Since they moved to town in 1980, there’s been one team that the Calgary Flames have used as a measuring stick – their neigbours to the north, the Edmonton Oilers. The two clubs combined for seven Cup Final appearances and five Cup wins in the 1980s, mostly Edmonton’s, but the rivalry has pushed both teams to improve and excel over the decades.
The 1980s were superb for both teams, but the 1990s were lean. Aside from a brief flash of relevance for both clubs in the mid 2000s – Calgary in 2004, Edmonton in 2006 – it wasn’t until Connor McDavid’s arrival in 2015 that the Battle of Alberta really started heading up.
After a decade where the Vancouver Canucks were the Flames’ most hated rival, the Oilers have returned to their rightful spot as Calgary’s arch-nemesis. They’ll meet 10 times in 2020-21 and these games will not only determine which team makes the playoffs, but how each team handles these head-to-head pressure-cookers will probably determine how realistic the Stanley Cup dreams are for both franchises.
2019-20: 37-25-9 (2nd Pacific, 5th Western)
Captain: Connor McDavid
Coach: Dave Tippett
General Manager: Ken Holland
Key additions: G Anton Forsberg, F Kyle Turris, D Tyson Barrie, D Slater Koekkoek, F Seth Griffith, F Dominik Kahun, F Adam Cracknell
Key departures: D Matt Benning, F Markus Granlund, F Andreas Athanasiou, F Tomas Jurco, F Josh Currie, D Oscar Klefbom (LTIR)
This will be an unpopular opinion, but man, the Oilers are a fun hockey club to watch. Granted, the appeal is entirely when Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl is on the ice in the offensive zone, but when their big guns are allowed time and space to maneuver, the Oilers are a fun team to watch and a dangerous team to play against.
But naysayers will point out that a hockey club with two of the best players in the world on it hasn’t really done much over the past few seasons, and that’s correct. A two player team can’t do a ton on their own, so general manager Ken Holland has gone shopping to try and shore up his club’s depth. Like many teams, though, the Oilers went into the off-season without much cap wiggle room, so Holland went value shopping for the most part.
Our pal over at OilersNation, the man known as BaggedMilk, believes that these depth moves have made the Oilers a better and more balanced hockey club up front.
I would argue this is probably the best top nine group the team has had since the 2017 playoff run. Easily the most balanced top nine group. Now, obviously when you have Connor and Leon on the team, those two lines are going to be a handful and I think that the Turris line is actually going to face some really soft opposition, so that third line’s actually got a really nice opportunity to score.
Right now Josh Archibald is penciled in on the left side of that third line, but Tyler Ennis could slide in (as could James Neal once he returns from his injury). They’re joined by a wildly affordable Kyle Turris and the returning Jesse Puljuarvi and form a trio that should be pretty competitive among all third lines in the North Division. A three line Oilers team looks pretty formidable offensively.
That said, the Oilers get pretty lean once you move to the defensive side of things. The big move that Holland made this off-season was adding Tyson Barrie. That’s good offensively, but comes with some caveats. First, Barrie isn’t an amazing defensive player. Second, Barrie’s addition was to replace Oscar Klefbom, who will spend the entire season on the long-term injured list with a significant injury.
“We all know what he can do,” noted BaggedMilk of Barrie. “But in terms of being out there in the final few minutes of a game, I don’t know who the Oilers are going to throw out there at this point. Is it going to be Darnell Nurse? Is it going to be Darnell Nurse and Ethan Bear? Is it going to be Larsson and somebody? The defense is still a major question mark. It was anyway, but now it’s still a question mark without Klefbom.”
Replacing the relatively complete Klefbom, the team’s best defenseman, with the one-dimensional Barrie creates a really lean situation, where most defenders on the club only have one or two key situational uses and makes the team fairly easy to match forward lines against.
In goal, things are similarly uneven. Mikko Koskinen posted a .917 save percentage and established himself as a rock-solid NHL starter – not a game-stealer, but a guy that gave his team a chance every night. Unfortunately, after a summer where a lot of goalies were available in the free agent market, the Oilers brought back Mike Smith coming off a .902 season with Edmonton in 2019-20 (and an .898 season with Calgary the season before that).
“I have no confidence in 40-year-old Mike Smith,” declared BaggedMilk.
[Editor’s note: he’s 38, but yeah.]
Can the Oilers be a world-beating team? Sure! Koskinen has shown flashes of occasional brilliance and if the supporting cast around them can be merely “fine,” McDavid and Draisaitl are dominant enough to at least drag everyone else on the team to the playoffs. Plus, if one (or more) of Ethan Bear, Kailer Yamamoto or Puljujarvi take a step, this team is suddenly really hard to beat.
But the Oilers defensive group is still pretty lean, and the sheer Mike Smithiness of Mike Smith puts an awful lot of the goaltending burden on Koskinen’s shoulders. Over a shortened season with a compressed schedule, that’s a lot of eggs to put in one basket.
The Oilers are not a complete team. They have holes. They have some depth issues here and there. But man, McDavid and Draisaitl are excellent hockey players, and that alone should be enough to ensure they’re competitive (and a tough out) in the North Division.
|Ryan Nugent-Hopkins||Connor McDavid||Zach Kassian|
|Dominik Kahun||Leon Draisaitl||Kailer Yamamoto|
|Josh Archibald||Kyle Turris||Jesse Puljujarvi|
|Tyler Ennis||Jujhar Khaira||Alex Chiasson|
|Gaetan Haas||Joakim Nygard|
|Darnell Nurse||Ethan Bear|
|Caleb Jones||Tyson Barrie|
|Kris Russell||Adam Larsson|
|Mikko Koskinen (starter)||Mike Smith|
(James Neal begins on the injured reserve; Oscar Klefbom on the long-term injured reserve.)
Projected Taxi Squad:
|F Alan Quine||F Adam Cracknell||F Devin Shore|
|D Theodor Lennstrom||D Slater Koekkoek||G Anton Forsberg|