It’s been almost a week since the Oilers were eliminated and things are going about exactly how you’d expect. A lot of fans are upset and say that big changes are needed. Some members of the media and portions of the fanbase are unfairly hurling the blame at Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid. Some fans are misunderstanding certain media members’ critiques as attempts to run the Oilers star players out of town. There’s a lot going on, so I figured I would give my take on some of it.
First off, the fact that there’s any sort of blame being thrown at the Oilers two superstar forwards is just utterly ridiculous. That duo combined for a total of 15 points in just four games. Without them, the Oilers wouldn’t have had a chance in any of the games. Could they have been better defensively? I guess. But to say that the reason the Oilers aren’t going on a deep playoff run this season is because of the defensive play of those two players is just flat out wrong.
If McDavid and Draisaitl weren’t producing over two points per game, then I could understand people wanting to rip them for a few moments they didn’t pick up their man in the defensive zone. But that’s not the case and I stand by my original statement: without the play of McDavid and Draisaitl, the Oilers don’t have a chance to win any of those games.
Instead of focusing on the play of the two superstars, there should be more talk about what the Oilers organization can do to make life easier on them. The Oilers need to surround their high-end talent with more quality. I’m not even talking about giving them better linemates, I’m talking about creating a better team so that the pressure isn’t always on their top three players to do all of the scoring. Or make it so that they don’t always have to score four or five goals to win a game. That needs to be the priority.
They don’t just need to find a better third-line centre, they need to find a high-end third-line centre. If they can find a way to build a third-line that consistently produces offence at even-strength, they will be much closer to competing for a Stanley Cup.
Just look at the two centres that they ran in their bottom-six during the playoffs. Riley Sheahan had an even-strength GF% of just 36.2% during the regular season while Jujhar Khaira had an ES GF% of just 31.4%. I know that they both do great things on the penalty kill and I think the Oilers need one centreman like that on their roster but they can’t have players playing on their third line who can’t generate offence.
They have the wing depth in their bottom six. Andreas Athanasiou, Josh Archibald, James Neal, and Tyler Ennis (if he re-signs) are all good NHL players who can score goals. Joakim Nygard and Gaetan Haas seem like capable NHLers as well. They just need to add a skilled centreman into the mix. Yes, they need players in their bottom six to be defensively responsible as well, but if Draisaitl and McDavid don’t feel as though they singlehandedly need to carry the offence every night, maybe their all-around games will improve. If the Oilers have third and fourth lines capable of consistently getting the puck out of their own end and hemming the opposition in their zone, then McDavid and Draisaitl wouldn’t have to play as much in their own zone. It’s all connected.
The other side of this is goaltending. In the NHL’s Qualifying Round, there were only four times where a team allowed three or more goals and won in the game in regulation. The Hawks did it twice, the Oilers did it once, and the Coyotes did it once. Simply put: the Oilers goaltenders were not good enough to win them a series.
In the regular season, the 1A/1B tandem of Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith worked just fine. But there’s no denying that they weren’t good enough in the playoffs. The Oilers defence had some ugly moments during their series against the Hawks, but when the Oilers needed a big save in this series, they rarely got it. Other teams get bailed out by their goaltenders a handful of times in a game and Edmonton didn’t have that luxury.
I said that finding a third-line centre is a huge need for this team. Right behind that is a need for a quality backup goaltender. Last summer, I said multiple times that the Oilers should go get a young goaltender like Tristan Jarry who can both push Mikko Koskinen this year and potentially become a legitimate starting goaltender on their own down the road. Ken Holland opted to go with a more veteran option in Mike Smith and it worked fine, but this offseason, I think it’s time to look elsewhere for a backup goaltender. I’d like to see Holland find someone who’s more than just a one-year bandaid solution.
The point I’m trying to make with all of this is that it’s easy to cherrypick a couple of clips of McDavid and Draisaitl losing their man in the defensive zone and say that the Oilers won’t contend for a Stanley Cup until they become complete players. It’s simply not true.
There were so many things that went wrong during the Oilers playoff series against the Blackhawks. They didn’t get depth scoring, they had too many players look unengaged, their defence was not as good as it was during the regular season, and their goaltenders couldn’t give them a big save or two when they needed it. This series against Chicago showed me a lot of things about the Edmonton Oilers, but it did not show me that Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are any sort of problem for this hockey team.
Ken Holland made this team a lot better in his first offseason in charge. Now they need to take the next step and go from a team that can make the playoffs to a team that can go deep in the playoffs. This season should have taught him a lot about the group he has and what’s needed for them to get to the next level. In simple words: the next three months are going to be a very important stretch of time, even though the team won’t play a game.