When the Edmonton Oilers visited the Pittsburgh Penguins last week, Connor McDavid earned his first of four points with a battle-driven assist. As three players jockeyed along the boards in the Oilers’ offensive zone, McDavid studied the situation and struck, reaching into the fray and neatly extracting the puck on his stick like an anteater grabbing a snack. Time slowed down, hockey’s top scorer shared his haul with a waiting teammate, and the Oilers took a 1-0 lead.
To earn his second point, McDavid, 25, carried the puck up the boards, coolly wheedled around an opponent like it was nothing, and set off a chain of passes that resulted in another Edmonton goal. His third point was a little more accidental: With the Oilers on a power play, he launched a centering pass that hopped beyond its intended recipient’s stick but still wound up in Edmonton’s possession and, eventually, Pittsburgh’s net. Then, as if to atone for that successful mishap, McDavid recorded his fourth point of the night with a play that would have been equally at home in an NBA game. First he drove through the lane, then he pulled up for an impossibly low-angle midrange attempt, and then, so very satisfyingly: swish.
McDavid’s shapeshifting performance (in a nationally televised 5-1 win over his longtime benchmark, Sidney Crosby, no less) contributed to a new career high in points (123 in 80 games this year) as well as his fourth NHL scoring title in the past six seasons. It also helped a surging Edmonton team clinch home-ice advantage against the Los Angeles Kings in the opening round of the playoffs.
Oilers forward Zach Hyman, who signed with Edmonton as a free agent last summer and finished with 54 points this year, was asked about his team captain’s play following the Pittsburgh game. “I dunno, quiet four-point night?” Hyman said with a grin and a shake of the head. “Loud four-point night? It’s just … normal.”
Of course, for the Edmonton Oilers, the concept of “normal” has long been like McDavid himself: difficult to pin down; constantly zagging; must be experienced to be believed.
Take this season, for example. The Oilers finished with 104 points, their most successful campaign points-wise since 1987, the year Wayne Gretzky led the organization to its third of five Stanley Cups. Both McDavid and fellow center Leon Draisaitl easily eclipsed the 100-point mark. Defenseman Darnell Nurse, a former first-round draft pick, showed he could handle one of the league’s heaviest allocations of minutes. Young players like forward Ryan McLeod and defenseman Evan Bouchard demonstrated meaningful improvement. And yet nothing was run-of-the-mill about the manner in which this year’s Oilers achieved.
The team fired head coach Dave Tippett in mid-February following a rocky winter in which the Oilers won just seven games in the months of December and January and drifted out of playoff position. In his place, Edmonton elevated former assistant and minor league coach Jay Woodcroft to his first NHL head coaching gig. A controversial move to sign the legally embattled forward Evander Kane to a one-year flier in January rightly upset many fans and also had management’s intended effect on the stat sheets: Kane contributed 39 points in his 43 games and helped distribute the team’s offense more evenly. Mike Smith, the Oilers’ current starting goalie who began the season as a backup and recently turned 40 years old, went on a rollicking last month of the season. (He even recorded an assist in early April when, in overtime against the San Jose Sharks, he dropped a long stretch pass right to a streaking McDavid, who did not disappoint; the team finished that month with a 11-2-1 record.)
It’s all been a lot, but so have the Oilers. Throughout disparate eras of dynasty and doldrums, Gretzky and #YakCity, bounty and bust, rebuilding and regression, Stanley Cups and salary caps, one of Edmonton’s only constants has been its capacity for chaos. At the best of times, the Oilers have channeled all this latent hockey-Loki energy into delightful successes, like Paul Coffey’s inventiveness from the blue line in the ’80s, or Taylor Hall’s hangman guesses from—gulp—a decade ago, or the spin-o-rama connection from Draisaitl to promising winger Kailer Yamamoto last week.
But the team’s disarray-by-default has also manifested in a whole lot of angst, confusion, and absurdity over the years, in the form of weird trades, unhappy endings, and an ever-present preemptive gloom that a should-be-golden era is slipping away. Since Edmonton’s 2006 loss in the Stanley Cup final, the franchise has bumbled its way to as many first overall draft picks (four) as postseason appearances (including this upcoming one). It has cycled through leadership regimes at a remarkable and alarming clip: One of those aforementioned first overall picks, forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, has played for nine different head coaches and five general managers in his 11 seasons in Edmonton.
