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Photo Credit: Terrence Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Playoffs Are Difficult and Unforgiving

The NHL playoffs are painful. They are heartless. They are unpredictable and carcasses of good teams have been left to rot on the path to the Stanley Cup.

The Edmonton Oilers got swept by the Winnipeg Jets and now the focus turns to General Manager Ken Holland and what changes he makes to improve the roster.

Edmonton wasn’t dominated by the Jets, despite losing four in a row. But the playoffs aren’t fair. Game three was a prime example of how you can play great for 51 minutes, but then a three-minute collapse costs you the game. The two losses in Edmonton could have went either way. The Jets won game one and game two on deflections.

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The two losses in Winnipeg will haunt the Oilers. They had a comfortable 4-1 lead in game three, but coughed up the lead. They had a 3-2 lead in game four, but then two giveaways led to the Jets tying goal and the series winner in triple overtime by Kyle Connor. Many Oilers will look in the mirror and know they need to protect the puck better. Ethan Bear’s best asset is passing, but an errant pass in the third period last night tied the game.

Connor McDavid’s poise with the puck is incredible. But in game three he fired it around the boards, rather than hold onto it, and then last night his pass to Leon Draisaitl was knocked down and it quickly moved up ice to Connor on a breakaway. Those are tough lessons to learn.

McDavid is the Oilers’ best player. He does many great things, and he, like Bear, and Josh Archibald, and others, didn’t cost the Oilers the series. It was different players at different times. That is playoff hockey. It wasn’t a lack of effort that cost the Oilers. They actually possessed the puck more than Winnipeg. Edmonton had the advantage in most categories.

And if you look at scoring chances they didn’t play like a team that lost four in a row courtesy of Sportlogiq.

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Team Data EDM WPG
Shots 159 138
OZ Possession Time 37:14 27:02
Slot Shots On Net 63 53
Scoring Chances Off-the-Rush 33 27
Controlled Entries 243 177
Controlled Exits 402 337
Completed Stretch Passes For 62 57

But the games aren’t won on paper. They are won and lost on the ice, and Edmonton found ways to lose games three and four. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but you hope they can learn from it. Very few teams have instant playoff success. In fact many can spend years with playoff disappointment before breaking through.

The Washington Capitals lost game seven five times in six years between 2008-2015. They won in the first round four times, then lost in game seven three times in round two. They also lost in the opening round three times in game seven. And missed the playoffs in 2014. The road to the Stanley Cup can be extremely painful and heartbreaking, and there is no guarantee you will ever win a Stanley Cup.

Between 2004-2019 the San Jose Sharks played the most playoff games in the NHL with 174. The Pittsburgh Penguins were next at 173 followed by Boston (146) and Detroit (140). The Sharks also had the most regular season wins in that span with 681. Pittsburgh was next at 650.

The Penguins won three Cups, but the Sharks never won. They made one Cup Final. They had some gut-wrenching losses. They made it to the second round 10 times. They were in the third round five times. But they never won. Were they a bad team? Were they poorly coached or managed? I don’t think so. They had a few untimely errors, a few brutally unlucky bounces and some seasons they didn’t get good enough goaltending.

There is no guarantee the Oilers will win a Stanley Cup in the future, but Holland needs to build a team that can win a round most years and then hope they get a few timely bounces. As we just witnessed against the Jets, getting more chances, and possessing the puck more, doesn’t guarantee success.

WHAT NOW?

Feb 8, 2021; Ottawa, Ontario, CAN; Edmonton Oilers defenseman Tyson Barrie (22) skates with the puck in the second period against the Ottawa Senators at the Canadian Tire Centre.

This is the first season Ken Holland has some actual cap space to make moves. Last season he spent the little cap space he had quite well. Tyson Barrie was a bargain at $3.75m and he played very well for the Oilers. If Edmonton could re-sign him for $4.5m-$5m on a three-year deal I would do it. But Barrie will test the free agent market. Barrie’s veteran experience showed in the playoffs. Bear isn’t ready yet to be a top-pair defender. That isn’t a knock. Very few NHL defenders are in their second seasons. Bear, like the vast majority of D-men, needs more time to become a top-four defender on a Cup contending team. Cale Makar is a rare exception.

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Look at rookie D-men in this year’s playoffs. The only one in a top-four role is Alexander Carrier in Nashville. And that is a surprise considering he only played 19 regular season games with the Predators this season and 24 in his career. He wasn’t expected to be in this role. He spent the previous four seasons in the AHL. He had to clear waivers in 2019/2020 and no one claimed him. No one did earlier this season either.

Evan Bouchard will get an opportunity next season to play for the Oilers. But their plan should be for him to start on the third pair. Noah Dobson played 34 games for the Islanders last season, and became a regular this year. In the playoffs, he is averaging 16:46/game. He is the sixth D-man on the Islanders and gaining valuable playoff experience, but he isn’t asked to be a difference maker. Just be a solid third pair defender, which is important, but Dobson isn’t expected to play 23-24 minutes like their top pairing guys.

Bear and Bouchard are good players. Maybe they become legit top pairing defenders, but it is a big ask to expect them to be in the top pair next season when they have 132 and 21 NHL games respectively. If you want the Oilers to be a legit Cup contender next season, I’m not sure it is realistic to have one of them in the top pair. It might work, but playoff hockey is vastly different than the regular season.

To be honest, I think the goal for the Oilers has to be to keep improving and win a playoff round next season. After that nothing is guaranteed, but if you have a team that has potential to win two or three rounds, or more, that is the goal. But even then there is no guarantee. Just ask the 2019 Tampa Bay Lightning.

There are many reasons to be excited about the young players in the organization, and in most cases, it is easier to add a young player to the forward group. Jake Guentzel was a great addition for the Pittsburgh Penguins in their 2016 season, but they also had Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the more important addition to their success was Phil Kessel. Guentzel came up from the AHL midway through the season and got to play with Crosby and they produced. But even that type of production is rare. You can hope Dylan Holloway could do that, but it is more the exception than the norm.

Holland’s biggest priorities have to be figuring out what he does in goal and adding some scoring forwards.

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Mikko Koskinen’s $4.5m cap hit is a killer. He is a very expensive backup. If Holland can trade him and retain 50% of his salary, then Koskinen becomes a bit more attractive. But there are many UFA goalies. Ideally, the Oilers could re-sign Smith for one-year, but sign one of the UFA goalies, so they have a more reliable option to split time with Smith. Athletes are having more success later in their careers than ever before (hello Phil Mickelson), but expecting Smith to match this season’s numbers is a big ask. If Smith had a .915Sv% next year that would be very good.

Holland needs to add a top-six winger who can score, and then find some bottom six wingers who can chip in offensively. Barrie and Darnell Nurse’s incredible offensive production covered up for a lack of scoring depth up front, and if Barrie leaves it makes finding scoring wingers on all lines incredibly important.

And the Oilers need a right shot centre.

This will be the most important off-season the Oilers have had in years. Holland did a decent job working with limited cap space the past two summers, but this summer the onus is on him to improve the team.

Edmonton doesn’t need superstars. They need quality, proven NHL players to fill out the roster.

This needs to be the “Summer of Ken” ( a Seinfeld episode reference).

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