For several reasons, the Oilers aren’t done contending yet

Sportsnet's Kevin Michie runs us through all the closest Canadian Cup runs since the Montreal Canadiens last hoisted Lord Stanley in 1993, as the 2024 Oilers become the latest to fall just short of ending the now 31 year drought.

If the Florida Panthers had lost Game 7 and let the 2024 Stanley Cup go north of the border, they may have been remembered similarly to the Sedin-era Vancouver Canucks, or the Thornton/Marleau-era San Jose Sharks. They would’ve been among the great teams that won a pile of games and competed like hell in the playoffs, yet got tossed on top of the heap of those that ultimately couldn’t get it done.

I say that because it’s hard to see Florida getting back into the same position – the Stanley Cup Final — for a third straight year without some very good fortune. It’s tough for myriad reasons, but one of those is that they’ve got some top-end players who are now unrestricted free agents this summer. Fitting them all under the cap or outright losing them is going to result in something their counterpart in Tampa Bay has experienced several times over — if you’re good enough for long enough, you’re forced to siphon off some talent. And frankly, a team like Florida that succeeds with depth and team play needs every bit of talent more than those with multiple elite stars. It seems likely they’ll take a small step back in a league where the margins are thin.

With the Edmonton Oilers, though, you can’t make a claim that their push to become champions is even close to over, as they continue their forward progress in the post-season. In 2022 they went to the conference final before losing to the eventual Cup champs, last year they went two rounds before again losing to the eventual Cup champs, and this season they took it the distance before, again, losing to the Cup champs.

There’s plenty of talk about how losing teaches teams to win, and there’s evidence that old maxim holds some truth. In the five years prior to Vegas’ Cup they went to the Stanley Cup Final once and the conference final twice more. Tampa Bay did the same over their five year pre-Cup span, one Cup Final and two conference finals. Colorado played seven playoff rounds over their three pre-Cup years, including a conference final.

It feels like that’s the part of the journey the Oilers are at — over their past three seasons they’ve played nine rounds of playoff hockey, paid their post-season dues, and learned some lessons the hard way. They’ve lost the nail-biters to the champions, most recently escaping to the dressing room as red-and-gold confetti chased their blue shoulders.

There’s only confetti when you’re close, though, and it’s not so challenging to see the Oilers as the best in the West in 2024-25.

Hockey is a team sport where the “team” with the most elite guys finds their way through. It’s been said before, but I’ll say it again: the greats tend to find their way to a Stanley Cup save for a few exceptions. And nobody, potentially ever, is as great as Connor McDavid, and he’s just 27. Leon Draisaitl is one of the five best players in the NHL, one of the best playoff performers of this generation, and yet he failed to score in a Cup Final where his team fell a goal short. He is just 28, and who would bet against him coming back and being the unstoppable playoff performer we’ve almost always seen?

The Oilers have all of those players who drove them here locked up. Zach Hyman, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Evan Bouchard, Mattias Ekholm, Stuart Skinner, and most of the next layer of the supporting cast. They’ll have work to do to replicate the depth that became a strength, but every team faces some turnover, the cap is going up, and there’s no reason Edmonton shouldn’t be able to capably fill the bottom of the roster.

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They learned a lot about themselves, including a few massive takeaways:

1. When the chips are down, they can, in fact, trust Stu Skinner. From Game 4 on in every series he was lights out, which should give the big 25-year-old immense confidence whenever anything doesn’t go perfectly in the future.

2. Evan Bouchard can be trusted defensively. Not only is he an absolute force offensively, but he could also handle the big pressure moments and still be an asset. He came close to scoring multiple times in Game 7, and while he wasn’t necessarily perfect on the defensive side, he was as good as anyone else who plays minutes against top guys.

3. The whole team can lock it down and defend. They are not one dimensional, as Florida had a hell of a time scoring the past four games, in large part because they couldn’t get to the net.


4. They can hang physically. Maybe a healthy Evander Kane helps out here next year, but generally the Oilers are not the group that gets intimidated and shies away when the going gets rough.

In sum, they have shown they can handle the rigors of real playoff hockey. They have numerous tools aside from their otherworldly offence creation and special teams, and none of those strengths appear to be going away any time soon. They look less like a team that had one last gasp before it all falls apart, and more like a team poised to win a Presidents’ Trophy and be the one to beat.

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Of course, there’s always a ton of uncertainty when you head into a summer, and of course, the Oilers do have numerous UFAs. Nothing is guaranteed, nothing is promised.

But the framework of a team that can take another run is well in place, and so more than ever, the pressure is on the front office, which will undergo some change this off-season as Ken Holland hands off the reins to Jeff Jackson.

As low of a point as today may be for the franchise, the stars, and their fans, this isn’t the end. It’s OK to feel the hurt and disappointment today, but this group will play in confetti games again. There will be a next time. And when it comes, don’t be surprised if it’s the blue-and-orange chasing some other colours down a hallway towards these feelings of darkness.

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