The regular season is less than 36 hours away and just like all of you, I am fired up! We’ve been spending the last two weeks chugging the Oilers kool-aid on both the Real Life Podcast and Oilersnation Radio and it has been a blast. The few weeks before the season starts is always filled with optimism and high expectations.
It’s a big year for the Oilers organization and there are a lot of really interesting storylines to follow throughout this season. Here are the ten big questions I’m looking forward to having answered during the 2021 season.
1 – HOW GOOD WILL CONNOR BE?
By all reports, Connor McDavid has looked tremendous through training camp. Jason Gregor said it looks like he’s somehow gotten faster. We’ve all seen the documentary about his recovery from a PCL injury and know that before last season, he really didn’t have any time to train or work on his game. He basically spent that whole summer rehabbing. That’s not the case this year. McDavid had plenty of time to improve over the last few months. That’s a sentence that should scare the entire North Division.
Will he hit 80 points? It’s almost a lock if he stays healthy. Will he hit 90? I think there’s a chance. Could we see him hit 100? You’d be foolish to say it’s impossible.
2021 could bring a version of Connor McDavid that we’ve never seen before.
2 – WILL THE GOALTENDING HOLD?
Bad goaltending can absolutely sink any team. The Oilers are heading into this season with the same duo that was pretty good during the 2019/20 regular season but struggled in the qualifying round.
Mike Smith is now a year older and it would be fair to wonder if his game will slip this year. If it does, that would mean that there’s even more pressure on Mikko Koskinen to have a big year.
I’m not going to write off the Oilers’ goaltenders before the season even begins and those who have, are just being straight-up foolish. They deserve a fair chance to prove that they can help this team get to the playoffs, just like they would have last season if COVID didn’t interrupt things.
At the same time, it is totally fair to be a little bit nervous about the Oilers’ situation between the pipes. If things don’t go well with both Koskinen and Smith, and in a short season they’ll likely need them both to play well, then the Oilers will have a tough time making the postseason.
3 – WILL BEAR OR YAMAMOTO TAKE A STEP BACK?
Players rarely ever develop in a straight line. There are setbacks and bumps in the road. Last season, Yamamoto jumped up to the NHL level and produced at nearly a point-per-game rate for the last half of the regular season. Ethan Bear made the jump to the NHL and instantly played like a legit top-four defenseman.
Most Oilers fans are assuming that they’ll both continue to be key contributors but sometimes young players take steps back. I’m not expecting either of them to play poorly, but it certainly isn’t out of the realm of possibilities.
For example, I don’t think Yamamoto is going to put up 56 points this season and I don’t think Bear is going to suddenly become a number one defenseman.
The reason why I’m optimistic about Yamamoto continuing to make a positive impact, even if he doesn’t produce at a point-per-game level, is that a lot of what made him successful was effort based. Forechecking hard and forcing turnovers is something he’s very good at and as long as the effort is there, which I suspect it will be, then he will continue to be a handful for opposing defensemen.
As for Bear, he just has to bring exactly what he did last season and he should be able to handle that.
4 – COULD THE POWERPLAY GET BETTER?
The 2019/20 Oilers had the best powerplay percentage in the NHL since 1980. They were incredible and this year, they’re bringing back largely the same group. The only difference is that they’re swapping Oscar Klefbom for Tyson Barrie, which actually might help them produce more considering that Barrie shoots right.
Yes, they’ll miss Klefbom’s booming slapshot but having Barrie as his replacement is not a bad thing and I think that having a player who can one-time passes from McDavid or Draisaitl on the blueline could actually make their powerplay even more deadly.
One thing that could hurt their powerplay is the fact that they’re playing the same six teams over and over again. Teams will be able to develop a pretty good scouting report on what the Oilers’ star players like to do with the man advantage.
5 – HOW MUCH WILL THEY MISS KLEFBOM?
Speaking of Klefbom, they’ll really miss him at even-strength. They’ll need a big step forward from Caleb Jones, who will need to handle top-four minutes for most of the season. They’ll need Kris Russell to play like he did in the bubble, they’ll need Adam Larsson to stay healthy, and they’ll need Barrie to be more than just a powerplay specialist.
To overcome the loss of Klefbom, they’ll need more than just Caleb Jones stepping forward. It’ll be a collective effort from all of their defensemen.
6 – WHICH FREE AGENTS WILL WORK OUT?
Dominik Kahun, Tyson Barrie, Kyle Turris, and Tyler Ennis were Ken Holland’s big UFA signings. They likely won’t all workout, that happens every year, but I’ll be very interested to see which of those players may find a more permanent home in Edmonton.
Of course, Turris is on a two-year deal, so he’ll likely be back. He’s certainly the most important of all the forward adds though. If he finds chemistry with Jesse Puljujarvi and gives the Oilers a good scoring line, this team will be even more dangerous. Kahun and Ennis will both probably get good chances to play in the top six this season and if one of them takes the spot and run with it, I could certainly see the Oilers bringing them back next season.
Barrie is interesting because again if he plays well, why wouldn’t the Oilers bring him back? They could have the money to do it and with Klefbom’s health up in the air, there could still be a spot for him with the team after this season.
The free-agent additions all have upside and it will be fascinating to see which ones immediately fit in and help the Oilers win games.
7 – WILL JESSE PULJUJARVI TAKE A STEP FORWARD?
When Puljujarvi re-signed with the Oilers, I thought he’d be coming into a situation where he didn’t have very high expectations and could just focus on being a solid NHLer while playing third-line minutes. For the most part, that’s still true but there are some people who seem to think he’s primed for a breakout season. I would say that if your expectation is that he’ll play with McDavid and score 20 goals, you’re likely going to be disappointed.
It could happen, but it’s not the most likely outcome this season.
If he does play well though, I wonder if the Oilers will change up their expansion plans and make sure they don’t lose him to Seattle. If he doesn’t play well, then I could see them dangling him to the Kraken.
8 – WILL THE BATTLE OF ALBERTA STAY SPICY?
Last season was without a doubt the most entertaining that the Battle of Alberta has ever been in my life. Will the two teams be able to keep up that level of hatred and energy for ten games this season? That’s a big question but if they can, fans are in for a real treat.
I will also be watching to see if the Oilers learnt some lessons from last season and keep their cool a little bit better in the games against their provincial rivals.
9 – WILL OTTAWA SURPRISE IN THE NORTH DIVISION?
Listen, I’m not saying that they’re going to make the playoffs or anything, but I don’t think they’ll be a mile away from any other team in the North. They have some very talented young players who could take big steps forward this year. Thomas Chabot and Brady Tkachuk are the two best, but there are five or six others. On top of that, they added some good veterans this offseason and Matt Murray is an upgrade on what they had between the pipes last season.
Teams won’t just roll into the Canadian Tire Centre and walk away with two points every time.
10 – WHICH TEAM WILL GIVE THE OILERS THE MOST TROUBLE?
This week on Real Life, we all answered this question. I boldly said the Winnipeg Jets. They got firepower up front and the best goaltender in the division. It’s a tough matchup for the Oilers. I could also see the Leafs and Flames pushing the Oilers hard every time they play. Those are the top three for me but it will be interesting to see which team has the Oilers number and on the other hand, which team the Oilers seem to beat routinely (I picked Montreal).
Those are the ten storylines I’ll be watching unfold this season. What are yours? Let me know!