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2021-22 Edmonton Oilers Preview: It’s all about Cup contention

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Can the Oilers prove that they’re cup-ready with Duncan Keith?

Alex Chiasson #39 and Connor McDavid #97 of the Edmonton Oilers celebrate a second period goal against the Winnipeg Jets in Game Four of the First Round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Bell MTS Place on May 24, 2021 in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Photo by Darcy Finley/NHLI via Getty Images

Despite having two of the best forwards in the game on their top line (cough, McDavid and Draisaitl, cough), the Edmonton Oilers have resided in relative mediocrity in the postseason. Will the 2021-22 season be the year where the Oilers prove that their exemplary regular season records aren’t all that they can offer, and finally compete for the Stanley Cup?

Where they left off

The story for the Edmonton Oilers is one of high highs and low lows. Last season they blew the rest of the NHL out of the water with their excellent special teams (their power play was first in the NHL and their penalty kill ranked ninth), and their record of 35-19-2. They looked like a strong contender for a Canadian team in the Cup Final ... and then they were swept by the Winnipeg Jets in the first round of the playoffs.

The Oilers have a history of solid regular season performances and then burning out in the first round of the playoffs, often to teams they’re expected to beat. In the 2019-20 season, the Oilers had a record of 37-25-9, and lost in round one to the Chicago Blackhawks. Their last Stanley Cup was won in 1990, and superstars Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl would like another one in Edmonton sooner rather than later.

2021 Entry Draft

General manager Ken Holland used the 2021 Entry Draft as a way to bring in young talent to reinvigorate the team and get fans excited for the next generation. The Oilers had six picks in this draft.

Going 22nd overall, the Oilers used their first pick of the draft to take Xavier Bourgault. A 6-foot-0 center who has great puck control and is a consistent goal-scorer is exactly the kind of offensive punch the Oilers would like to have. In the 2020-21 season for the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) Shawinigan Cataractes, Bourgault played 29 games for a total of 20 goals, 20 assists, 6 penalty minutes and a +7. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him hit the ice for the Oilers later on in the season.

The Oilers are banking on their sleeper pick in the fourth round, where they took Jake Chiasson (no relation to UFA Alex Chiasson) at 116th overall. Chiasson might not be as flashy as Bourgault, but he’s a steal for the Oilers. He needs more development to hone his goal-scoring instincts, but he already has a strong shot and some creativity. With a little more time, he could be a great bottom-six forward for the Oilers. He spent the 2020-21 season with the Western Hockey League (WHL) Brandon Wheat Kings, where he played 23 games and totaled 9 goals, 11 assists, 4 PIMs and a +12.

All of the Oilers’ picks are as follows:

Round 1 (22nd overall): Xavier Bourgault
Round 3 (90th): Luca Munzenberger
Round 4 (116th): Jake Chiasson
Round 6 (180th): Matvei Petrov
Round 6 (186th): Shane Lachance
Round 7 (212th): Maximus Wanner

Roster

The Oilers' problem has been depth in their bottom forwards and defense. Their top lines are literally top of the line, but you can’t play McJesus for every minute of the game. The Oilers spent the off-season trading for depth, which will hopefully fill the holes in the team’s coverage. The Oilers might be a high-scoring team, but you can only score so many goals to offset your lapses in defense.

The biggest, though unsurprising, news from the Oilers was that the team bought out James Neal’s contract in order to give themselves wiggle room with the cap. Neal had two years left on his $5.75 million contract, which leaves the Oilers an annual bill of $1.917 million until the 2024-25 season.

The Oilers lost a veteran presence and high price tag when they bought out Neal, but they replaced that veteran identity by adding Duncan Keith to their lineup. The Chicago Blackhawks traded Duncan Keith and Tim Soderlund to the Oilers in exchange for Caleb Jones and a conditional 2022 third-round pick. At 38 years old, it’s unclear how much ice time Keith will get. Last season he played 54 games for Chicago for a total of 4 goals, 11 assists, 30 PIMs and a -13, average 23:25 in ice time each night, about a minute and a half under his career average.

Word is that Warren Foegele, a restricted free agent this year, wanted more money and ice time from the Carolina Hurricanes, a desire not so dissimilar to Ethan Bear’s position in Edmonton. Up for arbitration, Carolina traded his RFA rights to the Edmonton Oilers for Ethan Bear, in a one-to-one move. Bear was a bright spot on the Oilers' defense, and while his playoff performance contained a few mistakes, his regular season play was stifled only by the limited role Edmonton placed him in. Hopefully, he’ll have the opportunity to get the ice time he deserves in Carolina. Bear has one year left at $2 million before he’ll hit RFA status.

Foegele presents the same upsides that Bear did. He’s young, and he’s still developing, but the future is bright, and he’s ready to take that next step in being a key player for a playoff team. For Carolina, Foegele played 53 games for a total of 10 goals, 10 assists, 20 PIMs and a +4.

The other notable new addition is Zach Hyman, who signed with the Oilers after it was clear Toronto wouldn’t pay him what he wanted. Hyman is a reliable, responsible forward who’s adaptable in in-game scenarios. He could slot into any of the forward lines in Edmonton with ease, but I imagine that he’ll provide some consistency for the struggling bottom-six. Last season he wore an ‘A’ for the Leafs, and played 43 games for a total of 15 goals, 18 assists, 28 PIMs and a +19.

The biggest question mark is goaltender Mike Smith, who returned to Edmonton by signing a two-year, $4.4 million AAV contract in order to escape free agency. Smith turned back the clock last season, posting a 2.31 goals-against average and 0.923 save percentage in 32 games. He had a stellar season for the Oilers, but it’s not a guarantee that he’ll be able to replicate his success in the 2021-22 season again. The Oilers haven’t made many strides to prepare for his departure in net in the next few years, so any major changes with the Oilers’ lineup is going to come from the forwards and defense.

What can we expect in 2021-22?

The real test for Edmonton will come in the postseason, if they can follow up a few good seasons with another one and enter the playoffs again. Their long-term success hinges on the changes made on the blue line, and depending on your perspective, the Oilers’ identity hasn’t changed much, what with exchanging similar players instead of re-working their system. The older players, Duncan Keith and Mike Smith, are the true wild cards for this team, and I’ll be anxious to see what kind of start they get off to in Edmonton.

The San Jose Sharks will play their division mates four times this regular season. They first face-off in San Jose on December 23 at 7 p.m. PT. The Sharks and the Oilers won’t meet again until March 24, 2022 at Rogers Place at 6 p.m. PT. The two teams will play their final games of the season in April, the first at home at the SAP Center April 5 at 7:30 p.m. PT, and the final game on April 28 in Edmonton at 6 p.m. PT.