The Oilers are tied 2-2 in their series with the Ducks. They fly back to Anaheim and play a best of three to decide who advances to the Western Conference Finals. Oilers fans have heard ad nauseam about their team not making the playoffs for a decade and finally return to relevant hockey in April, but Edmonton has already blown expectations away at this point. This season is already a success regardless of the outcome against Anaheim in the second round.
Not many people had Edmonton in the playoffs. Only three writers at NHL.com predicted the Oilers to make the playoffs. The Hockey News had Edmonton in the bottom three of the Pacific and The Washington Post had them in the bottom five of the league.
Those weren’t really bad guesses either. There were a lot of questions about the Oilers’ depth and if the additions on defence were enough to push this team back into contention. Would Connor McDavid stay healthy? What about Oscar Klefbom and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins? Could Leon Draisaitl put up another strong season sans Taylor Hall?
The Oilers surpassed expectations and made it out of the basement on the backs of incredible seasons from McDavid, Klefbom, and Talbot. Having their entire top-six forwards healthy for 82-games didn’t hurt either.
At this point, the Oilers are playing with house money. They’re just beginning their window of contention, which if things go right, should have them competing for the Stanley Cup for multiple years with the best player on Earth leading the charge for them.
Sure, you should always strive to win, and there are legitimate arguments to be made on whether the Oilers should have taken more advantage of the second last year of Connor McDavid’s entry-level contract, especially with how wide open the playoffs are. Edmonton has a realistic shot at defeating any of the remaining teams should they advance past Anaheim, and could easily put up a good fight against an injury depleted Pittsburgh team or the Ottawa Senators/New York Rangers. But next year is really key in terms of loading up for a Stanley Cup run. Afterwards, Connor McDavid gets a lot more expensive and things become a little bit more difficult, but having to pay Connor McDavid a ton of money is a great problem to have.
The Oilers should be able to field a more than competitive with McDavid, as well as Draisaitl, making big money. Their top three defensemen make just a little over $14-million combined, leaving them in a prime position to add a right-handed compliment for their top-four, while Darnell Nurse and Matt Benning anchor a youthful third-pairing. Milan Lucic’s contract could be a problem down the road, but the Blackhawks won a cup while Bryan Bickell was making $4-million, and the Kings won one while paying a declining Mike Richards $5.75-million a year (they’ll also carry a $1.5-million cap hit for the next four years due to cap recapture and contract termination penalties).
Peter Chiarelli’s moves can certainly be debated, but being general manager of a team with Connor McDavid is like beginning every game of Mario Kart with a golden star. He can’t burn assets going after another Griffin Reinhart-type trade, but he’ll need more cheap, useful additions like Patrick Maroon and Matt Benning to compliment the elite talent at the top of the roster.
The Oilers might not win against the Anaheim Ducks, but that’s okay. Chicago lost in round three the year before they first won with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. Pittsburgh was ousted in the fist round a year prior to them going to two straight Stanley Cup Finals. The Bruins gave up a 3-0 series lead against Philadelphia in 2010, then went on to won the Stanley Cup a year later. It’s very unlikely to go from a bottom-feeder one year to a Stanley Cup the next.
Edmonton still has to strike next year as that will be one of their most optimal times to win it all, but they should be contenders well beyond that. Their younger players are all just entering their primes, and their defence is starting to look like more of an asset than a liability. Things are a little more dire for the Ducks. Ryan Getzlaf, Ryan Kesler, and Corey Perry combine for over $23-million of salary cap space, and while they do have a lot nice younger forwards and defensemen in their organization, the NHL Expansion Draft might force to part with one of those defensemen a lot sooner than they wish to. The Ducks need to take advantage of the good years from their big three players before they hit the question mid-thirties age of older players, and oh yeah, Corey Perry was just playing on the third-line for a long stretch of the playoffs until Patrick Eaves got hurt.
Of course, this isn’t to say fans shouldn’t enjoy the Oilers playoff run or cheer for wins. Cheer like hell and quench your playoff thirst, but also keep in mind that the best times are likely ahead. This summer will be a crucial point in turning the Oilers into full-fledged contenders and could be just as butt-clenching as the playoff games fans have been watching.