It’s hard to pull positives in the days following a team’s elimination from the playoffs. Most of the talk around the Oilers right now is centred around the defensive play of McDavid and Draisaitl, the lacklustre goaltending they got in their series against Chicago, and what kind of changes need to be made on the blueline.
I get it. It’s easy to want to talk about what went wrong while a disappointing playoff series is still fresh in our memories. But when you take a bigger picture look at what’s happened over the last year in the Edmonton Oilers organization, there are far more positives than negatives. Even Connor McDavid used the words “night and day” when talking about the progress that the Oilers have made in the last 12 months.
McDavid says team said "it's night and day where the Oilers are now compared to end of last season. Team "dropped the ball" when it counted in the postseason he said. Very accurate. That was a series they should have won.
— Jason Gregor (@JasonGregor) August 14, 2020
The long-term future looks so much better than it did when the Oilers missed the playoffs in 2018-19 and there are plenty of reasons why.
EMERGENCE OF ETHAN BEAR
This is the big one. The Oilers, and almost every team for that matter, are always looking for a right-shot defenseman who can move the puck. The Oilers found that this season.
When training camp opened up just over a year ago, Ethan Bear wasn’t really in the conversation to make the team. He wasn’t exactly an afterthought, but he had been passed on the depth chart by Caleb Jones. Bear changed all of that and not only made the team out of camp, he quickly became an important part of their top four.
Even though his play slipped a little at times for most of the regular season he was a reliable puck-moving defenseman. Even when injuries plagued the Oilers backend and Bear had to play more difficult minutes against stronger competition, he found a way to stand out in a positive way.
There were some rough patches, but that should be expected from any rookie defenseman, especially one who was playing well over 20 minutes a night by the end of the season. He still managed to finish with the 3rd best SF%, the best CF%, and the 4th best GF% at even-strength amongst Oilers defensemen (min. 250 minutes). He turned into an actual top four defensemen in the blink of an eye and that’s a huge positive for this organization.
A LEAP FROM YAMAMOTO
Ethan Bear wasn’t the only player who developed into an impact player in the blink of an eye. When Yamamoto was recalled from the minors, the Oilers were struggling to win games and their season was in jeopardy. At that time, Yamamoto had produced 16 points in 23 AHL games. He hardly looked like a player who could come in and instantly become a legitimate top-six winger but that’s exactly what he did. In fact, he ended up with a better PPG at the NHL level than he had in the AHL, which is just wild.
The trio of Nugent-Hopkins, Draisaitl, and Yamamoto played for that two-month stretch early in 2020 was incredible. They played a total of 328 even-strength minutes together and outscored the opposition 30-9 and outshot them 192-176.
Yamamoto was absolutely a spark to that trio as well. Draisaitl and Nugent-Hopkins also played 148 minutes without Yamamoto this season and did not outscore or outshoot the opposition in that time. His puck retrieval and ability to force turnovers off the forecheck allowed Draisaitl to get the puck more and gave him more time to make plays.
While his performance in the postseason wasn’t as strong, there’s no denying that Yamamoto is now a legitimate top-six forward, which is not something I thought I’d be saying a year ago. The fact he has one more year on his ELC must just be music to the ears of Ken Holland, who will have to get creative with the Oilers limited cap space if he wants to improve the team during the offseason.
DRAISAITL TAKES ANOTHER STEP
Heading into the season, I was being very cautious about my expectations of Leon Draisait. He was coming off a 50 goal season but his shooting percentage appeared to be unsustainable and I didn’t think he was going to hit that half-century mark again. I don’t think I was alone in thinking Draisaitl could take a bit of a step backwards.
Well, he proved me wrong and took another step forward in his development. He went from the guy who scored 50 goals while playing with Connor McDavid to the favourite to be this season’s MVP. He’s a legitimate superstar and I no longer feel the need to be cautious about expectations with Draisaitl. When you look at a player that carries a shooting percentage of 21.6%, which Draisaitl had in his 50 goal season, it’s natural to think that there will be regression. But Draisaitl followed it up with a 43 goal campaign in which he shot 19.7%. To me, he appears to be a guy who can always score on an extremely high percentage of his shots. He has that natural goal-scoring ability.
The Oilers need to surround their two-star players with a more complete team but the fact that they have two-star players to build around, who are both under contract for the next handful of years, is a wonderful thing.
On top of those three reasons, they also have a GM who knows how to build a contender, a Head Coach who managed to greatly improve the Oilers special teams, and the best player in the world, who will be 100% healthy for an entire offseason of training and won’t have a lingering leg injury when the season begins. The loss to the Blackhawks stings, but there are still plenty of reasons to be optimistic about this team heading into the 2020-21 season.