The Edmonton Oilers made the playoffs for the first time since the 2016-2017 season a year ago. Winners of 35 games during the NHL’s COVID-19 shortened season, they finished in second place in the North Division. Led by superstar center Connor McDavid, the former No. 1 draft choice, racked up 33 goals and 72 assists. Leading the league with 105 points, he captured the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player. This marked the second time he has captured the honor in his career.
Behind McDavid, Leon Draisaitl continued to cement himself as one of the elite players in the game. He amassed 84 points in 56 games, while tallying a career-high 15 power play goals. Furthermore, defenseman Darnell Nurse finished seventh in Norris Trophy voting. On pace to break his season-high points total over the pace of 82 games, he led the team with over 25 minutes played per night.
Quiet leading up to and on trade deadline day, general manager Ken Holland made just one minor transaction. Constrained by the team’s limited cap space, the team also had little draft capital to use in any deal after shipping out multiple picks over the last few seasons. The longtime executive acquired blueliner Dmitry Kulikov from the New Jersey Devils to bolster his defensive core in exchange for a conditional fourth-round draft selection. Edmonton would match up with the Winnipeg Jets in the opening round of the playoffs in 2021. Never able to get a timely goal after losing 4-1 in game one, the Oilers would lose three straight extra-time games, including a triple-overtime thriller in game four.
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Edmonton once again struggled to get secondary scoring behind their two superstar players a season ago. Making multiple moves to upgrade their forward core in the offseason, the team agreed to terms with winger Zach Hyman on a seven-year, $38.5 million deal. He is expected to join McDavid on the team’s top line to begin the season. The 28-year-old has eclipsed the 20 goal mark in two of his last three seasons.
Along with this, the franchise also signed longtime Calgary Flames center Derek Ryan to a two-year deal. They also acquired winger Warren Foegle from the Carolina Hurricanes in exchange for Ethan Bear. Needing to get more out of both Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jesse Puljujarvi, a major key for this group will be the ability of both players to help generate offense on their own.
The team’s defensive core remains a much-improved unit after undergoing an overhaul over the past few years. The group will once again rely on Nurse to log heavy minutes as their No. 1 option. Fresh off an eight-year contract extension, the 26-year-old will be joined by Tyson Barrie on the team’s top pair. After a challenging year in Toronto during the 2019-2020 season, the 30-year-old led all defenseman with 48 points in 56 games last year.
The quarterback of the Oilers’ power play, he represents the perfect partner for the stay-at-home Nurse with his high-end offensive upside. Rounding out the bottom-four members of the group, former Norris Trophy winner Duncan Kieth joins free-agent acquisition Cody Ceci, on their second pairing. Lastly, Kris Russell returns to join Evan Bouchard as the team’s fifth and sixth options.
Locked into goaltender Mike Smith for another season, the 39-year-old signed a two-year extension in July. Enjoying one of the finest seasons of his 15 year NHL career in 2020, he posted a .923 save percentage and a 2.31 goals-against average in 30 starts for the team. However, with durability issues in the past, he missed a large chunk of the season, after a lower-body injury.
Behind the longtime net minder, Mikko Koskinen will split the tandem duties with Smith. Unlike his counterpart, the Finland native struggled mightily throughout last season. He posted career lows in nearly every major category, including a miserable -6.4 goals saved above average. Edmonton will need both goaltenders to hold up next season to qualify for postseason play.
One of the biggest free-agent signings for the franchise in recent memory, Hyman landed with the Oilers in the offseason. Unable to come to terms with the cash-strapped Toronto Maple Leafs, he will be in a new uniform for the first time in his seven-year career. Lauded by his teammates and coaching staff for his relentless forechecking ability and two-way game, he has also improved mightily as an offensive player.
Amassing 57 goals over his last three seasons, the Toronto, Ontario native has also finished as a plus 48 over that time frame. Furthermore, he has finished inside the top 25 in Selke voting three times over his young career. Brought in to play on a line with McDavid, he has no shortage of experience playing with star players after spending parts of the last two seasons on a line with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.
After looking to improve at the position during the offseason, Edmonton will rely on Smith again after failing to upgrade. Re-upping with the team on a one-year extension before the start of last season, he opened up the year as the lead man in goal for the team. Ultimately going down due to an injury early on in the year, he caught fire upon his return to help the team secure the No. 2 spot in the North Division. Racking up six straight victories, he posted a .944 save percentage and a 1.73 goals-against average. He also joined Curtis Joseph as the only goalies to record three-plus shutouts with five different NHL franchises. With playoff aspirations on their mind, the franchise will go as far as Smith takes them.
Biggest Question Facing the Oilers
The team entered the offseason with a focus on improving its forward depth. They struggled to get production from players lower down in their lineup during the regular season. The group once again became reliant on both McDavid and Drasaitl to create offensively and drive play in the playoffs. Edmonton needs to find consistent production from other names in their group.
One of the most significant question marks surrounding the group heading into the 2021-2022 season will be if the acquisitions of Hyman, Foegle and Ryan can take pressure off their two superstars. The team remains one of the most dangerous teams in the league, based solely on the brilliance of its top two players. However, if the Oilers can find goals lower down in the lineup, they can join the elite cup contenders within the league in terms of status.
With a return to the Pacific Division on tap heading into the 2021-2022 season, the Oilers will look to return to the playoffs for a second straight year. Likely to finish in the second spot behind the Vegas Golden Knights, the team will get an added boost by beating up on the Anaheim Ducks, San Jose Sharks, and the Los Angeles Kings in the most top-heavy division in the NHL.
Guided by two of the top five players across the league, look for them to both continue to rack up monster numbers. Furthermore, with added additions to the bottom half of their forward and defensive cores, all eyes across the league will be on Dave Tippett‘s team. If both Smith and Koskinen can hold up in goal, this team can go on a deep playoff run.
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