Every season brings optimism for Edmonton Oilers fans. However, this year the Oilers and players like Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl might finally achieve the breakthrough everyone has been hoping for. Something special might be happening down at Rogers Place this hockey season. You can hear it in the interviews on local media, including an optimistic Zack Kassian talking about the upcoming season.
Pundits are talking about how the Edmonton Oilers might now have a legitimate top-nine forward group rather than just a top six. And the defence, though criticized in the offseason, might be the best puck-moving team of defensemen Edmonton has had in a few years.
Oilers Need to Have the WILL to Win
Things look like they’ve improved on paper, but the difference will come down to heart and who has the will to win. That’s what took a fourth-place team like the Montreal Canadiens all the way to the Stanley Cup Final last season. It’s what helped the Jets beat the Oilers three times in overtime. The Oilers have the most talent they’ve had since 2006, but they need the mental fortitude to take them to the promised land. This might be the year that McDavid, Draisaitl, Darnell Nurse and company take it up a notch.
New Additions Have Improved the Oilers
The 2021-2022 Edmonton Oilers roster features new faces that will play key roles. Zach Hyman, Warren Foegele, Cody Ceci, and Derek Ryan are expected to have a positive impact on the Oilers’ fortunes this year. Meanwhile talent in the system is getting ready for their moment in the sun. Evan Bouchard will get more playing time, including more shifts on the power play.
The opportunity is also there for Philip Broberg, Tyler Benson and possibly Dylan Holloway when he becomes fully healthy. There has also been some positive push for Dmitri Samorukov, who appears to be getting closer to the NHL. With the development of Bouchard, Broberg and Samorukov, you can see why the Oilers were able to gamble on letting go of Ethan Bear and Caleb Jones. But based on their history of developing players such as Jeff Petry, you know that letting go of Jones and especially Bear has its risks.
The Jury Is Still Out on the Oilers Defence
The loss of Adam Larrson to Seattle hurt this team. But the re-signing of Tyson Barrie, the trade for Duncan Keith, and picking up Cody Ceci help soften the blow. There was a lot of criticism sent general manager Ken Holland’s way this off-season for the trades of Bear and Caleb Jones and retaining Keith’s full contract. But he does have a plan. I believe Holland views Keith the same way he did Chris Chelios. Chelios was 37 when he signed with the Wings and played an important role in those Motown Stanley Cups. His contribution was so good that he was named to the NHL First All-Star team. History could repeat itself, but that remains to be seen. Overall, with a defence led by Nurse and flanked by Barrie, Keith, Ceci, and Bouchard, this team’s back end is built to move the puck. And when you have a forward group led by McDavid, Draisatl, Ryan Nugent Hopkins and Hyman, that might be a good strategy going forward.
Goaltending Questions Remain
The Oilers organization is rolling the dice with their goaltenders. They believe 39-year-old Mike Smith will continue his strong play, but he can’t play all 82 regular season games. The backup role is the biggest question mark heading into the season for this franchise. Mikko Koskinen returns to compete with Alex Stalock and Stuart Skinner. Koskinen didn’t inspire confidence last season, and Stalock was faced with health challenges, while Skinner played well down on the farm.
This season’s most interesting competition in training camp will be with the goaltenders. If Koskinen wins the backup job again and plays well, look at the possibility of a trade near the deadline. Stalock played well for Minnesota in the playoffs two years ago, and if he returns to form, the Oilers may not need to trade for a goalie for the stretch run. Skinner will need to have an out-of-this-world performance in camp to become the number two goalie in the system. His most likely destination this season is to go down to Bakersfield for another year of ripening.
The Strength of the Oilers Is Upfront
When you have a lineup of forwards that include McDavid, Draisatl, Nugent Hopkins, Hyman, and Jesse Puljujärvi, and you have to admit it looks strong. Add in Warren Foegele, Ryan McLeod, Kassian, Derek Ryan, Tyler Benson and the still unsigned Kailer Yamamoto, and you have a deep group of forwards. Barring injury or regression of some of the young talent, the Oilers’ forwards for 2021-2022 look poised to carry this team towards the playoffs.
There Might Be Reason to Believe in 2021-2022
Bringing in future hall of famer and proven Stanley Cup champion Duncan Keith might pay off more behind the scenes than it does on the ice. Combine this added influence with another year of maturity for the core of McDavid, Draisatl, Nurse and Nugent Hopkins, and the Oilers might be better than they were last season. But are they hungrier, and will they carry a chip on their shoulder after their loss to the Jets in the playoffs? The biggest question for the team this season remains in net, while the biggest intangible will be the health of the squad and the influence the Olympics will have on McDavid. I think there is no doubt McDavid will be Canada’s best player in Beijing. But what he takes away from that experience could lift the Oilers into the league’s elite. As a generational superstar playing with Sidney Crosby for the first time, this might be his Mario Lemieux/Gretzky 87 Canada Cup moment. That’s where Mario stirred up the will to win. And this is what McDavid could bring back to the Oilers.
When you look at the 2021-2022 Edmonton Oilers, the talent is there. A few tweaks are needed, but if this team displays more heart and a willingness to do what it takes to win, they will take a big step in their quest to bring a sixth Stanley Cup to Edmonton. There’s a lot of drama to unfold in 2021-2022, but this could be the year for the breakthrough the weary Oilers fan base has been hoping for.
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.