This weekend’s Sunday Census brings us a philosophical question. Naturally, there is a personal aspect to the question, with each of us having our own idea of what success is. Who is to say how success should, or should not, be measured? Without getting too semantic or pedantic, let’s try to extrapolate some of the sentiments across Oil Country on this matter.
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Most fans measure progress in playoff rounds
Leading the options in this poll is defining success by advancing to the Stanley Cup Final, or rather at least one round beyond last season’s results. Perhaps it is the tangible measure of growth, another step closer to ultimate glory that makes this a clear measurement. There is certainly a linear aspect to this line of thinking.
The Oilers are coming up through the ranks and into a Stanley Cup window. Some might’ve argued that this window was open as soon as Connor McDavid won his first MVP, and was widely considered the best player in the world in 2017. Making an appearance in the SCF might be a success in the sense that it gives McDavid a chance to compete for a Cup, something Oilers fans may feel he is owed by the franchise.
With the Western Conference lacking a dominant regular season team, Oilers fans feel that there is little excuse for the team not to make it out on top. Does this thinking excuse the Oilers from a potential loss to a more dominant regular season team, like the Boston Bruins? Are the Western Conference leading Vegas Golden Knights or reigning Cup Champion Colorado Avalanche not worthy of such reverence?
By making it one round further than last year the Oilers would seem to be one step closer to their ultimate goal.
Speaking of that ultimate goal…
A large group of fans have only one measurement of success, the Stanley Cup itself
Quite literally there can only be one winner, one champion in any given NHL season. In theory, the only goal of a team is to win a Stanley Cup. By that very straightforward logic only one team can be successful per season.
This binary is harsh and unforgiving, Nietzschean to an extent. Leave the moral victories to the weak, those unable to achieve the only glory that is eternal or worthwhile.
The Oilers wouldn’t be the only team forced to deal with such expectations, as even individual athletes can be victims of ring counting. Certainly McDavid’s legacy will be influenced by his number of championships, even with his individual dominance very much approaching the pantheon of Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, and Gordie Howe in earnest.
As much as this is a simple way to evaluate success, one has to hope that fans who feel this way can find some joy in results beyond the Cup, smaller successes along the way, if you will.
Another large portion of fans think reaching the Western Conference Final once again qualifies as success
Some might call this treading water, but after the Oilers were outclassed in a sweep at the hands of the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Colorado Avalanche last season, even winning a game in the third round would be measurably closer to a championship. Perhaps these voters measure success by progress in the playoff win column.
At the very least the number of teams that advance to the NHL’s final four in consecutive seasons is few. Doing such would distinguish this era of the Oilers as legitimate perennial contenders, a powerhouse of the early 2020s.
Since the adoption of the modern conference system, the 1981–82 season (two years after the merger of the NHL and WHA), eight NHL franchises have two conference appearances or less in their history, while 17 of the NHL’s 32 teams have four conference final appearances or less. A win would bring the Oilers to sole possession of second most conference final appearances of all time with 11, behind only the Chicago Blackhawks with 12. As much as it is not the same as winning a Stanley Cup, a consecutive appearance in the final four is an achievement, arguably a success, in its own right.
After coming out on top of the Pacific Division last spring the Oilers were largely considered the favourites headed into this season. Perhaps doing so again is the expectation being measured here?
Last season, the Oilers did best the Calgary Flames convincingly in a wild Battle of Alberta for the ages, but just a week or two earlier the circumstances were much different. The Oilers had gone from a second round appearance in 2016–17 to missing the playoffs outright in 2017–18 and 2018–19. The team then lost in a strange bubble play-in series to the lowly Chicago Blackhawks in 2019–20, and suffering a sweep of four close games to the Winnipeg Jets in 2020–21.
That was the backdrop as the upstart Los Angeles Kings brought the Oilers to Game 7 last season. With a dangerous one-two punch of Selke worthy centres in Anze Kopitar and Phillip Danault the Kings were, and still might be, constructed in a manner ideal to handling the Oilers greatest strengths. The Oilers would prevail in that fateful Game 7, but it is a reminder of how thin the margins are, how daunting winning a single playoff round can be, and how a legacy of failure can cloud judgement altogether.
A very small number of fans are already considering the season a success
Are these folks okay? In the comments of this poll it was suggested that they might be defining success as everyone having a good time, or perhaps that the decade of darkness had put them through enough that even a winning record is success in its own right.
Since the author of this piece has inserted enough bias into the analysis so far, it should be admitted that one of the handful of votes here was mine. There might not be many people with me here, especially when you account for any margin of error through accidental votes, but allow me to represent the group.
Perhaps it is from a wider scope one could argue that this season has been a huge success for the Oilers, no matter how the next few months unfold. Many positive trends have galvanised on our journey here, where the Oilers are riding high. Performing amongst the top teams in the league in many significant metrics, the Oilers are firmly Cup contenders, if not the favourites in the Western Conference as a whole.
McDavid is soaring to news heights both offensively and defensively. Evan Bouchard has arrived as a top defenceman. Philip Broberg is taking steps in this direction as well, perhaps a year or two behind, on a blueline that has been further bolstered with the addition of Mattias Ekholm. If McDavid and Leon Draisaitl supported by a great blueline wasn’t enough, the emergence of Stuart Skinner is in full bloom, continuing a steady ascent to legitimate starting goalie, if not beyond. Jay Woodcroft has proven last year was no fluke, he can get the best from his team as head coach. Some bad contracts exist, but they are far outweighed by the number of high value deals on the team.
In the most literal sense, the Oilers current championship window is this season and the two following, the time in which both McDavid and Draisaitl are under contract. Everything we have seen this season shows us the Oilers are in a strong position to support their pair of MVP talents. Beyond those years, if the Oilers are indeed the top level team they should be, both would be more likely to renew their commitments, Draisaitl one year and McDavid the next.
Anything can happen in the months to come, goalies have stolen series, injuries aren’t always possible to overcome. The sport itself has an inherent level of chaos. Even before considering the lawlessness of the NHL postseason, a bounce of a puck is capable of swinging the momentum of a series. If the Oilers don’t win the Cup this season, or a certain number of playoff rounds, or lose at any point it will be disappointing.
That, however, doesn’t mean that the Oilers haven’t had a lot of success this season, and doesn’t diminish the reality of where this team sits in a true Stanley Cup window. Of course not many fans agreed with me, and none of the players on the Oilers will either, hardwired for the most extreme levels of competitiveness. That’s a good sign too.
Photo by Curtis Comeau/Icon Sportswire