‘Huge step forward’
Oilers leap from laughingstock to Cup contender
Oilers general manager Peter Chiarelli came into this season hopeful, but nowhere near certain, that his team would end a decade-long playoff drought.
“I guess, never say never,” said Chiarelli weeks before the beginning of training camp.
Edmonton didn’t only make the post-season for the first time since 2006 — jumping an amazing 33 points in the standings from a year earlier — but nearly cracked the Western Conference final before falling just short in a seven-game second-round series with the Anaheim Ducks.
It’s likely this season will be looked upon one day as the point when the Oilers jumped from league laughingstock and annual No. 1 overall pick maker to legitimate Stanley Cup contender.
Leading that ascent is Connor McDavid, who became the third-youngest scoring champ in NHL history this season — behind only Sidney Crosby and Wayne Gretzky. McDavid, who also became the youngest captain ever last fall, was the only player in the league to crack 100 points.
He also topped all others with 70 assists, 71 evenstrength points and 30 multipoint games and should capture his first Hart trophy as MVP.
Back in the fall, Gretzky called McDavid, who turned 20 in January, the best 19-yearold he’d ever seen. “I’m truly amazed at how good he is,” Gretzky said.
McDavid, the Great One added, had “one extra gear that I don’t think I’ve ever seen on a hockey player.”
He’ll only get better from here, as will his running mate for the better part of the season, Leon Draisaitl.
The big 21-year-old German was a force on McDavid’s right wing, finishing eighth in league scoring with a career-best 77 points. His ascension into bona-fide star continued in the playoffs with a team-leading 16 points — many which came playing apart from McDavid.
It’s possible head coach Todd McLellan will keep the two stars apart moving forward as a means of deepening an Edmonton lineup which should soon include 19-yearold Finn Jesse Puljujarvi, the fourth overall pick in 2016.
While they threatened in some ways this year, pushing the Ducks to the limit, Edmonton’s Cup window should open for real next year and there’s an argument to be made that it might be the club’s most opportune time to strike — what with McDavid’s entry-level contract expiring in the summer of 2018.
First up this summer is determining how long and how much to pay Draisaitl on his second NHL deal. Beyond that, the Oilers will need to decide if keeping impending free agent Kris Russell around makes sense on a solid, if unspectacular defence led by Adam Larsson and Oscar Klefbom.
Further to that is finding a more suitable backup goaltender for Cam Talbot.
The 29-year-old is another primary source of optimism for the future, stabilizing a long-time Achilles heel of the organization since he came aboard in 2015.
Consider that 25 different goaltenders started at least one game for the Oilers from the start of the 2007-08 season (the beginning of the postseason drought) until Talbot’s arrival before the start of last season. He was consistently excellent in his second year with club — he had a save percentage of .918 or higher in every full month but one — despite the heaviest workload in hockey, which saw him start 73 games and face more than 2,100 shots.
Growth was evident elsewhere under McLellan, including top-notch special teams and improved possession of the puck.
The Oilers made the kind of step forward Chiarelli was hopeful of before the season. The former Cup-winning GM of the Boston Bruins thought it was important for his youngish team to get into the playoffs so they could see “how hard it is” and “how fun it is” too.