EDMONTON — Nobody got crushed by ‘The Pause’ the way the Edmonton Oilers did.
From challenging for the Pacific Division title and — at worst — looking forward to a Round 1 series against the hated Calgary Flames, the Oilers returned nearly five months later as an unrecognizable team, beaten handily by a Chicago Blackhawks club that would bow out easily at the hands of Vegas the following series.
They were percentage points from getting a bye through the Qualifying Round. Instead, the Oilers technically missed the playoffs altogether, which makes for a confusing duty in handicapping what kind of team they’ll be this year.
Were they the team that was mighty good through 71 games? The team that stunk the joint out in four games versus Chicago? Is the goaltending good enough this year, just because the same tandem was good enough last year? Can Tyson Barrie fill in for the injured Oscar Klefbom?
Let’s dig in on an Oilers team that has two of the top five players in the world, but hasn’t accomplished much yet.
2019-20 regular season record: 37-25-9
2019-20 season finish: 2nd in Pacific, 4th in West (by points), 5th in West (by %)
Top 2020 draft pick: C Dylan Holloway
Additions: Dominik Kahun, LW; Jesse Puljujarvi, RW; Kyle Turris, C; Tyson Barrie, RD; Slater Koekkoek, LD; Theodore Lennstrom, LD.
Subtractions: Riley Sheahan (to BUF); Matt Benning (to NSH); Andreas Athanasiou (to LAK); Oscar Klefbom (to LTIR)
The hardest thing to get your head around when analyzing the Edmonton Oilers is to stay in the moment.
Sure, they’ve missed the playoffs for 13 of the last 14 years. Yes, the organization is guilty of pushing young player after young player into its lineup too soon, stunting their growth. We get it: The history is lousy.
The recent history however — like, the past 16 months — is much better. Much more stable.
Today, Edmonton has depth at forward, has veteran players like James Neal, Alex Chiasson, Tyler Ennis and Jujhar Khaira battling just to get into the lineup. They’re deep at forward — no more minor league fill-ins as soon as the first injury occurs.
Edmonton was the best Canadian team last season in both points (83) and winning percentage (.585), with a new head coach in Dave Tippett and new GM in Ken Holland. They’re not rushing prospects now like they have for years, and when you look at their lineup you’ll find NHL depth that has not been there for ages.
Of course, losing Klefbom — their minutes leader last season who has arthritis in his shoulder — is a blow. So Barrie comes in to run the power play, and you count on some growth from Ethan Bear, Caleb Jones and perhaps even Evan Bouchard.
Holland wanted better goaltending than the Mike Smith-Mikko Koskinen tandem, but struck out in free agency. So he pivoted to Kyle Turris, a pretty good find for 3C, brought in wild-card Jesse Puljujarvi, Dominik Kahun to play next to Leon Draisaitl, Barrie, and depth defenceman Slater Koekkoek.
This team is better than last year’s team, and last year’s team was pretty good. This team will make the playoffs in the North.
X-Factor: Tyson Barrie
You want to have Barrie on the ice with McDavid as often as possible, and Draisaitl the rest of the time. If his strength is delivering pucks to the tape of speeding forwards at precisely the right moment, and following up the play as a threat to score as the trailer, then we are ready to say that the Oilers haven’t had that defenceman in a long, long time.
A trailer should be able to make some money on a team that has the vision of Draisaitl, McDavid, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Kahun in its top six. Barrie is on a one-year deal and came here to do just that. It’s a nice match.
Player who could surprise: Jesse Puljujarvi
Puljujarvi is back, and we are reminded of what a specimen he is: six-foot-four, 202 pounds. An above-average skater with an above-average shot. There is so much hockey player here that it would be a tragedy if it cannot be mined.
The leadership group has gone out of their way to welcome Puljujarvi back to the team, but the most important change is that Puljujarvi’s English has improved immensely. How many times did he tell a coach that he understood during his first NHL stint, when he did not? How little fun must it have been when he couldn’t even have dinner with the boys and understand what was being said?
A comfortable 22-year-old Puljujarvi could be a difference-maker.
Now, we wait and see.