The Edmonton Oilers have waited a long five months to make amends for their qualifying-round disappointment to end the 2019-20 season.
Despite boasting the fifth-best winning percentage in the Western Conference — and led by the dynamic duo of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl — the Oilers were ousted by the Chicago Blackhawks before the actual Stanley Cup playoff tournament kicked off.
As the Oilers prepare to play host to the Vancouver Canucks on Wednesday to kick off the truncated NHL season, it’s with extra motivation and the belief they are due to take a big step forward.
“There’s no time to tip-toe your way into the season,” forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins said. “It’s going to get rolling right away. … It’s going to be intense right off the get-go. There’s no time to waste with a shortened schedule like this.”
The Oilers and Canucks open with a pair of games in the Alberta capital, the site of last year’s restart after the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and they have completely different memories.
Edmonton was knocked out by a veteran Chicago team that barely squeaked into the qualifying round while the young, up-and-coming Canucks eliminated the Minnesota Wild in the qualifying round. They followed up by dropping the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues in the opening round and took the powerful Las Vegas Golden Knights to a seventh and deciding game in the second round before being eliminated.
Even so, the prognostications abound in Edmonton’s favor this season. The Oilers may be starting the season without veteran James Neal, who netted 19 goals in 55 games last season, but retooled their lineup in a positive way. Sure, there are questions about their defensive ability and goaltending, but the Oilers appear to have much more forward depth with the addition of veteran Kyle Turris to center a third line that appears will start with newcomer Dominik Kahun and 2016 first-round draft pick and fourth overall selection Jesse Puljujarvi back in the fold.
On defense, Edmonton will dearly miss Oscar Klefbom this season due to shoulder surgery, but adding Tyson Barrie will certainly provide more pop to its already potent attack, especially on the power play.
The Canucks, who boast a fantastic collection of young talent with the likes of forwards Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser and Bo Horvat as well as defenseman Quinn Hughes, had a curious offseason. They lost starting workhorse goalie Jacob Markstrom, key defenseman Chris Tanev and forwards Tyler Toffoli and Josh Leivo via free agency.
They added veteran goalie Braden Holtby to work along with talented youngster Thatcher Demko, and may have a more complete defense corps by adding veterans Nate Schmidt and Travis Hamonic as well as 2016 fifth-overall pick Olli Juolevi.
The Canucks appear ripe for a step back due to a lack of forward depth but enter the season believing they can build on their strong run thanks to the positive experience the last time they played in Edmonton.
“I like the makeup of our team a lot,” Horvat said. “We lost some key guys after last year, but the (players) we brought in have fit into our locker room. We’ve added some key pieces and guys have stepped up. We have a really bright future.”
Canucks general manager Jim Benning told Sportsnet 650 that forward J.T. Miller and defenseman Jordie Benn “aren’t available to us” for the opener and the team is following COVID-19 safety protocols.
“This is going to be a type of season that we’re going to have to accept that these things are going to come up,” Benning said.
The season format is altered, too with clubs playing 56 games, all against divisional opponents.
“When you’re from Canada and playing Canadian cities or coaching Canadian cities, there’s an excitement level,” Oilers coach Dave Tippett said. “The competition is going to be unreal. Missing the fans is the only drawback to it, but I think the excitement that will run through the country with people cheering on their teams will excite everybody. It’s going to be a blast.”
–Field Level Media