In the wake of their series loss to the Vegas Golden Knights, a clearly despondent Leon Draisaitl spoke to the media. Though his emotions were clearly visible, his words reinforced the feeling that many across Oil Country could relate with, “Obviously, when you start a season, you’re in it to win it, and we’re at that stage. If you don’t complete that then it feels like a failure or a wasted year almost. It hurts.”
Especially in the micro view, in the moments after a tough season ending loss in a series that saw emotions and skirmishes between both teams run high, it can be difficult to see things from a larger perspective. The shattered hopes and dreams of greater successes unachieved cloud our vision, refracting opinions through an unflattering lens. As we pick up the pieces, dry the tears, and sweep the dust away for an offseason of change, it is important to contextualise this disappointment with some appreciation for the things that went well for the Edmonton Oilers in the 2022–23 season.
With that said, let’s take a look over some of the bright spots in a season that ended in disappointment, and what they might tell us about the future of the Oilers.
Career highs: McDavid, Draisaitl, Hyman, and Nugent-Hopkins
Headlining the Oilers, and the league at large, as usual, are the offensive exploits of Connor McDavid. It’s almost hard to believe that the preseason was dominated by questions of if McDavid could hit 50 goals. We will be reminded of McDavid’s greatness once more at the NHL Awards, where his 64 goal, 153-point season will net him the Hart, Maurice “Rocket” Richard, Art Ross, and Ted Lindsay awards. Each year we lie to ourselves that regular season play and stats don’t matter, yet each year we are astounded by the greatness of McDavid. Despite a relatively low production level in the first round, against the uniquely qualified defensive talents of the Los Angeles Kings, McDavid was a force against the Vegas Golden Knights in Round 2.
Leon Draisaitl is never far behind, once again finishing the season second in league scoring with a career high 128 points. With another outstanding playoff performance, Draisaitl continued to build his resume as one of the few players with any legitimate claim to the NHL’s second best player. As McDavid said this postseason, there are many nights where Draisaitl is the best player in the world.
So long as McDavid and Draisaitl continue to deliver this otherworldly performance the Oilers should have a chance to compete for the Stanley Cup. We know all too well that the team around them must give them support, they can’t do it on their own, but the duo have continued to soar above and beyond their end of the bargain.
Some key Oilers enjoyed notable career seasons as well. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins reached 37 goals and 104 points while Zach Hyman added 36 goals and 83 points of his own. Yes, both benefited greatly from the talents of McDavid and Draisaitl, especially on the power play, but deserve full credit for their successes.
Setting new career highs each season should not be the expectation going forward, however. Nugent-Hopkins has long been lauded for his contributions beyond points, so this season counteracts that disparity in production more than it redefines his talents. Hyman has steadily increased his production, skill, and level of play each season as an NHLer, and even into his 30s is well positioned to continue his ascent. Both Nugent-Hopkins and Hyman have a good chance at approaching, if not surpassing, the point per game mark next season.
Nugent-Hopkins and Hyman both produced at reasonable rates in the postseason, yet along with Evander Kane have received some level of critique for their playoff performances. Kane is the most deserving of some production criticism of the three, yet both he and Hyman dealt with injury issues. The confidence in the group of top six level forwards should be fairly high heading into next season, regardless, adding some talent and dimension behind McDavid and Draisaitl.
Emerging talents: Bouchard, McLeod, and Skinner
There were some fantastic strides in development for some of the Oilers younger lineup regulars. This group is headlined by Bouchard’s breakout performance in the playoffs. Bouchard was finally granted the reins of the best power play in NHL history, which certainly buoyed his production by playing to his strengths. The truth is that the season did not start off so rose tinted for Bouchard, but he did prove himself as a capable defender in his own right while paired with Philip Broberg prior to the Tyson Barrie trade.
As fans we should be allowed to harbour optimistic outlooks for Oilers prospects, as we did with Bouchard. It might have taken some time but Bouchard has finally risen to the spot many felt he could for the past few seasons. This is a huge positive for the long term outlook of this franchise, though the upcoming contract negotiation will be crucial in giving the Oilers enough room to improve their roster.
Less impactful on the salary cap will be Ryan McLeod, who had a nice season for himself. Proving that last season, his first as a full time NHLer, was no fluke, McLeod has developed into a strong defensive centre. There are signs that more offence might be possible from McLeod, particularly if deployed with higher scoring linemates given his prowess as a playmaker. Even so, his play is already important to the team.
Already dealt with from a contractual standpoint is Stuart Skinner. The Calder Trophy candidate took hold of the Oilers starting job and continued his season to season upward trajectory. Though in hindsight switching to Jack Campbell at some point in the playoffs might have been prudent, Skinner acquitted himself nicely. His cap hit remains very high value, though a tandem relationship with Campbell is still a luxury worth investing in. Skinner might well continue taking steps forward, perhaps even as high as a top 10 goaltender league wide. Regardless his contributions are greatly appreciated, and vital to the team.
Time will tell how much higher these three players can soar, but all three are key members of the program going forward. Their development is a feather in the cap of the Oilers program as a whole, clear victories in drafting and developing.
New acquisitions: Ekholm
Though adding Klim Kostin and Nick Bjugstad was a nice compliment to the lineup, the acquisition of Mattias Ekholm is the only in-season addition that significantly alters the Oilers makeup. A stout defender, a savvy veteran, and signed for three more seasons at the very reasonable cap hit under $4M, Ekholm is a home run from an individual standpoint alone. On top of this Ekholm has shown a natural chemistry with Bouchard, becoming the Oilers top defensive pairing along the way.
