In the end, Connor McDavid could only watch as the puck was cleared past him, sending Winnipeg’s Kyle Connor the other way on a breakaway that would end Edmonton’s season. The Oilers have been swept by the Jets, a team that Edmonton owned in the regular season, and the autopsy begins for an organization that had its best chance at a deep playoff run in years.
With McDavid and Leon Draisaitl up top, the Oilers have a tremendous advantage in terms of building their core but filling out the rest of the top end is clearly the issue right now. On the positive side of the ledger, defenseman Darnell Nurse had a breakout season, establishing himself as a No. 1 blueliner and someone capable of doing it all on the ice: he’s tough, he can move and he can put up points. Nurse played a staggering 62 minutes in the triple-OT Game 4 loss to Winnipeg – no other skater in the game got to 50 – and his whole season points to a guy who has found his game at an elite level. But he didn’t have a lot of help.
On the other end of the spectrum, coach Dave Tippett only trusted Slater Koekkoek and Ethan Bear with the most minimal of minutes in Game 4 and that lack of depth on the back end must be addressed. Now, are the solutions already there internally? That’s a big question for the off-season because you never want to overreact too much when one series goes wrong. Let’s not forget that Tampa Bay was swept in the first round one year before winning the Stanley Cup. And while the Oilers aren’t nearly as deep as the Lightning, I am merely suggesting that we don’t start pulling all the fire alarms just yet – especially on a team that has gone through so much organizational churn in the past decade.
On the back end, Edmonton has options. Oscar Klefbom missed the entire campaign with shoulder surgery and though there are concerns about his future health, he would be a difference-maker if everything goes well in the off-season. There’s also a couple youngsters with bright futures in Evan Bouchard and Philip Broberg, both of whom played well in Sweden this season (I am also aware a lot of Oilers fans wanted to see Bouchard inserted into the Winnipeg series, as he did play games for Edmonton this season and was available).
There is also the matter of goaltending. Mike Smith made some incredible saves in Game 4, but ultimately he was not good enough to win a game in the series and at 39 years old, the pending UFA does not seem like a fit moving forward. Mikko Koskinen is still under contract for next year, but he is not an NHL starter.
Essentially, the Oilers are at square one when it comes to netminding. They do not have a Spencer Knight waiting in the wings, though perhaps Stuart Skinner could be a surprise if given a chance (he got bombed in one NHL game this year but played very well in the AHL for Bakersfield). More realistically, Edmonton needs to get an established veteran. Boston’s Tuukka Rask can hit the open market this summer, as can Carolina’s Petr Mrazek. Rask has a wealth of playoff experience while Mrazek has proven he can steal games and go on hot runs. Both could be looking for new crease homes thanks to the ascent of Jeremy Swayman and Alex Nedeljkovic, respectively.
It will not be easy, however. Those goalies won’t come cheap and Edmonton GM Ken Holland only has so much cap space to play with. Pending Oilers free agents include Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Adam Larsson and Tyson Barrie.
There’s also the matter of how much harder the road gets from here on out. In the North Division, Edmonton’s only real competition in the playoffs seemed to be Toronto, but that second-round matchup won’t even happen now. Next year, with the NHL realigned, the Oilers will be in a soft Pacific Division, but still one that is headlined by a savage Vegas Golden Knights squad. And if the Oilers manage to avoid or somehow beat the Knights, Colorado or any number of Central Division baddies lurk thereafter.
The upshot is that the Oilers still have McDavid and Draisaitl in their primes, where they will remain for years – hopefully, with an upgraded surrounding cast. It has been a long, tortured wait for Edmonton fans and unfortunately with the loss to the Jets, that wait is going to take a little longer.