It has been a season to remember, and forget, and remember again for the Edmonton Oilers. At different junctures they have been the best and the worst team in the National Hockey League.
injuries? They have had a few. COVID-19? They had an outbreak that lasted six weeks. During a terrible stretch, his head coach called his goalie. Not long after that, his head coach was fired.
In the midst of it all, they took a flyer on Evander Kane, a talented player but with a troubled past. In little more than six months they generated as much drama as an episode of High school.
“It’s definitely been a weird year,” says Connor McDavid. “We had a long series of really unfortunate events.”
And yet, here are the Oilers, a hair’s breadth away from a playoff spot along with home-court advantage for at least one round.
“We’ve had ups and downs, but we’ve worked our way back,” says the Edmonton captain. “We had to play for our lives.”
With one week left in the regular season, McDavid is where he has become usual: at the top of the points standings, though tied with Jonathan Huberdeau of the burgeoning Florida Panthers.
In 76 games, McDavid has scored a career-high 43 goals and is just three points shy of a career-best 116 points.
While Auston Matthews and Huberdeau will clearly get plenty of MVP votes, the two-time Hart Memorial Trophy winner remains a threat to do it again.
It’s the path he and the Oilers have taken to this point that has made it an unlikely journey.
Edmonton won 16 of its first 21 games, then lost 13 of its next 15. It quickly fell from first place in the NHL to six points out of playoff position and seemingly had no answers.
“I’ve been on a team that wasn’t very good but wasn’t expected to be,” says McDavid. “We knew what to expect. This was probably emotionally more difficult. We had a great start and then we went into a slide and it was really annoying.
“Some days were more difficult than others, but we did a good job of getting through.”
Edmonton entered a meeting against Colorado on Friday night riding a 15-3-2 streak and second in the Pacific Division behind Calgary. Just as the Flames have played all year, the standings might not be any different even if the Oilers hadn’t gotten involved in their own game of Chutes and Ladders.
They have played most of the season without number one goalkeeper Mike Smith. That caused Mikko Koskinen, who is a useful backup, to be overworked and that contributed a lot to the depression.
Injuries strafed the defensive corps to the point that 11 different defenses were employed in 10 games. Koskinen especially struggled then. During that 2-13-2 stretch he allowed the opponent to score first 14 times.
And so many players have been affected by COVID-19, and for so long, that it seemed like it would never end.
“Just as the guys were starting to come back, others were coming out,” says McDavid.
With the club churning at 22-18-3 and fifth in the division, Dave Tippett was replaced behind the bench by Jay Woodcroft, the coach of the Oilers’ American Hockey League affiliate, on February 10.
“Of course you never want to see a coach get fired, especially someone you like so much,” says McDavid. “But by then things had reached a point of no return. Something had to give.”
Since the coaching change, Edmonton has gone 23-8-3 and has won 11 of its last 12 games at Rogers Place.
“They’ve come in and done really well,” McDavid says of Woodcroft and assistant coach Dave Manson. “I can’t say enough about them.”
Several things have led to the resurgence. Kane has been fantastic with 17 goals and 15 assists in 38 games.
Smith has returned from injuries and has now won eight of his last nine starts and seven in a row. During his last six games, the 40-year-old allowed only half a dozen goals and stopped 97 percent of the shots he faced.
Leon Draisaitl has been as superb as ever with 54 goals and 106 points. Signed as a free agent, former Maple Leaf Zach Hyman has scored a career-high 25 times. Veteran defenseman Duncan Keith has added depth to a blue line led by Darnell Nurse and Cody Ceci. Promising young forwards like Kailer Yamamoto and Jesse Puljujarvi have made great strides.
It’s certainly been an uphill climb, but somehow Edmonton has pulled it off.
“I’ve been in the game a long time,” said Ken Holland, the Oilers’ general manager. “This has been a rollercoaster ride and it’s not something I want to relive.
“We were first overall in the league for the first 16 games and last for the next 15. There was no middle ground.
“The beginning gave us hope and then the ceiling collapsed.”
Holland is in his third year as GM. The Oilers were ranked 28th in the league when he took over and had missed the playoffs the previous two seasons.
Now, this will be the third time in a row they’ve made it to the postseason.
“Through all of that, we developed something,” says Holland. He was a general manager in Detroit when the Red Wings won the Stanley Cups in 1998, 2002 and 2008.
“When we won in 2008 we had a run where we lost 10 of 11. Down times either break you or you grow.”
You can’t mistake the guy who leads the team. McDavid is still only 25 years old and already has the fourth-highest points per game average in NHL history after Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Mike Bossy. In six seasons, he has only won one playoff series. Maybe this time it will be different.
“It’s like we’ve been playing playoff hockey for a while,” says McDavid. “We were out of the race and had to scratch and scratch and get back in.
“I think the guys are confident. Up and down the lineup, guys feel good about their own game and our team. A lot of good things are happening.”