Duplicating last year's perfect storm won't be easy for Edmonton Oilers


The playoffs proved that that the Oilers still need to shore up their own end

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There is no question that last season was a virtually perfect storm for the Edmonton Oilers.

The power play eviscerated penalty killers at a level never seen before in the NHL.

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Connor McDavid delivered one of the greatest individual performances of all time.

Leon Draisaitl’s career-high 128 points tied him for the second highest total in the last 25 years.

Edmonton became the first team with three 100-point players since the 1995-96 Pittsburgh Penguins.

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Their rookie goalie came out of nowhere to make the All-Star team (and save the season).

Their top four forwards and top four defencemen stayed healthy all year, missing a grand total of seven games between them.

And 10 different players set new personal bests in goals, assists or points.

  1. Connor McDavid (97)of the Edmonton Oilers, fends off Alec Martinez of the Las Vegas Golden Knights in Game 6 of the second round of the NHL playoffs at Rogers Place in Edmonton on May 14, 2023.

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  2. Edmonton Oilers rookie Carter Savoie speaking with media at Rogers Place after medicals on Sept 13, 2023.

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Was that a sign of things to come? Should we count on the same kind of fortune and fireworks again this year?

Is it reasonable, or even fair, to ask the Oilers to duplicate the kind of offensive outburst that hasn’t been seen in decades?

Or did they miss out on their best chance to win a Stanley Cup, failing to convert a season in which almost everything fell their way?

We’re about to find out. With training camp set to begin Thursday morning, the Oilers will attempt to pick up right where they left off last season — not necessarily the playoffs, which collapsed under the weight of sub-par five-on-five play and a fading goaltender — but the regular season form that made them one of the top teams in the league down the stretch.

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Can they be that team again?

It’s a lot to ask, starting with the health. It’s something you don’t even want to jinx by talking about, but injuries are a part of hockey and the Oilers key players came through last season incredibly healthy — the horrific wrist injury to Evander Kane notwithstanding.

Mattias Ekholm (14) celebrates his first period goal with Leon Draisaitl (29) of the Edmonton Oilers, against the Las Vegas Golden Knights in game four of the second round of the NHL playoffs at Rogers Place in Edmonton on May 10, 2023. Photo by Shaughn Butts /Postmedia

McDavid, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Darnell Nurse and Evan Bouchard played all 82 games. Draisaitl played 80 and Zach Hyman hit 79. Edmonton didn’t come away totally unscathed — Kane’s wrist injury cost him two months while Kailer Yamamoto, Ryan McLeod, Warren Foegele and Dylan Holloway missed significant time — but the team still ranked near the bottom of the NHL in man games lost to injury and their impact players were safe and sound all year.

They might want to touch some wood and buy a box of lucky rabbit’s feet because on a team as top heavy as the Oilers, success or failure depends on their key guys staying healthy again.

As for the scoring juggernaut, last year was something special, even for a team as lethal as Edmonton. In addition to McDavid putting up the highest point total (153) since Mario Lemieux in 1996 and hitting for the cycle at the NHL awards — Art Ross, Rocket Richard, Hart and Ted Lindsay — four of their top six forwards shattered their personal bests by a combined total of 112 points.

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Edmonton’s 325 goals were 35 more than they scored in the previous season and 24 more than second place Boston.

Expecting them to reach those totals again just to break even with last year is setting an impossibly high bar.

Not to suggest those numbers were smoke and mirrors or a simple hot streak (Nugent-Hopkins shooting percentage of 18.5 notwithstanding). The Oilers reached those heights because they have two of the best players in the world leading the attack and a power play that’s been together long enough that they can practically read each other’s minds.

So, after a season in which everything fell their way and their best players showed 30 per cent gains over the year before, we’re about to find out of this is the new normal in Edmonton or if there is going to be an understandable sag in their offence.

Quite frankly, a sag is fine. It’s almost to be expected. Even welcomed.

While the Oilers have plenty of breathing room offensively, it’s also important to note that those monumental point totals and power play percentages still weren’t enough to get past the second round.

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The playoffs just taught them that the world’s best offence still can’t mask fundamental, longstanding weakness with their five-on-five team defence.

So, maybe a sag offensively is perfectly fine if it comes with a bump on the defensive side of the puck. Maybe that’s what they should be shooting for — alter the way the play slightly so they don’t need to shooting the lights out to win.

If they score 10 per cent fewer goals, the Oilers will still rank at or near the top of the league in offence. But, if they give up 10 per cent fewer goals they’ll shoot up from 17th in goals against to inside the top eight. That’s the kind of shift that might be enough to get them over the top.

So, maybe the bigger question needs to be who cares if the offence can’t get back to last year’s lofty heights? If scoring picks up where it left off last season, the playoffs proved that that the Oilers still need to shore up their own end.

And if their scoring and power play totals return to mere mortal levels they’re going to need that solid team defence to fall back on more than ever.

E-mail: rtychkowski@postmedia.com

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