Oilers and Canucks Headed in Different Directions

It was a mild winter day when the Edmonton Oilers began their season on Jan. 13 versus the Vancouver Canucks. Both teams were undefeated, as they all are prior to Game 1, but only one of the two would end the night that way. With no preseason games, the matchup was the first actual hockey the Oilers played since their unceremonious exit from the playoff preliminary round last August. Vancouver had a relatively deep playoff run to cap off their 2019-20 season, and despite some significant roster changes, they were hopeful their young team could continue that success.

Edmonton Oilers Connor McDavid Vancouver Canucks Jacob Markstrom
Despite being shut out his first game, Edmonton Oilers centre Connor McDavid has turned in a career season. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward)

The Canucks struck first and last that night, winning the game by a score of 5-3 and leaving Edmonton atop the temporary, all-Canadian, Scotiabank North Division standings. The Oilers’ captain, Connor McDavid, was held pointless with a minus-1 plus/minus rating, while the defence, missing big-minute contributor Oscar Klefbom, left Mikko Koskinen to face numerous odd-man rushes, more than one of which found the back of his net. It seemed like every time Edmonton found a way to score, the Canucks would respond, and in the end, the Albertan team fell short. Early though it was, the rumblings began about the potential for yet another season without a playoff berth (prelims notwithstanding).

A Tale of Two Seasons

While things improved in Edmonton, they went the other direction for the Canucks, culminating in Monday night’s reversal of the Game 1 result. An Oiler win, coincidentally by the same 5-3 margin, spoke to the differing paths each team has taken this season. Losing streaks highlighted the gaps in the Vancouver roster, injuries stopped their momentum, and the worst outbreak of COVID-19 in the league shelved the team and put them behind in the standings. A few memorable wins aside, the Canucks’ season as a whole has been one they likely want to forget, while in Edmonton, things steadily improved.

Sidney Crosby Connor McDavid
Few would question that today, Connor McDavid is the NHL’s best player. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/ AP/Gene J. Puskar)

McDavid’s pointless first night turned out to be a rarity in 2021. Not only has he scored regularly, but he’s also done so at a pace not seen since the great Mario Lemieux was in his prime. Leaping out to a lead in the scoring race early on, he hasn’t come close to relinquishing it at any point since, with his own teammate, Leon Draisaitl, the only player within twenty points of him as the season winds down. Meanwhile, as the Oilers’ defence has steadily improved in the team’s second year under head coach Dave Tippett, they’ve also been producing secondary scoring, something the team has sorely lacked since 2016-17. Adding a Vezina-calibre season from Mike Smith into the equation has placed them solidly in the top half of their division, and they look likely to secure home-ice advantage over the next week.

The Performance of the Century

Lemieux chased several records of another Oiler great, Wayne Gretzky, despite playing in the clutch-and-grab era of the 1990s and, along with Jaromir Jagr, achieved point-scoring highs that haven’t been matched since. Were the 2020-21 season a full 82-game slate, McDavid and Draisaitl just might have matched some of those totals. On a per-game basis, no. 97 has set an unreal pace, is likely to break 100 points in 56 games or less, and will be the runaway winner of the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player.

In an 82-game schedule, the point totals piling up would be record-setting for the 2000s. In fact, McDavid’s season has been so good that Draisaitl, his linemate and good friend, who is having a lesser but still extremely impressive campaign, gets little or no fanfare for his production. The duo will soon get a shot at playoff redemption, with three fewer wins required this time around on the potential path toward Stanley Cup glory.

Question Marks on an Imperfect Roster

The season began with Canucks fans feeling very good about their situation in net. Thatcher Demko looked ready to fill the gap left by Jacob Markstrom’s departure and, if there was any risk of a slump, they’d brought in former Vezina winner Brayden Holtby to assist with the load. Edmonton, on the other hand, struck out on Markstrom, forcing general manager Ken Holland to go back to the aging veteran Smith, alongside Mikko Koskinen, in his own net. None, likely not even Smith himself, predicted that it would be the 39-year-old goaltender who’d grab the starting job and post his best save percentage in years. Meanwhile, the cap space saved when Markstrom chose the Calgary Flames as his new team helped bring in Tyson Barrie, whose offensive contributions as a defenseman have been significant.

Mike Smith Edmonton Oilers
Mike Smith, Edmonton Oilers (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Holland added little at the deadline, with only defenseman Dmitry Kulikov joining the Oilers after his quarantine period was complete. Many, myself included, questioned that decision, but it could be that the team’s internal depth is up to the task. Ryan McLeod has rarely looked out of place in his first few games as a pro, displacing a player like Kyle Turris, who simply hasn’t been able to get up to speed since signing with the Oilers.

Edmonton’s forward depth isn’t amongst the league’s best, but they are as deep as they’ve been since 2016-17 up front, and between rookies and vets, they might have the defensive horses for a playoff drive as well. So long as the netminder Smith stays healthy, Edmonton should be able to push through their first-round matchup, and from there, they’ll only be 12 wins away from hoisting the Cup.

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