff record, and though he’s had a great regular season, the playoffs are a different animal. The Golden Knights are also vulnerable in terms of goaltending as starter Robin Lehner has not proven that he can carry the load without his former partner Marc-Andre Fleury.
Needless to say, if the Oilers continue their improved play under Woodcroft, and go into the playoffs on a roll, it’s hard to know how far they could go. But they’ve proven on this recent road trip that they are a close knit group who seem to be coming together at the right time and they belong with the best teams in the NHL.
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.