By Sushami Pomerleau-Piquette
For the first time in over a dozen years (a decade, not a dozen), the Edmonton Oilers are poised to finally make an appearance in the post-season. An amazing feat for a team that has gone ten years without a playoff appearance; a team that has acquired four first-overall draft picks – Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Nail Yakupov, and Connor McDavid – two of which have been traded away, with one arguably being a bust (sorry Yak); a team that has gone through seven different head coaches in a decade; and overall, a team who’s ownership and upper management felt that today’s hockey was the same as that of the 80s. However, all of that has changed.
No longer are the Edmonton Oilers a bottom-feeding team and the laughing stock of the National Hockey League. The Edmonton Oilers are now not only a playoff-bound hockey team but a real contender as well. With the magic number dwindling down to five after last night’s win – magic number as in games needed to win in order to clinch a playoff birth – the Edmonton Oilers first playoff appearance in a decade is truly becoming a reality. Now the fans in the great City of Edmonton have something to believe in. All these years without spring-time hockey, fans have forgotten what the playoffs felt like. But things are heating up, and Rogers Place – the brand spanking new arena – is starting to get real loud. As the season dwindles down and the realization settles in, an identity starts to brew in the new barn. And once the playoffs roll in, this city’s true identity will shine once again as the city of champions.
But let’s talk about the players, the guys on the ice, doing all the hard work. Because, as much as the fans matter – not to downplay the city’s loyalty to its hockey team – the Oilers organization are truly the ones responsible for this revitalized energy. Throughout the last decade, both Rexall and Rogers Place have been sold out, every, single, game. Us Edmontonians love our hockey and more importantly, we love our Edmonton Oilers, but in ten freaking years of constant losing, the fanbase stayed together and we proved to Mr. Katz that this franchise belongs here in Edmonton. Anyways, let’s get to the team. It’s no surprise that with the addition of the phenom that is Connor McDavid, things would turn around for this organization. However, it doesn’t end with Connor. In fact, it doesn’t even start with him. Back in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, the Edmonton Oilers selected a young, but big, forward from Germany: Leon Draisaitl. And I believe that to be the true start of this turn-around. Although the year before, they drafted Darnell Nurse (7th Overall) who, after being injured a majority of this season, is playing a crucial role in the final leg, and Anton Slepyshev (88th Overall) who is slowly finding a role on the team as a fast-skating, sharp-shooting, uncatchable Russian Machine (at least in time). But, in my opinion, Leon Draisaitl was the true beginning because he’s the first forward picked in the top three by the Edmonton Oilers who wasn’t rushed into the league. Unfortunately, he played close to half the season and had the first year of his entry-level contract burned after being sent down to the Western Hockey League…but that’s beside the fact and doesn’t matter, because the Oilers realized the 2014-15 season was a loss and actually made a conscientious decision in regards to Leon’s development. The Oilers went on to claim a record of 24 wins, 44 losses, and 14 overtime losses. And with that pitiful record, they won the lottery in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. And who was touted to go first overall that year? Connor McDavid.
After a less than exciting final season in Rexall Place, today, we find ourselves in second place in the pacific division. Four points behind the San Jose Sharks for the first seed in the pacific. With ten games to go, the Edmonton Oilers are even gunning for that first place spot and home-ice advantage in their first playoff series in over a decade. But this team isn’t only made up of two players, and although Connor and Leon have had an incredible season so far – with Connor most likely taking home the league’s MVP awards – this team has so much more going for it than meets the eye.
The team features many league veterans and are no longer the kids of the league. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle are longtime Edmonton Oilers, and despite the down season for the both of them, are playing a big role in leading this team towards the playoffs; even without any actual playoff experience. With the addition of Cam Talbot, who, if Connor McDavid weren’t on this team, would be our season’s MVP, as well as further additions in size with Milan Lucic, Patrick ‘Big Rig’ Maroon, Zack Kassian, Adam Larsson, and Eric Gryba, the oilers have become tough. Further additions to the defensive core, with Andrej Sekera, the coming up of Oscar Klefbom and Darnell Nurse, and the pre-season signing of Kris Russell and Matt Benning, has given us a defense worthy of recognition. But the team doesn’t end there. Our forward core is stronger and more skilled than it has been in the last ten years. With the likes of Drake Caggiula – a highly sought after college prospect who chose to sign with the Oil – Mark Letestu, a power-play canon (who would have thought?); Tyler Pitlick, a guy who’s been developing in the system for years and finally shining (however, he destroyed his ACL a few months back which is really unfortunate); a lovable youngster in Jujhar Khaira, the veteran Benoit Pouliot (who will tear it up in the playoffs), the heart and soul of Matt Hendricks, Slepyshev’s speed, and the veteran addition of former Montreal Canadiens star, David Desharnais. The Edmonton Oilers are a completely different team from what they were three years ago. And I think they’ve actually got a shot at the cup. To me, this team will fully click together in the post-season, and I am really, really, excited to see it happen. And we have Todd McLellan and Peter Chiarelli to thank for this renaissance.
The point of this post was to express my thoughts on a hockey organization that I grew up with, who, for half of my twenty-year life, have been losers. But they aren’t losers anymore, we aren’t losers anymore. And to me they were never losers, they were simply a team that was forced to ride on past glory and high expectations, a team that was never given the proper pieces until now. But everything changed when the Edmonton Oilers drafted Leon Draisaitl and went on to win the lottery the following year, securing a young player who will go down in history as one of, if not, the best hockey player to play the game. I love you Gretzky, but like Jagr said, if you’re second behind Wayne, you’re first.
Tonight, the Oilers arguably play their most important hockey game of the season. Beating Anaheim would propel the Oil ahead of the pack towards the first place Sharks. I leave my faith with the team, and so, what more can I say? Go Oilers, Go.
P.S. I haven’t forgotten about you, Jesse. The future is bright with you in the system!