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.

[Related: Every free agent signing by all 32 NHL teams]

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.

[Related: NHL Power Rankings: Top Calder Trophy Contenders For 2021-22 NHL Season]

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.

Golden Knights captain Mark Stone undergoes back surgery

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LAS VEGAS — Vegas Golden Knights captain Mark Stone is out indefinitely after undergoing back surgery in Denver, the club announced Wednesday.

The Knights termed the procedure Tuesday as successful and that Stone “is expected to make a full recovery.”

This is the second time in less than a year that Stone has had back surgery. He also had a procedure May 19, 2022, and Stone said in December this was the best he had felt in some time.

But he was injured Jan. 12 against the Florida Panthers, and his absence has had a noticeable effect on the Knights. They have gone 1-5-2 without Stone, dropping out of first place in the Pacific Division into third.

Stone is second on the team in goals with 17 and in points with 38.

Devils associate coach Andrew Brunette charged with DUI

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DEERFIELD BEACH, Fla. — New Jersey Devils associate coach and former Florida Panthers head coach Andrew Brunette was arrested early Wednesday morning in South Florida while driving home from a bar in his golf cart, authorities said.

Brunette, 49, was pulled over just blocks from the ocean in the Deerfield Beach area, north of Fort Lauderdale, according to a Broward Sheriff’s Office arrest report. He was charged with one count of driving under the influence and two counts of disobeying a stop or yield sign. Brunette was released later Wednesday on $500 bond.

The Devils said in a statement that the team was aware of Brunette’s arrest and gathering additional information.

According to the arrest report, a deputy was in the process of giving Brunette’s illegally parked golf cart a ticket around midnight when Brunette walked out of a nearby bar and told the deputy he was about to leave. The deputy said Brunette seemed unsteady on his feet and slurred his speech, and when he was joined by his wife, the deputy said he overheard the wife tell Brunette not to drive while the deputy was there.

The deputy remained in the area and reported watching the couple drive away about 17 minutes later, according to the report. The deputy said he watched the golf cart run two stop signs before pulling Brunette over on a residential street about a mile away from his home. According to the report, Brunette had difficulty following instructions during a field sobriety test before eventually quitting and asking for an attorney. He also declined to take a breathe test to measure his blood-alcohol level, officials said.

Online jail and court records didn’t list an attorney for Brunette.

Brunette is in his first season as associate coach of the Devils. He was interim coach of the Florida Panthers last season after taking over when Joel Quenneville resigned for his connection to a 2010 Chicago Blackhawks sexual abuse scandal.

The Panthers fired Brunette after they lost in the second round of the playoffs last spring despite him leading them to the Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s top team during the regular season.

The Sudbury, Ontario, native played 1,159 NHL games for Washington, Nashville, Atlanta, Minnesota, Colorado and Chicago from 1995-2012. He was a Wild assistant in 2015-16 and worked on Florida’s staff from 2019-2022.

Stars aligned with new coach DeBoer, Nill-constructed roster

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DALLAS — General manager Jim Nill sensed things were coming together for the Dallas Stars even before the season started with new coach Pete DeBoer and a roster mixed with proven veterans, up-and-coming young players, and even a teenaged center.

At the NHL’s All-Star break, after 51 games together, these Stars are leading the Western Conference.

“Every year you start, you put a team together, and there’s always going to be question marks,” said Nill, in his 10th season as the Stars GM. “You have ideas how you think you’re going to come together, but there’s always the unknown. . This year has been one of those years where right from the start, you could just see everything was kind of jelling.”

The Stars (28-13-10, 66 points) have their trio of 2017 draft picks that just keep getting better: All-Star winger Jason Robertson, goaltender Jake Oettinger and defenseman Miro Heiskanen. The seemingly ageless Joe Pavelski, at 38 and already re-signed for next season, is on the high-scoring top line with Robertson and point-a-game winger Roope Hintz. Wyatt Johnston, their first-round pick in 2021 and half Pavelski’s age, has 13 goals.

There is also the resurgence of six-time All-Star forward Tyler Seguin two years after hip surgery and 33-year-old captain Jamie Benn, who already has more goals (19) than he did playing all 82 games last season.

The Stars have a plus-40 goal differential, which is second-best in the NHL. They are averaging 3.37 goals per game, more than a half-goal better than last season when they were the only team to make the playoffs after being outscored in the regular season. They are also allowing fewer goals, and have improved on power plays and penalty kills.

“Where we sit at this break, I think guys are happy with that,” Seguin said, before being asked the keys to the Stars leading the West and on pace for a 100-point season with their new coach.

“Our style, our team speed, our puck speed, being predictable. All the clichés, knowing where the puck’s going. Really how we play the five-man unit,” he said. “Our pace this year, it’s been a lot quicker. There’s been some solid depth scoring this year while we’ve got one of the best lines in hockey.”

The Stars went into the break on their only three-game losing streak of the season, all 3-2 overtime losses at home.

“Those aren’t real losses,” said DeBoer, who twice has gone to the Stanley Cup Final in his first season with a new team. “I’m happy where we’re at. I like how we’re playing.”

Plus, Dallas won’t have to worry in the playoffs about 3-on-3 hockey, which has been the only real stain on their season so far. Only one team has more than its 10 losses after regulation.

“We’ve played a lot of good hockey. We’ve made a lot of good strides in our game,” DeBoer said. “We still have another level we have to get to when we get back, but there are a lot of good things that have happened. They’ve worked to have us where we are right now in the standings. Good spot to be in.”

The Stars have 31 games left in the regular season. The first four after the break at home, like the last four before their week-long hiatus.

Robertson’s 33 goals rank sixth in the NHL, and the 23-year-old has the same number of assists while averaging 1.29 points a game even after he missed most of training camp before signing a four-year, $31 million contract. Pavelski has 48 points (14 goals, 34 assists) while playing every game, and Hintz 46 points (20 goals, 26 assists) in only 43 games.

Oettinger, who is 21-7 in regulation, has a .923 save percentage and 2.26 goals against average since signing his three-year, $12 million contract. That deal came after 223 saves in a seven-game playoff series against Calgary last May, capped by 64 in the series finale that went to overtime.

Nill said Robertson’s production has improved even with the league adjusting to the high-scoring forward, and that Oettinger is proving to be one of the league’s best goalies. But they are just part of what has been a tremendous team effort.

“They kind of had that mojo right from the start, and it was kind of this team’s got the right mix,” Nill said. “It’s come together well, and it’s shown in the standings. It’s been good to watch.”

Canucks’ Ilya Mikheyev to have season-ending knee surgery

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Vancouver Canucks right wing Ilya Mikheyev is set to have season-ending surgery on his left knee.

Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin said Friday night the 28-year-old Russian forward tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the team’s first preseason game Sept. 25. Mikheyev will undergo surgery next week and is expected to be ready for training camp in the fall.

Mikheyev was originally listed as week-to-week with the injury and played 45 regular-season games, finishing with 13 goals and 15 assists. He scored in his final appearance Friday night, a 5-2 home victory over Columbus.

Mikheyev signed a four-year, $19 million contract as a free agent last summer.