Loss to Avs Shouldn't Dampen Optimism for Connor McDavid and the Oilers in the Future

Lyle Fitzsimmons@@fitzbitzFeatured Columnist IIIJune 7, 2022

EDMONTON, ALBERTA - JUNE 04: Connor McDavid #97 of the Edmonton Oilers reacts after scoring against Colorado Avalanche in the first period in Game Three of the Western Conference Final of the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Rogers Place on June 04, 2022 in Edmonton, Alberta. (Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images)
Derek Leung/Getty Images

It's a sad day in Alberta's capital city.

Flags are coming down. Wagers are being paid. Beards are being shaved.

Because the Edmonton Oilers didn't win the Stanley Cup.

After a gut-wrenching 6-5 overtime loss to the Colorado Avalanche in Game 4 of the Western Conference Final completed an inglorious weeklong sweep, the franchise in the NHL's northernmost city won't be having a parade.

B/R Open Ice @BR_OpenIce

IT'S OVER. LEHKONEN SENDS THE AVS TO THE <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/STANLEYCUP?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#STANLEYCUP</a> FINAL <a href="https://t.co/dreQ4bNZWD">pic.twitter.com/dreQ4bNZWD</a>

It's been 31 consecutive seasons since the franchise last hoisted the Stanley Cup when the team won its fifth title in seven years.

So for fans of a certain age, it’s just another unsatisfying spring in the “City of (Ex-)Champions.”

Still, it seems a little different this time around.

Rather than compiling post-mortems with more laundry lists of reasons the team can't win as currently constructed, those closest to the group are actually suggesting (gasp!) optimism.

Not surprisingly, the biggest reasons wear uniform Nos. 97 and 29.

EDMONTON, AB - MAY 14: Edmonton Oilers Center Connor McDavid (97) and Edmonton Oilers Center Leon Draisaitl (29) wait for a puck drop in the second period during the Edmonton Oilers versus the Los Angeles Kings Stanley Cup playoffs round 1, game 7 on May 14, 2022 at Rogers Place in Edmonton, AB. (Photo by Curtis Comeau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Curtis Comeau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Though the dynamic duo of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl captured four scoring titles, three MVPs and four Ted Lindsay Awards, they managed to win just eight playoff games—and one playoff series—across their first six seasons of playing together since McDavid was picked No. 1 overall in 2015.

Certainly shy of the four banners that Hall of Famers Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier hung before their partnership ended in 1988.

But stirring series wins over the Los Angeles Kings and Calgary Flames this spring created the momentum to suggest it can happen again—at least once because they're still a pretty good pair.

Even after a four-game erasure by the Avalanche, both McDavid (33) and Draisaitl (32) are still well ahead in the league's playoff scoring race thanks to the cartoonish rate at which they'd produced against the Kings and Flames.

StatsCentre @StatsCentre

Most points in a playoff year without making it to the <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/StanleyCup?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#StanleyCup</a> Final:<br>35- Doug Gilmour (TOR, 1993)<br>33- Connor McDavid (<a href="https://twitter.com/EdmontonOilers?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@EdmontonOilers</a> in 2022 via 10 goals &amp; 23 assists)<br>33- Rick Middleton (BOS, 1983)<br>32- Leon Draisaitl (EDM in 2022 via 7G-25A)<br>32- Barry Pederson (BOS, 1983) <a href="https://t.co/su1HvP2zTn">pic.twitter.com/su1HvP2zTn</a>

That clip was on the heels of an equally absurd season in which they’d finished first and fourth in the league with a combined 233 total points.

And the best news? They’re no longer alone.

Individual accolades notwithstanding, the uptick in Edmontonian positivity has more than a little to do with the sturdier supporting cast assembled by embattled general manager Ken Holland.

Winger Zach Hyman was brought in on a seven-year, $38.5 million deal last summer and paid off with career-highs in goals (27) and points (54).

Evander Kane was plucked from the NHL bargain bin in late January and scored 35 goals in 58 regular and postseason games.

Minor-league coach Jay Woodcroft arrived after Dave Tippett was fired on February 10, and the Oilers responded with a 26-9-3 record down the stretch. It included a 14-0-1 run across the final 15 home games, as the Oilers set a new franchise record for consecutive games with a point at home.

In fact, Woodcroft's eight playoff wins are already tied for fifth in Edmonton's coaching history.

"A little bit of a younger voice," McDavid said of his head coach to the Canadian Press (h/t TheStar.com).

“He’s brought a lot of energy and a lot of passion to the job. We fed off that. The message he preaches is something that I think we all agree with. Something that we all can buy into.”

Woodcroft's bond with youngsters Ryan McLeod (two goals against Colorado) and Dylan Holloway (NHL debut in Game 4 of the WCF) was forged in the AHL and makes them vital to Edmonton as it heads into an important offseason. The Oilers have an onerous salary cap situation ($7.1 million) and uncertainty in goal and on defense.

Defensemen Evan Bouchard, 22, and Philip Broberg, 20, could be promoted to full-time, too, potentially giving the team nine of its own first-round picks in the everyday lineup.

The prolific Kane warrants a big boost from the prorated $1.38 million he made with the Oilers through season's end. Meanwhile, McLeod, Jesse Puljujarvi and Kailer Yamamoto are due for raises as restricted free agents alongside decisions to be made on another eight with unrestricted status.

A deep, skilled Colorado team revealed Edmonton's soft blue line, with an average of 43.0 shots allowed—following a season with a rate of 32.3 shots (12th-most in the NHL) and overall playoffs with an average of 38.9 shots (fourth-most)—that simultaneously magnified questions in the net.

Forty-year-old starter Mike Smith was statistically sound—2.81 goals-against average and .915 save percentage—for a second straight regular season.

But his inconsistency was never more apparent than in a series-defining Game 3 when a number of spectacular saves were followed by a game-winning goal by third-line center J.T. Compher that trickled through his legs with 7:18 remaining.

He allowed six goals on 42 shots in the finale—including four in the third period—and finished with a pedestrian .872 save percentage and a downright ugly 5.57 goals-against average. On the flip side, Avalanche backup Pavel Francouz posted a .908 and a 2.81 GAA.

EDMONTON, ALBERTA - JUNE 04: Colorado Avalanche left wing Gabriel Landeskog (92), Colorado Avalanche right wing Valeri Nichushkin (13), Colorado Avalanche defenseman Bowen Byram (4), Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon (29) and Colorado Avalanche defenseman Devon Toews (7) Nichushkin"u2019s goal against Edmonton Oilers goaltender Mike Smith (41)in the period during game three of the NHL Stanley Cup Western Conference Finals at Rogers Place June 04, 2022. (Photo by Andy Cross/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
Andy Cross/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Smith is signed for one more season at $2.2 million, while backup Mikko Koskinen's three-year, $13.5 million deal is expiring. Holland will either have to stand pat and give AHL stalwart Stuart Skinner a shot at the full-time job after a 14-game audition or swing a deal to bring in an established commodity.

It's a lot for a GM, particularly one who's 66, to contend with.

And if he doesn't make the right choices, it won't be long before familiar fan angst returns.

But while the season's practical result was similar—no Cup, again—a surprise run to the league's final four and the continued prolific presence of the world's best player go a long way toward exorcising a generation of demons.

It also provided Holland with some additional time to keep the good vibes going.