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The Edmonton Oilers’ Rise to Relevance

One can’t help but wonder what the Edmonton Oilers might have done if the ping-pong balls hadn’t fallen their way back on April 18. At the time, they were coming off yet another disappointing season — one that saw them much closer to the bottom of the Western Conference than anywhere near an actual playoff spot. Or even anywhere near showing signs of progress after nine years of futility, for that matter.

As it turns out, luck was working in their favor on the night of the Draft Lottery. In fact, Edmonton might be better at winning the lottery than anyone ever. And coming out on top this time seems to have finally set the wheels in motion for a better future.

First and foremost, Connor McDavid is now an Oiler. True, there was excitement when they won the lottery and drafted Taylor Hall in 2010. And when they used another No. 1 overall pick on Ryan Nugent-Hopkins in 2011. And then again on Nail Yakupov in 2012. But this one feels different.

There’s very little that can be mentioned about McDavid that hasn’t already been said — at least until he starts playing in actual NHL games. Just know that he’s a true game-changer. Those other top picks were great prospects, but McDavid is a generational talent — the sort of player that hockey legends themselves can’t help but be impressed by.

“Going right from junior to the NHL? That’s a big step for Connor. But he’s the one guy who can handle it. He’ll be fine. With his speed and his shot and his creativity and his hockey knowledge, that’s as good as anybody.” – Wayne Gretzky to the Edmonton Journal.

Here’s the thing — McDavid doesn’t have to just step in and be a one-man show. All those other talented prospects are still there, and they’ve had varying degrees of success so far on an individual basis. Hall has 106 goals and 263 total points over 299 career NHL games…and he’s still just 23 years old. Nugent-Hopkins has registered 65 goals and 188 points over the course of 258 games by the age of 22. And Yakupov, despite a pretty rough sophomore slump back in 2013-14, is only 21 and coming off a 2014-15 campaign in which he showed some signs of improvement.

Plus there’s Jordan Eberle, who led the team in scoring with 63 points last season and has notched 128 points over the past two years. At 25 years of age, he’s not exactly ancient either.

That young core hasn’t been able to put it all together as group yet, but they still have plenty of untapped potential. And there were plenty of rumblings that one or two of them might need to be shipped out in a desperate effort to shake things up if the team didn’t start registering more wins in a hurry. Now that McDavid is in the mix, Edmonton is holding on to all of them.

NHL: MAR 10 Oilers at Avalanche

So what would have happened if the lottery had played out according to the way the odds said it should? The Oilers would have picked at No. 3 (or maybe even No. 4, if another team besides Buffalo or Arizona had slid into that top spot). That likely would have meant a selection of Boston College defenseman Noah Hanifin, who was ranked third overall by most scouting services and would have filled a much more glaring need in Edmonton than Dylan Strome or Mitch Marner.

Hanifin may very well wind up becoming a great player, but his arrival at the NHL level won’t happen nearly as quickly as McDavid’s. And his impact will be a lot more subtle, even if everything goes well. So picking him wasn’t going to instantly change the organization’s fortunes. And that could have led to moving one of those top young talents or, if nothing else, more floundering with no obvious plan of action.

In other words, the simple arrival of McDavid means he’s already helping solidify Edmonton’s future before even playing a game. The club is keeping that core of 20-somethings in place — a group of gifted players that hasn’t enjoyed collective success just yet, but still features the sort of building blocks most teams would love to have. On top of that, Todd McLellan is now behind the bench. That’s an established leader with the sort of pedigree to pull this all together and bring some instant credibility.

Not to mention stability. In the six years since Craig MacTavish wrapped up his time as head coach, the Oilers have had six coaches (counting McLellan). Six. This will be the fifth NHL bench boss Hall has played for and, again, he’s 23. That simply does not work, especially with a bunch of talented youngsters trying to find their way at the game’s highest level together. Don’t believe me? OK, look at their record in that time: 156-242-60. Or, to put it another way, “horrible”.

So yes, the simple concept of stability that McLellan is likely to provide cannot be overlooked. Plus, Peter Chiarelli is now running the show. And while there’s always going to be criticism of the GM, he undeniably played a significant role in assembling the roster that brought a Stanley Cup to Boston in 2011. That experience can only be beneficial.

On top of that, the franchise is making moves that should help directly on the ice. They’ve trimmed away some of the fat from the roster — guys that simply weren’t getting the job done — and seem more intent on surrounding the main nucleus with a stronger supporting cast.

Cam Talbot should be a huge upgrade in net. Granted, he only has 53 career NHL starts to his name so, at age 28, he still has something to prove. But he’s been fantastic in those 53 starts, posting a 2.00 goals against average and .931 save percentage. If he comes anywhere near numbers like that with this group of scorers supporting him, that’s a dangerous mix.

Of course, he won’t have the same defense corps in front of him that he did in New York, and that’s still the biggest challenge facing this team. But that blue line figures to be better as a whole. Darnell Nurse shouldn’t be all that far away from making an impact at the NHL level, and Griffin Reinhart (another highly touted prospect, taken No. 4 overall by the Islanders in 2012) has joined the group as well. Not to mention, the free agent signing of a more established weapon in Andrej Sekera. Or the fact that Edmonton even still has a little wiggle room under the cap, if needed.

This isn’t to say the Oilers are an instant lock to make the playoffs. The Western Conference is always tough, and the Pacific Division, in particular, has greatly improved this summer. But at least they have a defined direction now, rather than simply bouncing from season to season while trying to figure out what keeps going wrong. And the talent level is suddenly greater than it’s been in a very long time.

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