Eulogizing the Edmonton Oilers 2020-21 season from start to finish

Ken Holland, Edmonton Oilers (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images)
Ken Holland, Edmonton Oilers (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images) /

Well, it appears the Oilers have gone not quite so gently into that good night. They may have gone out but they went out fighting in triple overtime.

Is it disappointing to be upset by Winnipeg? You bet. Even Ken Holland said so himself in his end of the year press conference. But, it’s not all bad.

You have to look past the surface, and past the result, but believe it or not, there was improvement in the performance of the Oilers this year. Maybe it’s just because I’m an optimist by nature, but there were still improvements in the team despite the disappointing end of the year.

In the regular season, we saw Slater Koekkoek hold down the fort on defence, when a lot of his teammates on the back end were struggling. This validated Ken Holland’s signing of him in the off-season and probably means he’s coming back next year if he wants to. Don’t be surprised if Holland gives him a 2-year contract to come back as a depth D.

Two returning incumbents at the start of the season picked up where they left off last year, in a struggle. Those two guys were Juhjar Khaira and Alex Chiasson. Both guys, after being healthy scratches/taxi squaded for some time, came back and played much better after a proverbial kick in the butt thanks to better depth in the bottom six.

Both players performed admirably in the playoffs, although when Dave Tippett was looking for more speed in game four, Chiasson was again scratched in exchange for speedier players, which may not bode well for a re-signing.

Jesse Puljujarvi came in and started out in the bottom six as expected. However, after Zack Kassian was struggling like a lot of other guys at the start of the season, Puljujarvi was promoted up to replace him in the top six in game six and has never looked back.

His numbers weren’t great in the bottom six, but he created lots of scoring chances, which is obviously a huge part of the job of a top-six forward. He finished the regular season with 15-10-25 in 55 games, and despite having 0 playoff experience scored the 1st goal of the series and finished 1-1-2 in the 4 games in the playoffs.

In case you’re wondering, at the pace he was scoring in the regular season he would’ve finished with 22 goals in a full 82 game season. Admirably, he’s now covering the bet we made on him by drafting him 4th overall in 2016. Now we know why Peter Chiarelli was so excited to pick him at the time after Columbus left him on the board.

He said himself in his year-end interview he’s glad he made the decision to come back to Edmonton after being rushed into the league and needing a year back home in Finland to mature and get his confidence back on the ice.

He’s emerging as a great power forward who has chemistry with Connor Mcdavid, and best of all he’s on a value contract for next year making $1.175 million. That’s incredibly valuable in a flat cap landscape.

Dominik Kahun didn’t have a great season overall but showed flashes of chemistry with both Connor Mcdavid and the Nuge last season. Although he didn’t perform that well in the playoffs, we have to cut him some slack as it was his 1st trip to the postseason in his career.

It’s no wonder that Dave Tippett took him out for games 3 and 4 for guys who were a little more experienced and speedy. I still think he’ll be back as an inexpensive complementary top 6 guy, but it might only be 2 years instead of 3.

Kailer Yamamoto has only produced 1 assist in the 8 playoff games he’s played over the last 2 seasons, expect him to want to be better in the playoffs going forward. I expect he’ll try to be better, especially since Dave Tippett demoted him to the 4th line for game 4. He’s only 22 and at 105 NHL games, so lots of time for him to improve as he’s still years away from his PPY.

On D, we saw Darnell Nurse take a huge step forward this season, and his timing couldn’t have been better as we saw him take the minutes that Oscar Klefbom had taken previously. More was needed from him and he met the challenge head-on, both in the regular season and playoffs.

His boxcars weren’t great in the playoffs, but he provided valuable minutes otherwise of creating lots of scoring chances, anchoring the 1st PP unit, playing very physical, and defending against Winnipeg’s formidable top 6 forward group.

Nurse’s play even got the attention of Winnipeg’s head coach Paul Maurice, who if you see the video of the press conference he did on the Jet’s website after game 4, referred to Nurse as “world-class.” Pretty high praise coming from the head coach of the other side after they just swept you in 4 games.

Ethan Bear didn’t have a good season overall but seemed to be finding his game closer to the end of the regular season, even being trusted with top-pairing minutes by Dave Tippett in game 4 of the playoffs after he demoted Tyson Barrie. Let’s hope Bear learned his lesson this year and regains the form he had in his rookie season.

