Edmonton Oilers finally look like a Stanley Cup threat

The Connor McDavid era has resulted in plenty of playoff disappointment in Edmonton, but the Oilers could flip the script this year.

The question of whether the Edmonton Oilers are legitimate Stanley Cup contenders feels as silly as it is appropriate.

On one hand, this team has collected 107 points with one game remaining, its highest total since 1985-86. That's the year a 24-year-old Wayne Gretzky set the single-season points record.

The Oilers sit second in a tough Pacific Division and possess the second-best goal differential in the Western Conference. FiveThirtyEight gives the team the third-best probability of winning it all at 10 percent — behind the Boston Bruins (39 percent) and Colorado Avalanche (16 percent). The Oilers have also won their last eight games by a combined score of 34-12.

Those are pretty impressive credentials.

Then again, Edmonton is 3-4 in playoff series in the Connor McDavid era and its last two seasons have ended in 4-0 sweeps. The team has tweaked its roster, but the bones are the same as the ones that disappointed before.

The Oilers look like a force to be reckoned with entering the Stanley Cup playoffs. (Photo by Lawrence Scott/Getty Images)
The Oilers look like a force to be reckoned with entering the Stanley Cup playoffs. (Photo by Lawrence Scott/Getty Images)

The McDavid factor

Fairly or unfairly, any discussion of Edmonton’s chances tends to begin with McDavid. The superstar centre is in the midst of a career year with 29 more points than he’s ever scored before — 20 of which have been goals.

That development as a goal scorer is critical for a player whose supporting cast can’t match him from a talent standpoint — not that anyone can. This year he’s realized he can maximize goal scoring by keeping it in-house and the results speak for themselves.

His pivot to more of a shoot-first mentality hasn’t hurt his linemates' ability to produce, either. Zach Hyman entered the season without ever topping 53 points and now he’s sitting at 83. Meanwhile, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has eclipsed the 100-point mark after putting up fewer than 60 points in nine of his previous 11 seasons.

If you were desperate to do so, you could argue McDavid's abbreviated 2020-21 season was superior to what he’s doing now on account of a larger adjusted point total (158 to 149), but that takes some mental gymnastics and plenty of projection for what he would’ve done in a longer campaign.

There’s no doubting the NHL’s greatest talent is at his best right now, and that should concern his opponents. He already showed the ability to elevate his team in the postseason for the first time in 2021-22, leading the playoffs with 33 points in just 16 games.

It would be unfair to expect him to clear a bar that high this time around, but there's also no reason to believe numbers like those are beyond his reach.

The supporting cast

The players surrounding McDavid up front are many of the same ones who haven't held up their end of the bargain in previous playoff runs.

Leon Draisaitl is as menacing as ever, but Edmonton hasn't gotten much offensive juice from forwards outside McDavid, Draisaitl, Hyman and Nugent-Hopkins. Evander Kane gets a pass due to games missed, but Kailer Yamamoto has disappointed and the third and fourth lines haven’t produced much — not that they’ve needed to.

That’s more or less the same old story. This forward group is top-heavy, but that’s less of an issue when your best offensive players are some of the very best in the NHL.

Where things get intriguing is on defence.

That’s largely due to a midseason trade that brought in Mattias Ekholm and sent Tyson Barrie packing. By his lofty standards, the 32-year-old Ekholm wasn’t in the midst of a banner season with the Nashville Predators when he came aboard, but his results in Edmonton have been outstanding.

Ekholm has joined forces with Evan Bouchard to create the type of dynamic first pair this team has been seeking for years. With that duo on the ice, the Oilers have scored 26 goals and conceded eight with an xGF% of 61.28, the fourth-best number among defence pairs with at least 250 minutes together this season.

Since the Swedish veteran debuted with the Oilers on March 1, they have a 17-2-1 record, good for the most points in the NHL (35). He’s not solely responsible for that hot streak, but a blue line that looks much better with him in place is a big factor.

Between the pipes

This is where things get unpredictable. That's no indictment of Stuart Skinner, who has been rock-solid this season while free agent acquisition Jack Campbell has floundered.

Skinner's numbers are far better than the veteran's as he's posted a .912 save percentage with a GSAA mark of +11.5. Those stats are in line with his work in minimal action last season — as well as his AHL production — but we're dealing with a goaltender with a threadbare resume and no playoff experience. He entered the season with just 14 NHL appearances to his name.

That's not disqualifying for this team, as a star goaltender is not a prerequisite for hoisting the Stanley Cup. Recent history is full of goalies like Jordan Binnington and Matt Murray leading their teams to the promised land with few prior accomplishments at the NHL level.

Skinner is a hard goaltender to pin down based on his statistical production. Of the 25 goalies who've played in 41 or more games this season, his save percentage ranks 10th and it's a solid sixth at even strength (.926).

Those are strong indicators, but he's also demonstrated significant game-to-game inconsistency. The 24-year-old has a save percentage above .900 in just 57.5 percent of his starts. No locked-in playoff starter has a worse number in that category. Skinner has had months with a save percentage as low as .897 and as high as .973 (although that number comes from just three April games).

Whether this volatility is a characteristic of Skinner or a statistical anomaly remains to be seen, but it's not heartening for Oilers fans.

How you feel about Skinner probably depends on how you feel about this team overall. He's a bit of a mystery box who's unlikely to elevate this team or sink its chances.

So, are the Oilers a true contender?


Edmonton isn’t a club without weaknesses, but it’s driven by a generational superstar at the height of his powers and has enough overall firepower to score 24 more goals than any other team in the NHL.

The Oilers lean on their historically great power play a little more than you might like to see from a top contender, but they are no slouches at even strength. They have a 53 percent goal share at 5-on-5 with 52.3 shot attempts going in their favour. Edmonton also seems to have received some poor luck at 5-on-5 as its expected goal differential (+29.9) is significantly higher than its actual number (21).

Those numbers aren’t dominant, but they are well above average, which is good enough considering the Oilers' special-teams edge.

Edmonton doesn’t have a brand-name star in net, and its bottom-six doesn’t scare opponents, but assuming this team isn’t dangerous because of past playoff disappointments would be foolish.