Through the playoffs, a given team will have to see a lot of things go right for them to succeed. Some of these aspects are tried and true, obvious statements wrapped up into idiomatic turns of phrase. A recipe for success, right under “scoring more goals than the other team” in terms of sophistication, comes in the classic nugget of sports wisdom “your best players have to be your best players”.
For the most part the Edmonton Oilers have held down this part of the equation well. Leon Draisaitl has elevated his playoff performance once more, and is well underway a playoff career made of legend. Connor McDavid hasn’t been too shabby himself, as one of the few players to which eight points across the first five games of the playoffs could be considered par for the course. Yet, as Oiler fans know well, it takes more than two superstars to make a team.
Further still down the list of playoff wisdom is the need for depth contributions, players able to provide a boost from lower in the lineup. In truth, it takes an entire roster to make hay in the playoffs, but there will always be a few individuals that stand above the rest when it comes to unexpected performances. With this in mind we sent out a poll to take the temperature of Oilers fans.
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Which Oilers playoff performance has surprised you the most so far?
Bjugstad making a big impact
With 20% of votes, Nick Bjugstad’s contributions have not gone unnoticed. While the Mattias Ekholm trade at the deadline made headlines everywhere, the Bjugstad trade was not quite as publicised. This is appropriate, given the skill sets, salaries, reputations, and acquisition cost of both players, but fans have definitely noticed Bjugstad’s work as an Oiler.
A big centre, Bjugstad has improved his defensive game over the course of his career, becoming a strong two way force. This responsible game has quickly earned him trust in Oil Country, stapling the third line until being promoted to a top six role in this season’s series against the Los Angeles Kings. Bjugstad’s defensive game and size are welcome additions to an Oilers top six that appreciates the defensive support.
Whether it is taking a key faceoff, winning a puck battle, taking a hit to make a play, or even the odd moment to chip in offensively, Bjugstad has done a lot of strong work in the playoffs. Some fans might not have had a chance to grasp Bjugstad’s play while he was bouncing around the league the past few seasons, or even down the stretch of the regular season for the Oilers, but no doubt there is a growing appreciation for the forward.
Fans most surprised by Bouchard’s game
Easily leading this poll, with about 58% of votes, is Evan Bouchard. Perhaps some fans were not yet fully convinced of Bouchard’s ascendant level of play this season, or at least since his being paired with Ekholm and taking over top power play duties. There is no question that his level of play has been strong, but it might be the last time that anyone will consider such play a “surprise” from Bouchard.
Bouchard is tied with McDavid for second on the team in playoff points, with eight through five games, though all have come on the power play. Scoring is a quick and easy way to the hearts of fans, an explicit and measurable contribution for team success.
While it still might be considered a surprise for Bouchard to be so vital to the Oilers’ success, fans should get used to the idea. Bouchard has proven himself over the course of the season and emerged as a legitimate top four defender, if not more.
Ryan’s performance going unnoticed
A true unsung hero, and the Oilers Masterton Trophy nominee, Derek Ryan finished well in fourth place in our poll. With only 7% of votes, even double the amount of love would’ve seen Ryan finish fourth place.
Deep in the lineup, Ryan has authored a masterful series, a leader in expected goals percentage, the indicator that Ryan and the Oilers forward depth are completely outmatching the Kings forward depth.
Ryan isn’t the biggest, fastest, or most skilled, but the centre is smart, responsible, and consistent. Since debuting in the NHL in his age 29 season, Ryan has done exactly this, posting very strong results in a limited role. Perhaps this consistency is part of what lost Ryan votes here, as to be fair there is nothing surprising about his play given his extensive track record. There might be some surprise surrounding his story in general, leading to the Masterton nomination, but it was not enough to earn votes in this poll.
A cheeky add to this list, Campbell is coming off a rough regular season. Just one year into his five-year deal with the Oilers, most fans are firmly entrenched in the dread of buyers’ remorse. Of course, Stuart Skinner’s ascension, and affordable cap hit, lessened the sting of what looks to be a questionable signing for the Oilers.
Despite obvious struggles this season, Campbell posted an outstanding regular season record for the Oilers, who provided a lot of goal support. By the time the playoffs rolled around it was hardly a question of which goalie would be the Oilers playoff starter.
Campbell’s career has been one of unexpected twists and turns, from first-round pick, to bust, to NHL backup, to starting goalie for a division winning team (regular season), to his tumultuous season with the Oilers this year, no one has ever been able to be proven right about Campbell for very long, one way or another.
On April 23, his career took another turn, this time to the Oilers benefit. Down two games to one in the series, and down three to nothing in the first period of Game 4, Skinner was pulled. It was an absolutely dreadful bit of gloom across Oil Country, with more than a few fans getting existential during the intermission. Campbell backstopped the team the rest of the game and into overtime where the Oilers would tie the series with a 5–4 win over the Kings. Campbell was outstanding, stopping 27 of 28 shots.
Looking back on Campbell’s career the one thing that is consistent, besides the general inconsistencies, is strong performances in big moments. Whether it was the U20 World Juniors or the NHL playoffs, Campbell has delivered in big games, even in relief. Having done so once again might be a surprise for some Oiler fans, a welcome one at that.
It might be a lesson that although we think we know how the rest of Campbell’s contract will play out, we might be wrong two or three times over during the four seasons after this. For the time being Campbell is a great backup option in a tandem that is very cost efficient as a whole.