The Edmonton Oilers have been eliminated by the Vegas Golden Knights in Round 2 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
That sentence hurts to write. This was a great team to watch throughout the year and one that had Stanley Cup aspirations. People from all around the NHL had the Oilers as a real threat for the Stanley Cup. Instead, the Oilers lost in 6 in the Second Round, not even making it to the Western Conference Finals. There is no way to sugar coat it; this is a massively disappointing end to the season.
There is going to be far too much off-season to discuss what the Oilers can and should do to address the roster. Today, we are going to talk about the playoffs as a whole, what went right and wrong. These thoughts will serve as a large piece of my template on what should be done in the off-season.
Let's get the obvious two out of the way. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl once again proved that they are two of the best players on the planet. Draisaitl finished with 13 goals and McDavid finished second with 8. Leon was being spoken about as a near sure thing to break the all time playoff goal record... two games into the Round 2. He cooled off later on and we will talk about that but these were dominant performances. T
Connor McDavid only had two 5 on 5 goals in the playoffs which is not ideal but we know he's being playing through some injuries and was played excellently by both the Kings and Golden Knights. Despite that, he still finished second on the team in 5 on 5 points. Watching McDavid last night push through and score a goal by pure will just seconds after the Golden Knights made it 1-0 was vintage Connor.
On the powerplay these two players continued to run the show and for much of these playoffs, the Oilers had a PP% over 50%. That is just bonkers and NHL23 level of production. No one who understands hockey is talking about the reason Edmonton having lost being that their best players were no shows. McDavid and Draisaitl still deserve close to top marks for their performances.
Evan Bouchard also proved to be a revelation in these playoffs and his play should eliminate any more conversations about acquiring Erik Karlsson. The Oilers do not need a ppg offensive talent that can produce both at even strength and on the powerplay. They have that in Evan Bouchard. Bouch finished the playoffs with 4 goals and 13 assists in 12 playoff games. His efforts on the powerplay were sublime but his defending also was vastly improved and he and Ekholm were an excellent pair for the Oilers. Not to say there weren't defensive gaps in his game; there were and a few of them cost Edmonton in actual goals against. Bouchard is only 23 and in just a year he has gone from a third pairing rookie to a player who looks comfortable in the top 4, pushing for a top spot. Plenty to like about his performance.
Just quickly on Ekholm. His scoring prowess fell off in the playoffs but this was still an excellent signing by Ken Holland that should pay dividends for years to come. Ekholm was never flashy, could be counted on to make the smart play in his own end and transition the puck out. Easily the most reliable top 4 defenseman Edmonton has had in years.
Last note on defensemen, Brett Kulak also had a strong playoffs and is the perfect third pairing defender. Great in the right usage, skates for miles and isn't afraid to jump up into the fray and chip in offensively but only when the time is right. Brilliant depth player.
Ironically, the lack of scoring that plagued Edmonton this post-season was not because of the bottom six. Nick Bjugstad and Klim Kostin were tied for second on the team in 5 on 5 goals with 3 apiece with Warren Foegele coming in right behind with 2 of his own. Particularly against the Kings, Kostin in particular was a force. He hit everything that moved and he wasn't afraid to be the triggerman on his line and wire the puck on net any chance he got. There were dumb penalties taken by the player and especially against the Golden Knights he got burned a few times in his own end when the speed of the game picked up but I have all the time in the world for an extension for this player (as long as it's in a fourth line capacity).
Bjugstad and McLeod were polar opposites for me in these playoffs. On the one hand, Bjugstad scored some timely goals, crashed the net and was one of the few Oilers who was regularly willing to go to the front of the net to score. Defensively Bjugstad was kind of a mess, though I place a large fault of that on Woodcroft but we will talk about that more later. Ryan McLeod meanwhile wasn't able to score but defensively might have been the Oilers best forward. His skating has always been great but he's learned how to use it in his own end to win puck battles and push the puck the right way in transition. He was tied for fourth on the team in 5 on 5 points; all 5 being assists. The Foegele-McLeod-Ryan line defensively was Edmonton's best and I would be very okay to bring back at least 2/3's of that line next season.
In past years the Oilers lack of scoring could almost always be attributed to zero production from the bottom six. This year in a real surprise twist it was the top six wingers who let the team down.
Ryan Nugent Hopkins: 12GP 1-10-11 - 2 points at 5 on 5 (1-1-2)
Zach Hyman: 12GP 3-8-11 - 4 points at 5 on 5 (1-3-4)
Evander Kane: 12 GP 3-2-5 - 3 points at 5 on 5 (1-2-3)
Kailer Yamamoto: 12GP 1-3-4 - 4 points at 5 on 5 (1-3-4)
We know some of these players were dealing with pretty serious injuries but that is still an inexcusable performance. Yamamoto ended up being the best of all of these players despite playing the fewest minutes but still whiffed on too many grade A chances, including a couple near sure things in Game 6 against Vegas. Evander Kane we know is dealing with an upper and lower body injury but his play was brutal at both ends of the ice. Defensively he was outskated in every battle and while his passing has never been amazing he was barely able to make simple 10 foot passes. Zach Hyman also was hurting and started to come on later in the series but was still a no show for far too many games.
The one that hurts the most and was the worst of the bunch was RNH. I don't want any players to be hurt but I almost hope we hear about some type of debilitating injury from Nuge in the post-season interviews. At the very least it would explain what was going on.
