First of all, this headline title comes courtesy of my nerd brain and the greatness that is the X-Men movie “Days of Future Past”.
Second of all, Edmonton is getting playoff hockey for the second time in the McDavid-era. Since appearing in the Stanley Cup finals in 2006, the Edmonton Oilers have only made the playoffs once, back in 2017.
As the league continues to advance towards its post-season amid the global COVID-19 pandemic, the Oilers prepare to take on the Chicago Blackhawks in the play-in round. So let’s take a look at some of the things that the 2020 Oilers can learn from their 2017 predecessors.
But first, let’s start with a recap of how those 2017 playoffs went for the Oilers
During that run, the Oilers — armed with a 20-year-old Hart Trophy and Art Ross winner Connor McDavid — defeated the San Jose Sharks in the first round before being knocked out in the second round by the Anaheim Ducks. This team included players like Pat Maroon, Milan Lucic, Mark Letestu and Jordan Eberle.
That first-round victory came heavily due to the team’s ability to shut down the elite scoring talent on that 2017 Sharks team that included peak condition Brent Burns and Joe Pavelski. It also helped that Cam Talbot turned the speakers to 11 and sported a cool 0.931 SV% and two shutouts in six games.
Cut to the second-round series against the Ducks. This one went the distance, going the full seven games before the Ducks eventually won a 2-1 Game 7. That series exposed issues within that team that I think have been more-or-less fixed this season. But that doesn’t mean that the team shouldn’t reflect on that 2017 run. So here are five things that the Oilers should learn from their 13-game, 2017 playoff run.
1. Get the depth scoring involved
Speaking of depth scoring, during the 2017 second round against the Ducks, Edmonton’s secondary scoring struggled to step up to help Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. McDavid scored 5 points in the 7-game series, but didn’t register a point in the final two games of the series. Draisaitl actually went off for 13 points in the series, but one man can’t carry a whole team. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle and Benoit Pouliot didn’t even manage to score one goal between the three of them over the entire 13-game run. Only Mark Letestu provided reliable secondary scoring with 8 points in the second round.
This time around, the Oilers have to make sure that the supporting cast of Kailer Yamamoto, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Zack Kassian and James Neal get on the board. Kassian especially, playing alongside McDavid, it’s going to be his job to make life difficult for Corey Crawford and the Blackhawks defence. Speaking of Chicago’s defence, they’re further removed from their dominant Cup-winning days than not, meaning that they can be exposed. But if the depth isn’t helping out, it gives them a chance to narrow in on McDavid and Draisaitl. If the depth can get on the board consistently, that frees up even more space for those two to work help the Oilers pull away.
2. Win home-ice
In 2017, the Oilers played and won the first two games of the series against the Ducks at the Honda Center but when they came back to Edmonton with a commanding 2-0 series lead, they proceeded to drop their next two games. Despite a 7-1 blow-out win in Edmonton, it wasn’t enough to undo the damage done in games 3 and 4. Now in a best-of-5 series for this play-in round, those first two games at Rogers Place will have a large role to play in deciding this series.
3. Get McDavid rolling
In 2017, McDavid was coming off an Art Ross winning season where he put up 100 points. But like many superstars before him, the lack of depth scoring meant that the Sharks and Ducks could focus their efforts on containing the Oilers’ best player. McDavid’s 9 points in 13 games are decent numbers, but far below what we’ve come to expect from him. This time around, the Oilers have to focus on freeing up as much room as possible for McDavid. Duncan Keith is still playing well, but the rest of the Chicago defense struggled this year. Even the late addition of Calvin DeHaan doesn’t boost it much. And to be fair to them, there are maybe two or three defenders in the league that can contain McDavid. The Oilers captain is going to need to be just as dominant as he’s been his whole career, and if the depth can do their jobs to free up some time and ice for him, McDavid can find himself in a position to put up a lot of points, despite likely drawing a Jonathan Toews match-up.
Now if only the Hawks had a certain 2019 Vezina-finalist goalie to lean on…
4. Stop the Blackhawks’ elite talent
The Oilers got a little lucky in 2017 against the Sharks. Both Logan Couture and Joe Thornton weren’t at full strength, meaning that Edmonton could focus their attention on Burns, Tomas Hertl and Joe Pavelski. Against the Ducks, Ryan Getzlaf ran wild, scoring 10 points in seven games, including a four-point night in Game 4 in Edmonton. This time around, the Oilers are up against a roster with similar attributes to that Sharks team in the Blackhawks. They’re an older, battle-hardened and experienced, with some young depth that can be dangerous if allowed to get hot. Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith have proven they can win, despite Chicago’s clear decline since the peak of their 2010s dynasty, and they’re playing alongside Alex Debrincat, Dylan Strome, Alex Nylander and rookie Dominik Kubalik.
While Toews and Keith aren’t as dominant as they were, Kane is still deadly. He put up 84 points in 70 games, and he’s likely sensing that his winning window is closing, quick. The best way for the Oilers to stop him is to take advantage of the likely Toews-McDavid matchup. Kane played alongside Strome and Nylander for a good part of the season, and most likely that’ll continue in the playoffs. They’ll likely line up against the Oilers second line of Nugent-Hopkins, Draisaitl and Yamamoto. Strome and Nylander are good players with potential, but at the moment they’re not great in the defensive zone.
Draisaitl isn’t Patrice Bergeron, but the Oilers don’t need him to be, they just need him to pin Kane in his own end. McDavid has a clear edge against Toews, but it’ll still be hard-fought. If the Oilers can use that to focus the rest of their attention on Kane, it gives them a better chance at stopping him.
5. Clog the defensive zone
When the Oilers took on the Ducks three years ago, they had a golden opportunity to grab the series lead in Game 5 after dropping Games 3 and 4. That was until they blew a three-goal lead that ended in a double-overtime winner from Corey Perry. The Oilers ranked 20th in the league in goals against. Chicago ranked 18th in goals for. That means that the Oilers have to do whatever it takes to shore up their trenches and stop Kane, Toews, Kubalik and Debrincat.
The Oilers will most likely turn to Mikko Koskinen in goal, and while he was playing very well for the last 10 games until the pause, there’s no telling what this kind restart will mean for his play (not just to him, but every goalie in the league, I’m actually genuinely curious). So hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. That means that defencemen Darnell Nurse, Oscar Klefbom, Ethan Bear and Adam Larsson to carry the top-four minutes in this play-in series, and that means having to line up against Kane, Toews, Kubalik and Debrincat. All four those guys can be deadly. So it’s going to be up to the top-four to generally make life unpleasant for them in the Oilers zone. They’ll have to keep the puck to the outside, finish their checks on Kane early in the series and give Koskinen as much help as possible.
So that’s “Days of Playoffs Past” for the Edmonton Oilers. All in all, this play-in series is primed for the Oilers to have success and beat a declining Cup contender, but nothing is a gimme in this league, especially a 5-game series.