“I’ve seen so much change over the years that ... I’m not saying I’m numb to it by any sense, but I’m almost used to it now,” Nugent-Hopkins once told the media—and that was three years, two coaches, and a pair of first-round playoff ousters ago.
“This year we have had to fight for our lives, ultimately,” McDavid told reporters this weekend, explaining why he felt the team was particularly ready for the 2022 postseason. “We’ve been playing playoff hockey here for a while.” He contrasted this with last year’s first-round sweep at the hands of the Winnipeg Jets: “I think maybe last year we were maybe a little more comfortable in our position,” he said, “and I’m not going to say we took our foot off the gas, but we didn’t have to play that desperate style of hockey.”
Edmonton is definitely not the only franchise that enters this postseason with a considerable amount of put-up-or-shut-up pressure after so many seasons of assembling and disassembling and bobbing and weaving and unraveling, again and again and again. The Colorado Avalanche have one of the league’s elite rosters (including past no. 1 and 2 draft picks in Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog, and defensive wunderkind Cale Makar) but haven’t emerged beyond the second round in 20 years. The Toronto Maple Leafs, forever and always the subject of so much riled-up hockey conversation, are increasingly desperate to simply be in real Stanley Cup contention again.
Everyone wants to be the next Tampa Bay Lightning, who over the past few years have proved that a team can suffer an ignominious playoff defeat (or multiple!) and still rise to the level of back-to-back Cup champions. But while the Oilers may share certain attributes with those Tampa teams—some of hockey’s most talented forwards up and down the depth chart; good uniforms; a youthful coach—they also still have many nerve-racking weaknesses.
With much respect to a quadragenarian king, Smith is a question mark in net in a way that Andrei Vasilevskiy never was; one dud of a game and there’s a good chance Edmonton will quickly return to Mikko Koskinen. Defensively, even if Nurse returns to the lineup from an injury that sidelined him for some of the final games of the season, the Oilers’ blue line remains a bit of an unknown, particularly when you throw in the exhausting variable of “triple-overtime sudden-death playoff games.”
Still, the Oilers open against a Kings team that is broadly just happy to be in the playoffs (and features an aging, intriguing goalie of its own in Jonathan Quick!), which is as good a matchup as any. And some of the changes Edmonton has made during its run over the past few months bode well for the team’s chances in the rougher, tougher, more buckled-down postseason.
It’s a blessing to employ a player like McDavid, who is capable of calmly dishing out three assists and a goal in any and every given game, but it can also turn into a curse in the postseason. Rely too heavily on any one or two guys for the bulk of production and risk getting, well, swept by a strategic and persistent line-matching defense. Last year, against the Winnipeg Jets in the first round, McDavid was held to three assists and a goal in the whole series. Draisaitl fared similarly, finishing with two goals and three assists. This year, the Kings, who are helmed by former Oilers coach Todd McLellan and who have formidable defensive forwards in captain Anze Kopitar and Phillip Danault, will try to smother the Oilers’ top talent in much the same way.
Woodcroft seemed to anticipate this pretty immediately upon taking over. He has been the coach for only a few months, but in that time there has been a measurable improvement in the team’s even-strength play without McDavid on the ice. Could this all be the dawn of a new “normal” for McDavid and the Oilers? (The NHL has had an interesting history of midseason head coaching changes culminating in victory ...)
One hopes so, because the past few years have left the impression that there is so much we’re all missing out on. In 2019, when the Oilers last failed to make the playoffs, McDavid, who at that point had only one postseason under his belt, sounded understandably pissed and bereft. His frustration level, he said then, was “really high. Really, really high.” He added: “We want to play in the playoffs as a team. I personally want to play in the playoffs. I’m not happy about it. It’s going to be a long summer.” They were the kind of words that ring in nervous fans’ ears forever; he sounded like someone who kind of wanted out.
But last May, following the second first-round disappointment in two years, McDavid struck a more hopeful tone. “It might feel like we’re light years away, but we’re a lot closer than I think it feels today,” he said. “These are all guys who I’ve kind of grown up with. We want to see this thing through together. We want to do this thing right as a group.” McDavid is a sensation who can regularly conjure an assist out of a battle along the boards, who can create something out of nothing, who can spin straw into goals. But come playoff time, achieving the ultimate goal requires more than just magic. It takes repetition, persistence, fourth lines and timeouts and penalty kills—hockey normalcy. It takes a village to raise a Cup. Which is why, if the Edmonton Oilers want this postseason battle to be a long one, it’s McDavid who’ll really need the assist.