The last 15 months have been hard for just about everyone for a variety of reasons. The last four months, however, were a little easier thanks to the distraction that was Edmonton Oilers hockey. Sadly, that ended on Monday night as the Oilers were shockingly swept out of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs by the Winnipeg Jets.
Now fans, players and management are left to ponder what exactly just happened and what lies ahead for this group. The 2020-21 Edmonton Oilers brought joy, sadness, and now ample questions about the future of the organization.
The season was played in front of zero fans throughout Canada, but that didn’t stop the Oilers from providing a high-level of entertainment. Speaking from a strictly personal standpoint, this may have been the most fun I’ve ever had watching a regular season. The team won regularly, and displayed immense skill and star power.
After a 3-6-0 start, the Oilers went 32-13-2 to finish second in the North Division and eleventh overall in the NHL. They had the league’s best powerplay, the ninth best penalty kill, and the top two scorers in the NHL.
Connor McDavid won another Art Ross Trophy, scored 105 points in 56 games, and put together a stretch to end his season that this observer has never seen before.
Leon Draisaitl finished second in scoring in the NHL and was once again one of the league’s most electric players, while Darnell Nurse took his game to a completely different level. For the first time in a decade, the Oilers had a real, dynamic top-pairing defenseman.
Jesse Puljujarvi came back and had the best season of his professional career, while also injecting joy into the game. In fact, he exits this season as Edmonton’s third-best forward behind the ‘dynamic duo’ of McDavid and Draisaitl.
Lastly, the emergence of young Ryan McLeod is a good sign for the future, while veteran goaltender Mike Smith put together one of the best season’s of his career, a season that likely keeps his career going as he barrels towards the age of 40.
And, of course, there was making the playoffs. For most fanbases, making the playoffs isn’t a big deal. It’s something expected in cities like Boston, Pittsburgh, Washington, Denver, Las Vegas and even now Toronto. In Edmonton, it was just the second time in 15 years that the Oilers advanced to the final 16 in the NHL.
It may sound silly, but clinching a playoff spot was a special moment for this club. It was a joyous moment for a fanbase that has been through so much pain. It also turned out to be a high point in this 2020-21 season.
The Oilers were picked by many to win the first round of these playoffs against the Winnipeg Jets. Some people even had the Oilers advancing past the Toronto Maple Leafs in the second round. The Oilers, despite being the better team at five-on-five in all four games, failed to win even a single game in these playoffs.
There was the frustration of game two, where the Oilers outshot and out-chanced the Jets, but were shutout by Connor Hellebuyck through 60 minutes. In overtime, it was the Jets getting a bounce as Paul Stastny’s shot hit Adam Larsson and found the back of the net.
In Game 3, the Oilers embarrassed themselves when leading 4-1 with less than ten minutes to play. They imploded, with the Jets tying the game, forcing overtime, and then winning on a Nikolaj Ehlers goal just over nine minutes into the extra frame.
Then, in Game 4, came the triple overtime defeat. The Oilers battled back from 1-0 and 2-1 holes, a night after collapsing in Game 3, just to lose in the early morning hours and see their season end despite their best efforts.
Those of us with visions of a McDavid Vs. Matthews series had dreams shattered. Oiler fans hoping that this was the start of a new era woke up living a nightmare. After all of the highs of the 2020-21 regular season, this brief playoff run was nothing short of a disaster for Edmonton.
Bad luck? Absolutely, the Oilers did not deserve to be swept. The Stanley Cup Playoffs don’t care about luck, however, and they certainly don’t care about what you may or may not ‘deserve’.
Edmonton learned that the hard way over the last week. The Oilers experienced yet another crushing low just days after opening a playoff run.
There will be lots to write over the next few days about this club and what awaits this summer. For Ken Holland and the management team, there can be no mistake. There are no more excuses. The ‘handcuffs’ from the Peter Chiarelli era have come off. This was always projected to be the off-season in which Holland made his moves, truly made this team his team.
That has become even more paramount after eight playoffs games in two seasons with Edmonton, eight playoff games in which the club has a putrid record of 1-7.
The Oilers must now go ‘all in’. They can no longer afford to be conservative and build a program in Northern Alberta. They have the key pieces in place. Now, it is time for them to add the complementary pieces that can take this team to the next level.
The Oilers lost this series because of a combination of bad luck, bad bounces, a collapse and a lack of depth. Even if they had won this series, however, that lack of depth probably would have sunk them against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the second round.
So, thank you, Oilers. This 2020-21 season was a welcomed distraction, and one of the most enjoyable for fans until the playoffs began. Now, it rests on ownership and management to take the Oilers from a consistent playoff team to a legit Stanley Cup contender.
They’ve taken the first step, evident by the immense highs of the season. The crushing lows of the playoffs prove, however, they must take the next step now.