Ekholm checks every box the Oilers could need from him, including leadership, experience, and even some offensive capabilities. Simply put, the Ekholm deal was likely the best move of the NHL’s trade deadline, as Ekholm instantly improved the Oilers and should continue to do so for years to come.
Ekholm displayed his wisdom during his season exit press availability. The Swedish defenceman was clear in stating his belief that the Oilers must come more comfortable in low scoring games to reach their goal of a championship, an astute observation reiterated by his GM and coach. More impressive is that he did so while supporting Bouchard’s abilities as a scoring defenceman, stating that Bouchard needs to play with some risk to be at his best.
Though some extra fanfare might come with being a new player, and cap hit affects much of how we understand player value, Ekholm has a legitimate case at being the Oilers best defenceman. This represents a foundational upgrade to the Oilers lineup and stylistic profile.
Seedlings: Broberg, Holloway, and Lavoie
The Holland era has seen its share of missteps, but the fact that the team has continually improved while maintaining a strong developmental pipeline is commendable. In a results based business the Oilers have checked every box outside of a championship, and Holland’s work being strong is near indisputable. The seasons of Bouchard, Skinner, and McLeod are one thing, but the Oilers have another wave of young players who are positioned to make similar jumps next season as well.
Philip Broberg was sheltered in limited minutes for most of the season, never quite earning top six icetime. There were several positives from the season, even though he did not quite make his way up the depth chart.
Broberg survived on a pair with the offensive minded Bouchard, albeit in sheltered third pair minutes mostly in offensive situations. Still, having to account for such a riverboat gambler of a partner shows that there is a legitimate defensive presence to Broberg’s game. As Bouchard was elevated, Broberg found himself without a regular role. Behind Darnell Nurse, Mattias Ekholm, and Brett Kulak on the left side, Broberg found opportunities wherever he could, even manning his weak side (the right) down the stretch of the regular season and in the playoffs.
For what it’s worth Broberg is outpacing Bouchard in NHL games played by age, meaning that there is still lots of time for Broberg to continue growing. Broberg is two years behind Bouchard by birth year, though one year behind by draft year. It should put into context that it takes time, sometimes more than we would like, for players to grow. Broberg does have a ways to go before rising into a top four role, and will have to earn his opportunities as the Oilers are rightly more concerned with wins than with handing young players minutes.
Broberg will likely never be afforded a meaningful opportunity on the Oilers power play, though he does have the skating and passing abilities to be a contributor on offence. At his best, Broberg should be able to have a positive effect in all phases of the game. Having done so in the NHL at his age, and on both the right and left side, makes Broberg’s path to top four minutes all the more likely. All players develop at their own pace, but Broberg’s 2023–24 season should be thought of similarly to Bouchard’s 2021–22, where he finally graduated from the press box and instead deployed favourably with a veteran partner in Duncan Keith.
Broberg is progressing well, and combined with the steps taken by Bouchard and the acquisition of Ekholm the outlook of the Oilers blueline has improved greatly over the past season.
Up front a pair of young forwards will head into next season with a chance at top nine roles out of training camp. Dylan Holloway did make the team out of camp this season, but ultimately was not ready to make an impact. Even early in the season when the Oilers were missing four top forwards, Holloway was not able to seize a bigger role. This season should be a step forward for Holloway who was able to earn some experience.
Meanwhile Raphael Lavoie overcame the production inconsistencies that have plagued his AHL career, taking his game to another level once the calendar flipped to 2023. No longer waiver exempt, and proven as a top scorer in the AHL, Lavoie is ready for a look in the NHL. As a skilled shooter, Lavoie does offer an element that the Oilers lineup would appreciate at this point.
Between McDavid, Draisaitl, Nugent-Hopkins, Hyman, and Kane fivr of the top six forward spots are firmly accounted for. This leaves some opportunity for Lavoie to fit into the lineup as a scorer, though it is a lot to expect. Some opportunities might present themselves lower in the lineup, particularly with the playmaking skills of McLeod as a potential fit for Lavoie.
Regardless, having young players ready to challenge for regular lineup spots next season is key for the Oilers. In terms of upside and cap cost players like Broberg, Holloway, and Lavoie are huge values.
The big picture
In simple terms the Oilers goal is to win the Stanley Cup as many times as possible in their current window in the two seasons that both McDavid and Draisaitl are both under contract. To be a bit more concise in that definition, the Oilers goal is to extend that Cup window by creating a strong enough program that both McDavid and Draisaitl are eager to re-sign with the team when their contracts expire, three and two seasons from now, respectively.
Although the Oilers won two fewer playoff games than last season, thus further from winning the Cup this season, clear positive strides were taken in the bigger picture. The Oilers continued to reshape their lineup for the better through developing and trading, and seem to have more help on the horizon of the McDavid and Draisaitl contracts.
To return to the premise of this team, the two MVPs consistently deliver when the stakes are highest, and the team around them continues to improve since they last missed the playoffs, the year prior to Holland taking over. In the past four seasons the Oilers finished 12th, 11th, 11th, and sixth league wide and have actually positioned themselves to continue improving as well.
It’s easy to be upset about how this season ended, but it is folly not to recognize the objective good standing of the Oilers.
Photo by Curtis Comeau/Icon Sportswire