After all, one of the big questions for Ken Holland to answer is what right-side D will look like next season. If he brings the whole gang back, that would mean a right side depth chart of Barrie-Larsson-Bear-Bouchard. Let’s put Kris Russell as depth there for good measure.

That’s 1 too many guys, as all of the first 4 are capable of being regulars in the lineup, performance notwithstanding. Bouchard is still on his ELC, so he can still be sent to Bakersfield without clearing waivers.

Maybe in the short term that’s the best place for him to be, but of course he’s our best prospect right now and if you sign Barrie for 3 or 4 seasons that effectively buries Bouchard down or out of the lineup for a long time. Larsson’s contract is up too, and it sounds like Ken Holland wants him back just as much as Larsson wants to be back, but who knows at this point?

We still don’t know if Oscar Klefbom is going to be able to come back, and if he does than maybe Larsson plays #1 on the right side so he and Klefbom can re-capture the magic they had of seasons past on the top pairing. It’ll be interesting to see what Holland does about that this summer.

Caleb Jones was probably the d-man who struggled the most this season. He regressed from the whopping 9 points he put up last season, and regressed defensively too. Time is on his side, though, as he’s only played 93 NHL games over 3 seasons and he’s only 23. He’s best described as a work in progress. Unsurprisingly, he didn’t play at all in the playoffs, a healthy scratch for all 4 games. Ken Holland said in his end of the year press conference that it typically takes d-men about 5-6 seasons before the lightbulb comes on and you properly develop, so Jones isn’t a draft bust just yet.

Connor Mcdavid once again answered the Toronto conspiracy theorists who keep insisting the Oilers are ruining him and he wants out. He publicly stated he wants to stay here and see the team’s window to win complete itself. If that doesn’t stop the loudmouth yappers from TO who make this an annual event despite a complete lack of evidence of it, then I don’t know what will.

In goal, Mike Smith had a GM to prove right and lots of critics to prove wrong, so although he was injured in training camp, once he came back he solidified the net for us and took a lot of heat off of Mikko Koskinen who regressed in part because he had to play so much to start the season. Ken Holland publicly said he’ll be back next season, so we know he’ll be here.

But, will Koskinen? Koskinen had his moments this season but was pretty inconsistent, and let in some bad goals in his last 2 starts in the regular season. Some people are talking trade or buyout so we get his cap hit off the books, but IMO the best way for him to go is in the expansion draft to Seattle. I’ll get to that later on in the offseason in another blog.

The Oilers at some point will have to get younger in net as Mike Smith will be turning 40 once next season is almost over. He did really well this year, and rebounded nicely in the playoffs from his awful awful performance last year in the playoffs against Chicago, but how much longer can he keep it up at his age? I’m not sure the Oilers can continue to lean on Smith past next season. The other 2 in the rotation, Mikko Koskinen and Alex Stalock, are 32 and 33 respectively, so we shouldn’t rely on either of them to shoulder the load over the long term. Jim Matheson of the Journal had a compelling trade in his article yesterday. It would involve trading for Joonas Korpisalo from Columbus, retaining some of Koskinen’s cap space, and sending Caleb Jones with him so he can play with his brother Seth. Korpisalo isn’t necessarily an upgrade on Koskinen, but he’s much younger so he can play longer.

A lot of people criticized the Oiler’s scoring depth past the top 6, but believe it or not, it is actually improved from last season’s series with Chicago. The Oilers had 13 players who produced points in this season’s series with Winnipeg, last year with Chicago it was only 10.

Does that mean the depth is perfect? No. For example, compare this with the Jets who had 16 players produce points against the Oilers. 16 out of 20. Only 4 Jets didn’t have a point in the series against the Oilers – Trevor Lewis, Derek Forbort, Dylan Demelo, and Kristian Veselainen. 3 out of those 4 you would expect those kind of results from.

So, there’s still room for improvement. Expect Holland to make some moves on that front, jettisoning some of the bottom 6 forwards from this past season and bringing in some new ones. Maybe Ryan Mcleod’s linemates from Bakersfield – Cooper Marody and Tyler Benson – join him here and create a whole new line in the bottom 6. That’s probably not going to happen, but it is kind of fun to think about.

