It’s been a loooong time since the Edmonton Oilers entered a season with actual Stanley Cup expectations, pressure that arrives both from outside observers and internally.
We can finally say this: The Oilers are good. Very good, and are led by Connor McDavid, the only 100-point player from 2016-17 and overwhelming favourite to capture back-to-back Hart and Art Ross Trophies in 2017-18.
They’ve got a Stanley Cup caliber goaltender in Cam Talbot, they’re as big as any team in the league, have high-end talent like McDavid, Leon Draisiatl, Milan Lucic and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and have a defence that emerged last season. Edmonton was a late-game collapse and some questionable calls away from advancing to the Conference Final last spring. Anything less than the third round in 2018 will be viewed a disappointment.
UP-AND-COMING PLAYER TO WATCH
The 6-foot-3 Jesse Puljujarvi won’t turn 20 until May 7. But these days, when a fourth overall pick doesn’t play right away there are questions.
Puljujarvi had 12-16-28 totals in 39 AHL games last season after opening with Edmonton. His future is as a triggerman off the right side for either McDavid or Draisaitl, and with the Oilers’ contract situation, having a productive kid on an entry-level contract would be welcome. He could also push Draisaitl to the centre ice position if Puljujarvi evolved enough to play with McDavid one day.
The Oilers brought in Jussi Jokinen to help Puljujarvi along. That could allow him to start on the third line more comfortably.
WHAT A SUCCESSFUL 2017-18 WOULD LOOK LIKE
If progress is defined as going one step further than the year before, then it is the Conference Final or bust for the Edmonton Oilers. They contended for the Pacific Division regular season title until Game 82 last season, so adding a few points to the 103 total from 2016-17 would mean some regular season success. But coming out of the Pacific in the post-season will truly define progress for this team. And if that happens, a trip to the Stanley Cup final is clearly a legitimate possibility.
BIGGEST REMAINING QUESTION
Some people will say this season marks the Oilers’ best chance to win, with McDavid’s second contract kicking in for the following season, meaning he and Draisaitl will eat up $21 million in cap space. There is likely enough younger, cheaper talent that Edmonton’s window will be open for some time, however. Like Pittsburgh, that pipeline will have to remain open while, like Chicago, the Oilers continue to dump contracts in the coming years.
In the short-term, an injury to defenceman Andrej Sekera (torn ACL) will keep him out perhaps until Christmas. That’s a big hole to fill, and youngsters Matt Benning and Darnell Nurse will have to step up. Oscar Klefbom took strides towards becoming a legit No. 1 defenceman last season. More strides are required for this team to win big.