Play-In Series Wrap

My prediction for the series was wrong, but my initial instinct about this series ended up being correct. The Chicago Blackhawks upset our Oilers in four games.

There is a lot to be angry and disappointed with about this result as Oilers fans. The Oilers had one more point than Dallas before the pause. Dallas got a bye to the first round instead of the Oilers because they played two fewer games. We had the top two scorers in the NHL this season. We had the advantage of playing in our home arena. As if playing for the Stanley Cup isn’t enough motivation, the Oilers also had another reason for extra motivation. Colby Cave left us too soon, and the Oilers stopped skating for him too soon as well.

If we look at the series itself, we have to be disappointed in how the team started. After McDavid opened the scoring early in game 1, the Hawks ended up with a 4-1 lead after the first period because of some awful turnovers. The Oilers went 3/4 on the powerplay in game 1, but they still lost.

The Oilers got early goals in 3 of the 4 games, and they were only able to win one of those games. The young Oilers let the veteran Hawks back in the game early each night except for game 2. That can’t happen in the playoffs.

The Hawks scored a lot of goals off of tips. A lot of that is luck, but a lot of that is not getting pucks out, not getting in shooting lanes, and not tying up sticks in front of the net. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Steve Highmore scored two tip-in goals in the last two games. There was not an Oiler anywhere near him on either goal. The Oilers failed to make those adjustments in this series, and it cost them dearly.

It’s disappointing that the Oilers had 2 guys with 2 points per game or more in the series, and another over 1 point per game, and they still lost. McDavid had 9 points and Nugent-Hopkins had 8 points in the 4 games, while Draisaitl had 6 points. Nobody else had more than 3. That speaks to the incredible lack of secondary scoring on this Oilers team. It’s not disappointing because we knew that was a reality, but it’s frustrating.

It’s disappointing and frustrating as hell that the referees were doing everything that they could to help Blackhawks in the last two games! There were 3 penalties called against the Oilers in game 3 that were legitimately not penalties. Yamamoto did not hold the stick, Russell did not hold Dach, and Athanasiou played Kane perfectly. I would not instruct those players to do anything differently in those situations. As a result, the Hawks got a 5-on-3 that they scored on, and that was the difference in game 3. They also could’ve called Dach for boarding on Ennis, but chose not to make the call.

In game 4, they got the boarding call right on DeBrincat after he hit Bear in the numbers. Then they gave it right back by calling Nurse for interference during the 5-minute powerplay because Caggiula tripped when he tried to step around Nurse by the bench. Nurse didn’t hit Caggiula at all, he’s entitled to his space! That totally killed any Oilers momentum that could’ve been created on that powerplay. I expect better from NHL referees specifically chosen to be in the bubble in this situation.

To top it all off, Athanasiou hit the bar on a WIDE OPEN net in the third period. The Oilers had been all over the Hawks for the whole period, but then the Hawks got one chance shortly after and it ended up behind Koskinen. Icing on the cake for the Oilers.

I’m disappointed and frustrated as I write this, and I know that you are too as you read this. However, if you have followed any of my work over the last few seasons, you know that I’m an objective thinker that looks at the big picture. It’s not an acceptable result, but let’s look at the positives here.

This was Ken Holland’s first season as the GM of the Oilers. This was always meant to be an evaluation year. It’s really important that Holland’s evaluation of the team is an accurate one. As frustrating as it is that the Stanley Cup Playoffs will happen at Rogers Place without the Oilers, a long playoff run could have really skewed Holland’s evaluation of this team.

Let’s go back to 2017 for a minute here. The Oilers had come within one game of the Conference Finals. McDavid had just won the Art Ross, and Draisaitl had emerged as a star in the playoffs. Many analysts had predicted that the Oilers would be a contender in the 2017-18 season. As we all know, the Oilers missed the playoffs. Expectations continued to be high the next season, and Chiarelli ultimately paid the price for making desperation moves because the team wasn’t as good as he and many others thought it should’ve been.

