Connor McDavid was nine when the Edmonton Oilers last qualified for the playoffs.
Indeed, it’s been a long decade of futility in the Alberta capital. But as training camp opens this week, there are hopeful signs that the Oilers are finally on the verge of turning a corner. Beyond McDavid, the 19-year-old wunderkind, is a promising pool of young talent, an improved defence as well as stability in the crease, behind the bench and in the front office.
For years, the league wondered when the club would make a leap. This might be their year.
"I really feel like we’re going in the right direction," Oilers general manager Peter Chiarelli said in a recent interview. "We made some moves this summer that I think had some shock and awe, not intentionally, but it was part of what we’ve been trying to do. I’m anxious. I’m excited to get the season going."
Chiarelli was hopeful of snapping the playoff drought, if also realistic.
On average, the minimum for a playoff spot in the west over the past three seasons was 92 points. Edmonton had 70 points a year ago, the worst mark in the conference and only one more than the league-worst Toronto Maple Leafs. Even getting to 87 points, which landed the Minnesota Wild a playoff spot last season, would require a 17-point improvement, a significant and perhaps unreasonable jump for any club to expect.
"I guess, never say never," Chiarelli said. "We improved last year, believe it or not by (eight) points. And we’re going to improve again."
The former GM of a Stanley Cup winner in Boston, Chiarelli was struck by a conversation he had this summer with Milan Lucic, who joined the club on a rich seven-year deal worth US$42 million. Lucic, who captured the Cup in 2011 with Chiarelli and the Bruins, told him the Oilers really only had to avoid lengthy losing streaks to make inroads and of course, prolong win streaks when possible.
Edmonton, for what it’s worth, had 11 skids of at least three games last season.
"It’s a little juvenile or simple, but it’s a good way of thinking of the whole season," Chiarelli said of Lucic’s mindset, "especially when the margins are so small."
A full season of McDavid will certainly help.
The No. 1 overall pick of the 2015 draft managed only 45 games as a rookie due to a fractured collarbone. He was scintillating when healthy (48 points), a phenom not seen since Sidney Crosby entered the league more than a decade ago. He’s a real threat to win the Art Ross Trophy with the most points in his second season, a feat Crosby managed with Pittsburgh in 2007.
McDavid, for his part, has hinted at his own expectations, notably his desire to not be known as "some 18-year-old kid anymore".
The Oilers aren’t really concerned with expectations rising too quickly for McDavid on the ice. They know the Richmond Hill, Ont., native can handle the pressure to perform. Rather, it’s the demands of their franchise cornerstone off the ice that causes concern. Prodigies like McDavid are pulled in any number of directions and Edmonton is trying to limit that, Chiarelli said.
"And it’s hard to say no," the Oilers GM said, comparing the potential demands to those of Crosby at a similar age. "You want to please stakeholders, you want to please customers, you want to please fans."
If easily the brightest, McDavid is far from the only burgeoning talent in Edmonton’s ranks.
Often forgotten in the McDavid shadow last year was German forward Leon Draisaitl, who produced 19 goals and 51 points as a 20-year-old. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, a former No. 1 overall pick who nearly posted a point-per-game as 18-year-old, is still only 23. The oft-derided Jordan Eberle, just 26, has averaged 28 goals over the last four full seasons.
Then there’s Jesse Puljujarvi, an 18-year-old Finnish winger and Calder Trophy contender who helps stem the loss (a little) of Taylor Hall, one of the league’s top left wingers who was shipped to New Jersey for defenceman Adam Larsson. Edmonton views the 23-year-old Larsson as a potential stalwart near the top of an improved, if still only adequate, defence.
The Oilers gave up the most five-on-five goals of any team in hockey last season, even with a stable presence between the pipes in Cam Talbot. Given the inching of special teams toward average last year, improved five-on-five play might just be the tipping point toward greater team success.
The Bruins won the Cup five years after Chiarelli’s arrival in Boston, inching upward each season. Chiarelli hopes for a similar ascendance in Edmonton.
"Just the experience you get from being in the playoffs is so important," he said. "(But) it’s hard to get into the playoffs. We’re going to improve. Our goal is to make the playoffs. Anything can happen."