EDMONTON — It has been a long, long time coming. A hockey eternity, really, since we could say what we are willing to say about these Edmonton Oilers with a fresh, new season now just around the corner.
After a Decade of Darkness, too many first overall draft picks to remember, and a general organizational clumsiness that lasted some 30 years here in Northern Alberta, the Oilers enter the 2022-23 season as genuine Stanley Cup contenders. Not the favourite, but a favourite, to be sure.
That’s right folks. Today’s Oilers aren’t just a good team, they are very good.
A team that had been stuck in that rut of regular season success and playoff misery won two rounds last season. With that separator over the Toronto Maple Leafs — and Edmonton’s dominant playoff victory over the Calgary Flames last spring — Edmonton enters 2022-23 season as Canada’s best team and most promising candidate to end the Stanley Cup curse that has lingered since 1993.
If this is your first visit to this space, you may be thinking, “Here’s another Edmonton guy picking his team to win it all.” But if you’ve been here before, you would know it has been ages since we looked at an Edmonton roster and with this much positivity.
It starts where every good team starts — with leadership, as a 25-year-old Connor McDavid and a 26-year-old Leon Draisaitl enter their prime years. There is no better one-two punch in the NHL, and now their games have evolved from winning individual trophies to the kind of game worthy of a Stanley Cup one day.
Today McDavid is a seven-year veteran who has suffered the playoff losses before figuring out the matrix in dominant performances against Los Angeles and Calgary. He is the best, the fastest, the quickest and most productive player in the world — the kind of player who the Stanley Cup tends to find eventually.
Behind him, one can argue Draisaitl as the second best forward in the game today.
In the past four seasons he ranks second in goals (179) and points (409), third in points per game (1.42), first in powerplay goals (71) and second in powerplay points (146). A 53 percent face-off man who skates out as the Oilers lone forward while defending a 5-on-3, Draisaitl finished second in NHL playoff scoring last season while paying the final two rounds on a high ankle sprain.
At the top, there is no debate over which NHL team has the best one-two punch. But beyond that is where Ken Holland, in his fourth season as general manager, has built a roster that finally has more answers than questions.
Edmonton’s forward depth, the quality of their younger (and cheaper) players, and the addition of Jack Campbell in goal, leaves them with less areas for opponents to exploit than in any of the past 30 seasons.
Evander Kane (35 goals in 58 games in Edmonton), is as perfect a fit for McDavid as we could conjure up. If Kane can remain below the radar in his personal life — and that is not a small “if” — he could be one of three 40-goal scorers on this roster.
Zach Hyman, the high-end Swiss Army Knife, would fit as well on McDavid’s right side as he would on Draisaitl’s left. Or perhaps on a third line with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, a unit that could include a Ryan McLeod or Jesse Puljujarvi, rivaling many teams’ second lines in production.
They are a tad light on the right side, and counting on the evolution of a Kailer Yamamoto or Puljujarvi. Dylan Holloway’s arrival could also push Hyman to the right side, but in a cap world no one has a perfect set of 12 forwards, and this group is as good as it gets.
On the blue-line, Darnell Nurse steps into superstar payroll territory, as his eight-year deal kicks in that will pay him $9.25 million per season — seventh highest among NHL defencemen.
Is he the seventh best blue-liner in the league? No.
But he brings many of the qualities a lead horse defender does — plays hard and plays hurt in all the toughest moments of a game. He fills up a blue-line with an emerging Evan Bouchard, veteran puck-mover Tyson Barrie, a solid Cody Ceci and nice low-end depth with Brett Kulak and Ryan Murray.
In goal, Campbell and drafted backup Stuart Skinner are a tandem with something to prove, but with the looks of a pair that could succeed.
Campbell was good in Toronto, behind a team that never figured out how to play a game that wins when it counts. He could be better here behind a more responsible defensive team, one that has edged each season towards a team that can beat you 2-1 as adeptly as it can win 7-5 — whichever way an opponent wants the game to be played.
In Edmonton, it appears the Oilers have jumped that hurdle that Toronto keeps stumbling over. They’ve developed something that Calgary is chasing, and that chase will take the Flames through Edmonton for the next several years.
It’s here, finally. A team that could win it all.