This series gave us an accurate read of what the Edmonton Oilers are right now, and that is a work in progress. The stars were amazing, the depth scoring was non-existent, the defence was neither mobile nor stingy enough, and the goaltending was just average.

Despite Holland’s best efforts at the trade deadline, the support scoring didn’t improve for the Oilers. Ennis was starting to look really good before his injury, and Athanasiou was starting to find his stride a little too late. Yamamoto didn’t offer much in terms of production, although I’ll never criticize that kid’s effort. Kassian was all but invisible in the series. Neal did contribute a little bit, but he did it from the fourth line. One can only do so much with that kind of ice time.

We’ve been hearing it for a couple of seasons now. The Oilers need a legitimate 3rd line centre that can score. I like Sheahan as a shut down, penalty killing 4th line centre, but not as a 3rd line centre. There needs to be an upgrade there so wingers like Neal and Athanasiou aren’t stuck on a purely checking line when they aren’t playing with a star.

Nurse and Bear were by far our best defenders. They ate minutes at even strength, but the problem is that nobody expects them to produce a lot of points from the blueline. Scoring from the blueline will improve in short order once Bouchard and Broberg arrive, but it will continue to be a problem for now.

Klefbom and Larsson were not themselves in this series. They made far too many mistakes on goals against early in the series for a pair that we expect to be more reliable. Russell did ok stepping in for Larsson on that pairing, but he had 3 goals go in off of him in the series. Part luck, part positioning.

Koskinen played fairly well, but he ultimately was not able to shut the door when we needed it most. He didn’t play poorly enough to justify a switch to Smith, but he didn’t get the job done either. I’m not super concerned long-term, but the goaltending wasn’t good enough this time around.

I still believe that there is a solid core here. McDavid, Draisaitl, Nuge, Klefbom, Nurse, Bear, and Larsson just need more quality depth beneath them in the lineup. Help is on the way though.

Up front, Tyler Benson is the next winger likely to crack the Oilers lineup. He got a quick look this season, and he will be in the running for a spot in camp. It is becoming more and more likely that Jesse Puljujarvi will end up with the Oilers next season. He signed a one-year deal with Karpat recently, but that deal has an NHL-out clause that will allow him to play in the NHL if he signs a new deal. Talks between him and Holland have been positive this summer, and he has not ruled out a return to Edmonton. I don’t think Holland found anything close to fair value in the trade market, and Puljujarvi sees that. The Oilers have a new management team and they are a team on the rise. I don’t know why he wouldn’t want to be a part of that.

On defence, there will be a fierce battle between Benning, Jones, and Bouchard for roster spots. Broberg made himself visible this summer, but he will likely be back in Sweden next year. Regardless of how the battle in camp shakes out, the Oilers look like they will have a strong defence for years to come because of these prospects.

Finally, we have the 2020 Draft yet to come. The Oilers will be one of the teams that has a 12.5% chance of winning the right to select Alexis Lafreniere, a potential impact LW. Even if they don’t get so lucky again, the Oilers will pick 13th unless the Penguins or Islanders win the first overall pick, in which case they would pick 14th. Wherever they pick, they will likely be adding another impactful prospect to their growing crop.

I’m going to make a prediction here. You will not believe it until you see it for yourself, nor should you; but this will be the last time the Oilers miss the playoffs before McDavid’s contract expires. This team is on the cusp of becoming a perennial contender. The dawn of the McDavid era is upon us. We are about to embark on the journey that we have been waiting so many long years to enjoy. McDavid has played 5 NHL seasons now, and he is 23 years old. Gretzky won his first Cup at the age of 23, and Mario Lemieux made his first playoff appearance in his 6th NHL season. The waiting for McDavid and the Oilers ends next season.

I’ll be writing a series about what to expect during the short off-season that will occur this fall, so keep your eyes open for that. In the mean time, try to enjoy what is shaping up to be one of the most unusual and unpredictable playoff seasons ever!

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