EDMONTON — The Edmonton Oilers cleaned out their lockers Friday after a spectacular turnaround season, knowing that their newfound success changes everything.
“Coming in next year, it has to be a different mindset,” said Oilers captain Connor McDavid.
“We’re not going to surprise any teams anymore. Teams know we’re a good hockey team and they’ll have to be ready to play.”
Forward Patrick Maroon was more succinct.
“The team is for real now,” he said. “Everyone knows the Edmonton Oilers are no joke anymore.”
After 10 consecutive seasons of unrelenting mediocrity, and no playoff appearances, the Oilers established themselves this season as one of the NHL’s top tier franchises, finishing tied for seventh overall in the regular season and ending up one win shy of a final-four appearance in the playoffs.
They will be the favourites to win the Pacific Division next year, with McDavid and Leon Draisaitl down the middle, shutdown defencemen Oscar Klefbom and Adam Larsson on the blue line and Cam Talbot in net.
McDavid, whose rookie year was cut short by a broken clavicle, had a breakout season in 2016-17. He won the points title, scoring 30 goals and collecting 100 points, and is the frontrunner for the Hart Memorial Trophy as league MVP.
He didn’t shine as brightly in the playoffs. He scored five goals and had nine points in 13 games, although the tight checking he faced opened up space and opportunities for other forwards like Draisaitl.
McDavid had to get used to a shadow like Anaheim’s Ryan Kesler following him around the ice, harassing and knocking him off his game.
“It’s tough when you’re not getting space,” said McDavid. “A guy like me needs time and needs to get the puck and come through the middle with speed, and obviously if they’re taking that away it makes your job pretty tough.”
What about when people tell you that you should shoot more? McDavid was asked.
“I think I know what I’m doing out there,” was his deadpan reply.
“I want to do what’s best and if I see someone’s open, I’m going to give him the puck.”
The off-season will see general manager Peter Chiarelli address issues to get the Oilers to the next level, starting perhaps with his second line of Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Milan Lucic.
The veterans scored a combined 61 goals in the regular season but just two in the playoffs, both by Lucic on the power play.
Eberle was exposed more than a few times in the post-season: playing on the perimeter, coughing up the puck to avoid contact, being the last forward to get back to the defensive zone.
In recent days Eberle has been the pinata for fans and commentators on Edmonton sports radio call in shows. Critics want him traded, even if it means the Oilers eating some of his US$6 million salary, or leaving him exposed to be picked by the expansion Vegas Golden Knights.
Eberle said he has become a better two-way player but it was difficult to not score in the playoffs.
“That’s the one that really stings,” he said. “You take this long to get to the playoffs and (then) you don’t perform and play to your standards,” he said.
Head coach Todd McLellan said don’t judge Eberle by the small sample size of a baker’s dozen playoff games.
“He’s a tremendous player. He scores 20 to 25 goals every season. You can count on it,” said McLellan.
“He didn’t quite get it done (in the playoffs) but he’s a very important asset for our team.”