Two teams, different in build had the same outset at the beginning of the 2017/18 NHL season – playoffs or bust. Well chalk it up as a double bust because the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames both missed the playoffs. Two teams with disappointing seasons so, the question must be asked – What went wrong with Alberta’s NHL teams?
Lets set the scene- its September 2017 and all across Canadian sports media the tantalizing idea of Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers matching up against Auston Matthews and the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Stanley Cup finals is not-so-secretly being talked about as a real possibility. Fast forward eight months later and the Edmonton Oilers are in the draft lottery, while the Leafs are deadlocked and struggling in a tough series with the Bruins. Not what we wanted, right?
For Leaf’s fans it’s status quo – the team made the playoffs last year and they made them this year. The rebuild has happened and now it’s about tweaking the team to find playoff success.
Edmonton fans are at a loss of words I’m sure, at least safe for work words. Despite having the best player in the league, the Oilers missed a divisional playoff spot by 22 points, and a wildcard spot by 17 points. It’s laughable really, but the Edmonton Oilers will be in the 2018 draft lottery.
After making a solid run in the playoff in 2016/17, the Oilers were poised to add to their team and develop a more well rounded squad to strengthen their Stanley Cup dreams. Instead what happened was a team propped up by their super star failed to take the next step, despite McDavid’s best attempt to drag his team up (108 points in 82 games).
The problem is that they Oilers don’t have suitable wingers to play with McDavid. He is the fastest player with the puck on his stick, and most dynamic play making forward in the league – that is why should be third line centre Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Ty Rattie should not be on a line with him. I suppose those players were better than Mark Letestu and Patrick Maroon earlier this season, but better doesn’t mean ideal.
The solution? Spend some money.
A couple free agents could line up nicely for McDavid’s benefit. Firstly, a slow winger who is deadly in front of the net – James van Riemsdyk. Despite his top speed being not nearly as high as McDavid’s, JVR on the left wing can boost production with net front presence, power play acumen, and clean up abilities for 30+ goals a season.
Right wing provides some more options to play with. Josh Bailey from the Islanders could step in and be the right hand man to McDavid like he was to Tavares. He can play at that top elite level and the fact that he can produce regularly (57 points last season) bodes well for a nice contract year.
Two wild card pick for McDavid’s should-be vacant wings are Michael Grabner and Ilya Kovalchuk. Grabner seems like a long shot, but Peter Chiarelli may want to have a look at the speedy winger. 30 years old, Grabner is a breakaway specialist and valuable body on the PK. The downside, he thrives on bottom-6 matchups. If he played with McDavid he would draw the best defensive coverage available. Regardless, he should be on Pete’s radar not just for McDavid suitablity – a fast player, solid penalty killer, and player with pace to match McDavid’s speed. Think Kunitz and Dupuis for Crosby.
Kovalchuk is a bit of a shot in the dark. The Russian winger is reportedly coming back to the league after jumping ship on New Jersey years ago, but despite his awful loyalty the man can score. It looks likely that he’ll go to the Rangers for some ungodly reason, but Chiarelli is in hot water in Edmonton and this may be the necessary shot he needs to take to try and win over the fans or go down swinging.
The real problem, as I see it, in Edmonton is the front office. Peter Chiarelli has earned all of the scrutiny he is currently getting. If he didn’t have a Stanley Cup to his name he would undoubtedly be out of a job right now, but his resume has earned him some extra time. The problem is that he has great pieces to work with – Todd McLellan (coach), Conner McDavid, and Leon Draisaitl but has failed at maximizing their potential with surrounding pieces. Stuck in the old Bruins format, Chiarelli is looking to build a bruising, big team showing he is not adapting to the new, faster NHL.
Surprisingly enough Calgary seems to be in a better spot than Edmonton, something I didn’t think I would be saying at this point in time. A well balanced top line, and a strong defensive core support this statement. What really happened with the Flames this season was crucial injuries that just picked away at the team, ultimately causing them to miss the playoffs with 84 points accumulated.
For Calgary their talent would have been enough to carry the team to the playoffs, but injuries to first line centre Sean Monahan, bruiser winger Matthew Tkachuk, and stalwart defensemen T.J. Brodie and Travis Hamonic hamstrung their season.
Calgary has fired their head coach Glen Gulutzan so the chief team strategist position is vacant. With a few viable options out there, Calgary can actually allow for a more offensive-minded coach to take the reigns with their strong D-core. I shudder as I say this but… Lindy Ruff?
For the Flames, once they get a new coach they can go all in on a playoff season by splashing some cash for a marquee signing to push them over the top. It isn’t entirely necessary but hey have a lot of bit-piece players and could use some superstar power to push their offense over the top. Top free agent John Tavares would be a legit pick up for the team, allowing their top two lines to roll and split heavy minutes. If not, veteran wingers James Neal, Rick Nash, and Patric Hornqvist would all beef up the lineup for production, while Paul Stastny could be a good option if Tavares goes somewhere else.
Despite being in a better position as it stands, Calgary is really neck and neck with Edmonton in the “who is ready to compete” argument. McDavid is such a major factor in his team’s success that the Oilers can never be counted out. As for Calgary, it is just a matter of getting healthy and staying healthy… and adding some elite scoring talent cant hurt. Either way look for both teams to have bounce back years, if not the front offices of both organizations will be looking for new General Managers, especially in Edmonton.