Oilers boast talent needed for a playoff run, but know a long season lies ahead

·4 min read

EDMONTON — The Edmonton Oilers officially began training camp Wednesday, but a lot of the talk in the Alberta capital is already focused on what the team is going to be doing in April.

After getting to the Western Conference final this past season, expectations are high for a team that has arguably the best group of top-line forwards in the league, including Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Evander Kane, Zach Hyman and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. The Oilers have upgraded the netminding position with the signing for former Maple Leaf Jack Campbell.

But, while it’s easy for talk-radio callers and pundits to look past the regular season and towards the playoffs, history tells us otherwise.

In 2021, the Vegas Golden Knights and New York Islanders were the losing conference finalists. The Montreal Canadiens lost the Stanley Cup final. All three missed the playoffs in 2021-22.

And some of the Oilers on the roster still think about what happened after the team made great strides and got to the second round of the playoffs in 2017 before they were eliminated by the Anaheim Ducks in seven games. Great expectations were placed on the Oilers — and they missed the playoffs the next two seasons. It took until this past campaign for them to actually win a playoff round.

“It’s not how it works in sports,” Oilers defenceman Darnell Nurse, thinking back to the lessons of ‘17. “You have to earn it, and we didn’t earn it at all.

“Obviously, if you look on paper, the additions we’ve made, the guys that came back, re-signed, and some of the younger players taking steps in their game, for sure people are going to say we’re a better team now than we were, sitting at the end of the season. But, that’s paper. The real test comes when the puck drops on opening night."

Added Kane: “You can’t accomplish anything if you don’t make the playoffs, right?

“Everyone is talking about April, about being Cup contenders. But you’ve got to get to the dance, first. We have to make sure we have a solid regular season and pride ourselves on getting a spot, so we can have some success in the post-season.”

After scoring 22 times in 43 the regular season and finishing tied as the top goal-getter in the playoffs with 13, Kane re-signed with the Oilers in the off-season, a four-year deal at a cap hit of US$5.125 million per season. That number will be topped up by settlement money coming from the San Jose Sharks, who terminated Kane’s deal in ‘21-22.

Add to that the signings of Campbell and defenceman Ryan Murray, and the re-signing of defenceman Brett Kulak, and the Oilers are currently in salary cap jail.

While the top two lines are basically sewn up, there are questions about the bottom six forwards and depth defencemen.

Winger Jake Virtanen and defenceman Jason Demers are in Edmonton on tryout contracts. Former University of Wisconsin star Dylan Holloway, who made his NHL debut in the playoffs, could be a factor, as could former first-round pick Xavier Bourgault. And winger Ryan McLeod, who had 21 points in the regular season, and added three goals in the playoffs, remains unsigned.

Oilers’ president and general manager Ken Holland said that he had hoped to sign McLeod to a multi-year deal, but his inability so far to free up cap space means he might be looking at a one-year offer, instead.

“My negotiating style over the years has been to educate the player and the agent as to where I see that player fitting in," Holland said. "Not just we, the Edmonton Oilers, but many teams have been challenged by the cap going up $1 million a year.

"In effect, it’s almost flat."

As for Holloway, Holland says the team has to make the right choice for the player’s development.

“I don’t want him playing seven minutes on the fourth line,” Holland said. “I don’t think that’s going to do any good for any young player, whether it’s Dylan or Bourgault. Is it better for them to play 20 minutes a game at the American Hockey League level, or is it better to play seven or eight minutes at the NHL level, and those seven minutes, they play safe. They don’t want to make mistakes, they want to stay in the lineup. I don’t want young players to play safe.”

Right now, with the cap situation being what it is Holland’s options are limited. Any maybe Kane said it best, with this tongue-in-cheek nugget from media day:

“The cap is a (expletive) thing for an NHL player, especially a good one.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 21, 2022.

Steven Sandor, The Canadian Press