People say that you shouldn't care about what players make because "it's not your money" and "what are they supposed to do, turn it down?" That's true but these players also need to recognize what that money means. These players are being paid among the highest amounts on their team because their GM and by association the organization believe they are the players who will bring the most to the on-ice product. All of the Oilers wingers let their team down in these playoffs.
Speaking of making the most money...Darnell Nurse. Last season we were able say that Nurse struggled because half of his core muscles were hanging off. Even if that was the case in these playoffs that wouldn't excuse the kinds of goals he was on the ice for. How many goals did an Oilers opponent score this post-season where a player tapped in an easy open net where Darnell Nurse was right beside them and did nothing to impede them? I'm not going to bother looking but I know the answer is; "too many." Again, I don't blame Nurse for accepting a massive payday but I certainly blame him for failing to come anywhere close to the expectations that come with that contract. Game 4 was a fantastic game by Nurse. He was effective in his own end, physical, and made good decisions with the puck. No one is mad at Ekholm for his gaffe in game 6 which led to the first goal against because overall his pros far outweighed his cons. That remains absent from Darnell Nurse.
The only thing worse than Nurse was Cody Ceci and boy I never want to see that pair touch their feet on the ice at the same time ever again. Ceci was slow, handled the puck like a grenade, and did very little to impede his oncoming opponents. We will talk off-season in the days to come but spoiler alert; Cody Ceci cannot be on this roster next season.
Vincent Desharnais had some good games but some really bad ones too. If the Oilers had any better depth on the right side he probably should have sat more than he played. Struggled when his opponents attacked with any type of speed.
CATEGORY 5 HURRICANE, MAGNITUDE 8+ EARTHQUAKE LEVEL OF BAD
I like Stuart Skinner. He is still my vote (if I had one) for the Calder Trophy this season for what he did in the regular season. He is only 24 years old and I still think he is an important piece of this team moving forward, likely as the starter.
That being said he had a brutal first playoff performance. Here is a fun stat.
Skinner was pulled three times in four games against the Golden Knights. While everything else on this list of negatives helped to hurt the Oilers Cup aspirations, this is the one issue that was insurmountable above all others. You can win games if a top six winger or two isn't producing or if a defender is playing poorly. You cannot win if your goaltender is struggling that bad.
The team in front of Skinner needed to be far better. Game 6 was another perfect example. Any time that Adin Hill gave up a rebound and the puck hung around in the blue paint, two or three Golden Knights players were there to make sure an Edmonton player didn't get another chance. As I brought up when talking about Nurse, the Oilers were far too passive in front of their own crease and gave Vegas endless time to produce second and third chances.
Be that as it may, a goalie playing at their best will stop at least some of those chances and let the team in front of them regroup and focus on executing their gameplan. When Edmonton collapsed in front of Skinner; the puck more often than naught ended up in the back of the net.
Perhaps more damning than Skinner was Jack Campbell who ended up playing in four games for the Oilers in the playoffs. In those games Campbell went 0.961SV%, stopping 49 of 51 shots. Woodcroft is going to get some heat for his goalie choices and potentially rightfully so. The one thing I will say in Woodcroft's defense is Campbell was brutal for Edmonton and essentially unplayable for long stretches of the regular season. Perhaps more alarming was how mentally defeated Campbell sounded at times. Woodcroft knows that locker room and knows his players. If Skinner was struggling that bad I wonder how shaky Campbell was behind the scenes.
Onto Jay Woodcroft. No, I do not fire Woodcroft in the off-season. I really like Woodcroft as a coach and overall I believe the team plays strong under his influence. That being said there were some key mistakes that he made throughout the playoffs but particularly in this series.
Jack Eichel and Jonathan Marchessault dominated Edmonton and Woodcroft could not answer, worse, he refused to change things up. The Eichel line FEASTED on the Bjugstad line throughout this series and even when Woodcroft had the opportunity on home ice to have the last switch, he would deploy this line against that line.
At 5 on 5, Bjugstad played 20:28 against Eichel. The Golden Knights outchanced the Oilers 17-5 and outscored Edmonton 3-0. In contrast Ryan McLeod played 17:39 against Eichel and Vegas was outchanced 6-14 by the Oilers, though Vegas did go 1-0 in actual goals for. If you were going to deploy a shutdown line against that top line, why wouldn't you deploy your third line that has been your most steady defensive line?
His stubbornness was on display when he kept the Nurse and Ceci pair together even though it regularly got caved in. That third line worked really well together but at no point did he try putting Foegele up with McDavid or even have McLeod take a few shifts up there after his top wingers were doing nothing.
This is Woodcroft's second season and first full season with the Edmonton Oilers, Ultimately I think he is the right coach for these players but he needs to be going through the game tape, recognize his own failures, learn from them and come back next season more willing to change things up when it is clearly not working.
The last two things I want to say are first of all congratulations to the Vegas Golden Knights. They deserved to win this series and were the better team for long stretches and I hope this type of loss only makes the Oilers more determined to come back next season and step things up to a higher level.
Last and most important, thanks to you all of my readers. This is not the ending any of us wanted but I'm glad I got to share the highs and lows of this season with each of you. This blog and this website are far more fun when we have good debate and discussion in the comments section. I hope I've provided some enjoyment and a distraction to the daily grind and maybe someone has actually learned something from me too.
I'll be back soon enough to start talking about the off-season. Love you all.
Thanks for reading.