‘Huge step for­ward’

Oil­ers leap from laugh­ing­stock to Cup con­tender

Cape Breton Post - - Sports -

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.

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