I guess I’m a little more bullish than most about the depth of the Oilers in the bottom 6. Clearly, I underestimated what the Jets brought to the table in that department, but next season between the incumbents who stay and any outside hires Holland brings in IMO the Oilers will be even better in next year’s playoffs. Holland gave the Oilers improvement in that area this season, and IMO he can do it again.

Another sign of improvement this season? 3 out of the 4 games in the playoffs went to overtime. Was it heartbreaking to lose those games? You bet, but compared to last year’s series against Chicago, it was much better. Last season, the Oilers lost games 1, 3, and 4 to Chicago by 6-4 in game one, and scores of 4-3 and 3-2 in games 3 and 4, both with game-winning goals in the 3rd period. The Oilers beat the Hawks 6-3 in game 2. None of the games from last year went to OT. Even though they got swept this year, the Oilers were much better defensively, especially in game 4 when they made Winnipeg fight to the bitter end in triple OT (Darnell Nurse played 60 minutes over the 6 periods of that game. Drink that in for a minute).

Also, unlike the last 2 seasons, the Oilers won’t be bumped up against the cap, so Holland can be a little pickier about who he signs. That being said he’s got 11 UFAs and 4 RFAs to re-sign, so that will eat into the $28 million or so he’ll have to play with once the cap turns over into next season. It’ll be interesting to see what the Oilers do with it.

Also, it’s interesting to note there are historical parallels here. Most people remember the Oilers of the 80s for the Hall of Famers all over the roster and the Cups they won, but people will be hard-pressed to remember the playoff losses they experienced before winning all those cups. The Oilers were inherited by the NHL from the WHA in 1979 (along with Winnipeg 1.0, the Quebec Nordiques [who would move to Colorado and become the Avalanche in the 90s], and the Hartford Whalers [who would move to Carolina to become the Hurricanes in the 90s].

From 1979-1983 they were a young team still developing and finding their bearings. They had Gretzky and Messier on the roster, but that didn’t guarantee them success, just like the McDrai duo didn’t guarantee the modern Oilers’ success in 2020 or 2021. In the 1980 playoffs, the Oilers were swept in 3 games by Philadelphia (they only played a 5 games series for 1 round back then, apparently) in the 1st round.

In the 1981 playoffs, this time the Oilers swept Montreal, only to be defeated by the powerhouse Islanders in the 2nd round. In the 1982 playoffs, the Oilers were beaten by the LA Kings in the 2nd round. In 1983 the Oilers made it all the way to the Finals but lost to the Islanders. Then in 1984, they won their 1st cup against those same Islanders, and the rest is history.

In his end-of-season press conference Holland also pointed out the Red Wings lost in the playoffs in the early 90s before winning twice in the last 90s, then 2002 and 2008 before their window to win slammed shut on them.

But I bet when you think back to the Oilers’ dynasty you only think about the Cup wins, and not the early losing they did, right?

This part of NHL hockey never changes. You’ve gotta lose before you can win. Pierre Lebrun of TSN said it best when he had some commentary about the series:

"The Oilers need more experience"

To me, that says it all.

More experience in the playoffs eventually leads to the Oilers going from losing to winning in the playoffs. Next year I bet at minimum the Oilers will want to win a playoff series, while still with the ultimate goal of winning the cup. Maybe even as early as next year, the Oilers will run into an opponent who was much like they were the last couple of seasons – 1st time or 2 in the playoffs, hungry and motivated but inexperienced.

Now it’ll be the Oilers who can take advantage of inexperience instead of being plagued with it themselves. Then they might lose in the 2nd or 3rd round, but that’s all necessary to get to the Cup finals. Then, they could lose or win. If they lose, they’re bound to be back after a while and that time win it.

Wayne Gretzky also said this about Connor Mcdavid in an interview the 2 did together:

"You’re too good not to win the Stanley Cup."

So, if that’s what Gretzky, the greatest scorer of all time, thinks, then who are you or I to argue with him?

Watching the year-end interviews with the players is always interesting. They all were in unison in 1 thing – they all wanted to be back to see this franchise win the Cup again. No one wants out.

The only question that remains is what kind of fan you’ll be. Are you in or out?