If there is a more hopeful time than just before the season starts then I have surely not experienced it. Everything is possible and pure in early October. The dreams of children and grown men are restored once again. Only the ice is fresher than faces of the rookies wearing sweaters that hang off them like hand-me-downs.
In Edmonton, the greatest player in a generation is fueled less by what he has won and more by what he has lost. Named the most valuable player by those who watch the sport the closest and by his peers, Connor McDavid could simply rest and be great as he is today. But that will never happen. It will never happen because a few short months ago his Cup dreams were ended prematurely by the Anaheim Ducks.
That pain, that sting of failure drives the greats. They remember the losses more than the successes. It sticks and lingers like a foul odour. Is there any doubt that Connor McDavid will attack the NHL more vigorously than ever after performing to below his own standards in the playoffs? Is there any doubt that Connor McDavid was chased by the visions of Kesler and Getzlaf to become somehow, impossibly, stronger and faster this summer?
The Oilers will not be without their own challenges this year. The club is riddled with unanswered questions down the right side of the ice. Should Draisaitl be McDavid’s right winger? Is Drake Caggiula a legitimate top nine player? Will Ryan Strome regain the promise he had on his draft day? Can Kailer Yamamoto really be ready for the NHL at 19 years of age? Is Jesse Puljujarvi going to marry his obvious talent with hockey sense and breakthrough? That’s just the forward lines.
On the blueline, the Oilers start the year with Andrej Sekera anchoring the trainer’s table instead of the second pairing. The weight of expectation for the team as a whole hasn’t been eased just because their second best defender is hurt for potentially half the year. In his absence, the weight is going to be carried by second-year pro Matt Benning and the controversial Kris Russell. It’s a risk that management and coaches will be monitoring closely.
Despite Edmonton’s notable unanswered questions, the club is entering the season with a couple aces up its sleeve. Oscar Klefbom may be one of the most underrated defenders in the league. His ability to play disciplined minutes against solid opposition is immensely valuable. As too is Klefbom’s growing offensive prowess an asset. Leon Draisaitl may become the western conference equivalent of Evgeni Malkin to McDavid’s Crosby. His broad shoulders and crisp passing have vaulted him to the upper echelon of NHL scorers.
This team suffered long amassing talented players, failing, and doing it all over again. Still, every summer was the summer of hope. Every September ushered in what was surely going to be a change of fortune and by November we knew we had to wait until June for that feeling to come back. The team chased the feeling of early October, that feeling of hope, for years.
But this team belongs to Connor McDavid now and that’s what gives all the dreams of his fans and teammates a chance to become reality. The anticipation of seeing him fly up the ice with the puck on his stick, moving impossibly fast towards an NHL defender who is frozen with fear, makes our collective hearts beat harder. The brisk October air reminds us that hockey is about to start again, but it’s the feeling that anything is possible that truly marks the beginning of a new season.