Oilers' many issues exposed in revealing postseason exit

·7 min read

Ethan Bear was on the ice for the first time in three periods. What remained in his energy reserve was immediately apparent through the mess of exhausted bodies continuing to slam into each other as the Edmonton Oilers and Winnipeg Jets remained square, together toiling for a winner in a third overtime period.

Bear understood, though, after sitting on the bench for entire periods — not shifts — at that point, that his number was only called because Edmonton coach Dave Tippett needed a body to help kill off the remaining seconds of a Winnipeg power play. 

So when the puck exited the zone, having expended for only 25 seconds, Bear scrambled off the ice on a long change. 

Regrettably, the puck came back just as fast once Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl failed to buy enough time by depositing the puck deep into the offensive zone. So it goes, the tired legs of Tyson Barrie couldn't catch the tired legs of Kyle Connor, and the Jets won Game 4, sweeping away the Oilers after a third consecutive overtime triumph.

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For the Oilers, the postseason loss is nothing short of a disaster — even with how close these games were played. Edmonton has now managed just a single postseason victory over the last two years, competing against teams that either didn't belong or would have been hard-pressed to qualify for the playoffs under normal circumstances. 

With seven losses in their last eight postseason games, the Oilers failed, dramatically, on the promise as favourites after completing back-to-back seasons at, or close to, an elite regular-season points pace. 

With one series victory in six now-complete seasons with McDavid, and none coming in the last four years, the organization has essentially accomplished squat since winning the rights to the best player in the world through a lottery system. 

Now with the loss to Winnipeg, McDavid's best season — and one of the greatest in the history of the sport— has been wasted, right along with his previous five.

Optimists will argue that this was expected, that the Oilers were victims of their own overachievement, and that meaningful success was never in the cards this season. They will point out that the Oilers have loads of money to spend this offseason and that Ken Holland can only now put his complete stamp on the roster, finally turning over what's left from the Peter Chiarelli era. 

WINNIPEG, MB - MAY 24: Leon Draisaitl #29 of the Edmonton Oilers kneels dejectedly on the ice following a 4-3 triple overtime loss against the Winnipeg Jets in Game Four of the First Round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Bell MTS Place on May 24, 2021 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. The Jets sweep the series 4-0. (Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)
WINNIPEG, MB - MAY 24: Leon Draisaitl #29 of the Edmonton Oilers kneels dejectedly on the ice following a 4-3 triple overtime loss against the Winnipeg Jets in Game Four of the First Round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Bell MTS Place on May 24, 2021 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. The Jets sweep the series 4-0. (Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)

But here's the truth of the matter: the Oilers aren't anywhere close to assembling the sort of pool of talent, or achieving an adequate level of team, that's required to win in the postseason. 

And that has never been more obvious than it is in this moment. 

Because in hockey, there are few things more revealing of a team than one that requires the next goal to avoid a catastrophic outcome to close its season. 

Against Winnipeg, Edmonton's issues were laid fully bare.

In a vacuum, the decisive moment in Edmonton's Game 4 loss was the result of a sloppy transition from one shift to the next, something which is completely understandable given the circumstances after more than 106 minutes of intense and emotional postseason play. 

In reality, though, the root cause of that error — or at least Bear's role in the error — was foundational, or a result of the fact that Tippett had identified an alarmingly small list of players he could trust with the season on the line. 

Bear wasn't supposed to be out there, he understood, so he forced the change that ultimately led to the team's demise. 

There are multiple seasons of data to work with. There are now four more complete postseason games, with loads of extra time to boot. But there is nothing more representative of what the Oilers have, and still desperately need, than their time-on-ice sheet from Game 4.

We know what they have with McDavid and Draisaitl, just like we do with Darnell Nurse, who was heroic on the Edmonton back line in more than 62 minutes of ice time. 

After that, well, it gets murky.

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The three with the next highest usages were Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Adam Larsson and Barrie, each of whom are unrestricted free agents this summer. There's reason to want each back; Nugent-Hopkins is foundational piece, Larsson remains a useful shutdown defender, and Barrie runs the power play effectively. However, there is also reason for skepticism, going even beyond the fact that all three will be looking to eat into the team's available cap space as much as possible.

After that, Tippett leaned hardest next on Kailer Yamamoto, Kris Russell and Zack Kassian, three players that simply can't be considered above replacement-level in terms of individual role. Yamamoto, in particular, is highly representative of a clearly incomplete top-six forward group, and a supporting cast that can't provide McDavid and Draisaitl with what they need. 

After that, Jesse Puljujarvi seemed to frustrate McDavid enough to lose much of his ice, while Devin Shore, Tyler Ennis and Gaetan Haas managed to be reasonably useful in the moment, which might have been more coincidental than anything. 

All mentioned players combined to form the three lines and two defense pairings Tippett was comfortable with, while Bear, Slater Koekkoek, Alex Chiasson, Jujhar Khaira and Ryan McLeod were scrubbed from the equation.

All this is to say, do the Oilers have anything meaningful in place for next season beyond McDavid, Draisaitl and Nurse?

Naturally, the issues extend to the goaltending position as well. Mike Smith was low on the list of concerns in the series, even if he played a significant role in the epic third-period collapse in Game 3. However, the most likely future outcome when considering Smith's career is that this season was his last performing at a high level. It already exists as an outlier in an otherwise pedestrian career, and being blind to that, and potentially welcoming him back months before turning 40 years old after failing to address the goaltending concerns last offseason, would be merely inviting average goaltending, at best. 

For Holland, that's simply not an option. 

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It was a tremendous, record-breaking regular season for the Oilers, and one fans should still savour, in the event they can eventually cleanse the bitter taste from their mouths.

But after four incredibly disappointing postseason games, and in particular an exposing elimination loss Monday night, there's reason to eschew all the data and focus entirely on what just happened.

It seems abundantly clear that McDavid, Draisaitl and Nurse can smooth over the rough edges and even allow a highly-flawed team to excel in the regular season, but those powers are diminished in the playoffs. 

Holland has to bring widespread change to this team, or the exact same story will play out again, only more devastatingly.

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