Pressure is on Oilers to contend, but they still seem far away

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Connor McDavid is entering his seventh season with the Edmonton Oilers. His career so far has been a non-stop display of individual brilliance that has seen him be the most dynamic and dominant offensive force in the league from pretty much the day he arrived. As long as he is healthy it is almost a given that he will be one of the top-two scorers in the league and a one-man highlight reel every single night.

That individual brilliance, though, has been surrounded by team-wide disappointment and incompetence that has seen the Oilers win just a single playoff round in his first six seasons (five years ago) and qualify for the playoffs just three times. In one of those three appearances, they did not even make it to the actual postseason tournament losing a four-game qualifying round series to the 23rd ranked Chicago Blackhawks. In the most recent playoff appearance this past season they could not even win a single playoff game against the Winnipeg Jets.

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For a team that has the world’s best player, and another in-his-prime superstar in Leon Draisaitl, it is starting to become an unacceptable lack of success, and the pressure is starting to mount for the team to do something.

On Tuesday McDavid said the time is “definitely” now for the Oilers to become Stanley Cup contenders.

“The old excuse that we’re young guys is no longer,” McDavid said, via NHL.com. “For us as a group, I think the time is now to start really pushing this thing.”

If we are being honest here, it is probably past the time for the Oilers to be contenders. And McDavid’s comment is interesting given that came just a few months after general manager Ken Holland defended the team’s inactivity at the trade deadline by saying you can not go all in every year and that you have to pick and choose your spots. The right spot is every year you have Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.

Yes, the Oilers were starting from the bottom of the league when they selected McDavid and had to build around him. But there should be more progress by this point, especially given the presence of players like Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins also on the roster. Rebuilding takes time. It should not take this much time.

Keep in mind…

  • When Sidney Crosby was entering his seventh season in the NHL his teams had already made the playoffs five times, played in two Stanley Cup Finals, and won one of them.
  • When Alex Ovechkin was entering his seventh season he had been in the playoffs four times in six years and was part of a team that had won a Presidents’ Trophy and already become a Stanley Cup contender.
  • When Patrick Kane entered his seventh season his teams had already made the playoffs five times in six years and won two Stanley Cups.
  • When Steven Stamkos entered his seventh season he had already played in the Conference Final, while his seventh season was a Stanley Cup Final appearance and the start of their current run of dominance.

Those are superstar players taken No. 1 overall, joining what were awful teams at the time, that quickly experienced team success because their teams were able to successfully build around them.

The problem is that even though it is long past time for the Oilers to be at that level, and even though the captain and best player is saying it is now time, they still do not seem ready to make that leap. Even after a busy offseason that saw them make some noteworthy moves.

Duncan Keith checks a lot of nice boxes (veteran, championship experience, future Hall of Famer) except for one that matters the most — is he a positive difference-maker right now? There are a lot of numbers and video to suggest no.

They are banking no a 39-year-old Mike Smith to repeat his 2020-21 performance in goal even though it was by far his best performance in three years. If he doesn’t, that is going to be a problem behind that defense.

They probably lost two of their three best defenders from last year in Adam Larsson and Ethan Bear, and replaced them with a declining Keith and Cody Ceci.

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Zach Hyman is a good player, but is going to be 30 years old and is just starting a seven-year contract after playing what was probably his best hockey for somebody else. Warren Foegele is a fine addition, but it came at the expense of Bear who the Hurricanes seem ecstatic with acquiring.

As recently as this past season the Oilers’ depth was so bad that they were outscored by a 52-29 margin during 5-on-5 play when neither McDavid or Draisaitl was on the ice. They were outscored 5-2 in the playoffs.

That regular season number was actually a worse goal share than the year before in the same situations and the worst mark since McDavid’s rookie season.  Meaning they depth somehow became less productive and was as bad as it has ever been during McDavid’s career. Let me repeat that, because it is worth repeating: The depth performance this season was the worst it has been since McDavid’s rookie year. More than six years into this thing, that is just unacceptable. Given the roster, the goaltending, and the makeup of the defense it is hard to see that dramatically changing this season.

The good news for the Oilers is that even with all of these flaws they should — SHOULD!! — be a playoff team this season.

The Pacific Division is probably the weakest division in the league from top to bottom, and once you get beyond Vegas at the top there is really no other team that seems to be a lock for one of the other two automatic playoff spots. Everybody is flawed to a major degree, and the Oilers do at least have two in-their-prime MVP superstars on their roster. That should be enough to get in the playoffs.

It is still a question though of whether or not they can compete with other playoff teams, let alone actual Stanley Cup contenders. Again, they did not even win a single game against a good, but not great Jets team in the playoffs a year ago.

Most teams never get players as good as McDavid and Draisaitl, let alone two of them at the exact same time. You can not waste them when you do get them.