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Is this the last stand for Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and the Oilers?



The Athletic

EDMONTON — Leon Draisaitl tugged at his full playoff beard as he waited for the first question.

Wearing a team-issued hoodie, the Edmonton Oilers superstar stood in front of a video board at the base of the dressing room moments after yet another elimination loss, this time to the eventual champion Vegas Golden Knights. This one felt different than the previous knockout blows.

Over the next two minutes and 40 seconds, Draisaitl tried to make sense of what had just happened all while holding back tears.

“It hurts,” he said. “It’s tough to find the words right now.”

It wasn’t just that the Oilers lost. It was how they lost.

The series was tied and the Oilers were up by a goal past the midway point of the second period of Game 5 in Las Vegas. The Golden Knights got a two-man advantage thanks to a careless high-sticking penalty and scored a pair of power-play goals. They quickly added another one — scoring three times in a 1:29 span.

Game 6, the elimination game, was eerily similar. In fact, the Oilers had a lead in every game of the series, yet won just twice. They didn’t feel like they were beaten by a superior opponent. They felt like they beat themselves.

That’s why Draisaitl said it felt like a “failure or a wasted season almost.”

“I don’t think anyone in here wants to feel like that again,” he said.

His running mate for nine years, captain Connor McDavid, also chimed in, saying you sometimes “have to go through some of this to win.”

And then he added: “Let’s hope it’s the last time.”

Edmonton, after rebounding from a horrific start to this season, is again poised to be one of the favorites in the Western Conference to advance to the Stanley Cup Final. That’s ideal considering its two superstar players had previously called it a “Cup or bust” season.

The “bust” part of that is what has Oilers fans on edge.

Draisaitl, winner of the Hart and Art Ross trophies and the Ted Lindsay Award in 2020 and one of the greatest goal scorers of this era, will be entering the final year of his contract. He’s eligible for an extension on July 1, but, if those talks falter, in the NHL that tends to mean a trade for something now rather than risk losing a player for nothing. Such a trade would break up one of the best one-two punches in NHL history and would significantly alter the Oilers’ roster.

The second part of that grand proclamation is McDavid, the best player of his generation and already a lock to be an inner-circle Hockey Hall of Famer. He has two years left on his contract. If Draisaitl were to leave, would McDavid be far behind?

That is why this year’s playoff appearance is seen as massive for one of the league’s most storied franchises, but a franchise that hasn’t sipped from the exalted Cup since 1990.

“We’re right in the window,” says winger Zach Hyman, “so we have to take advantage.”

Earlier in the season, that window appeared to be closing. The Oilers had lost to the lowly San Jose Sharks in early November, dropping their record to 2-9-1, tied with the Sharks for last place in the NHL. With the players reeling, that result was the tipping point for a coaching change. A victory over the Kraken two nights later was immaterial.

The Oilers’ loss to San Jose in November was the low point of their season. (Kavin Mistry / NHLI via Getty Images)

While GM Ken Holland was with the team in Seattle, hockey operations CEO Jeff Jackson was working the phones from Toronto. Just three months into his job after serving as McDavid’s agent, Jackson was spearheading a dramatic move. He sought and received permission from the New York Rangers to hire their American Hockey League coach Kris Knoblauch. Jackson had a long-standing relationship with Knoblauch dating back to the Erie of the Ontario Hockey League. That’s where Knoblauch coached several of his clients — namely McDavid and Connor Brown.

Jay Woodcroft was fired despite accumulating a .643 points percentage, the best of any bench boss in franchise history — albeit over just 133 games. His right-hand man, assistant coach Dave Manson, was also out.

And from the news conference in Edmonton introducing Knoblauch through to the next morning’s player media availabilities, there were more eyebrow-raising moments.

Jackson pressed Oilers legend Paul Coffey — the person who recommended Jackson be hired in the first place — to take on Manson’s duties running the defense. Though Coffey had never coached in the pros, he had relationships with some blueliners from his past role in player development — in particular, Darnell Nurse and Evan Bouchard — and was routinely around the team as an adviser to owner Daryl Katz. However, Jackson really had to convince Coffey, who stressed that being an assistant coach wasn’t his preference.

The next day, before a home game against the New York Islanders, the players had their turn to speak. McDavid tried to debunk narratives that he was the one calling the shots. He called Woodcroft a top-five coach after the first round of the playoffs just months earlier.

“It’s someone we all thought highly of,” McDavid says now.

Draisaitl, with a hoodie pulled over his head, sounded annoyed by what had transpired and gave a full-throated endorsement of Woodcroft.

Looking back on those days, Draisaitl talked about the bad vibes. “There’s a lot of negative talk and negativity in general,” he says. “It was maybe a little blown out of proportion, but obviously not a good start by any means.”

His teammate, blueliner Mattias Ekholm, says the decision to change coaches was a bit of a surprise. “We did so well the year before,” he says. “It was pretty quick, and they were out. But this is a business of winning. When you don’t do that, the consequences are going to follow.”

The Oilers’ start was shocking not only because they entered the season as perhaps the Stanley Cup favorites. It was also because McDavid and Draisaitl raised the bar all summer.

It started with McDavid addressing the team in a closed-door meeting after the playoff loss to Vegas. This is our window to win. We have a great team. We’ve got to take hold of it.

Draisaitl got a house near McDavid’s offseason home in Aurora, Ont. That allowed him to train alongside McDavid and the Oilers’ large southern Ontario crew, which includes Hyman, Nurse and Bouchard.

Even fun times had a spirit of competition. McDavid invited his teammates to his cottage for a weekend and, as they looked out at an island over the lake, the debate picked up. The question: How long would it take to swim there?

“We had a bet that it would probably take 30 minutes to do it,” winger Warren Foegele says. “Two weeks later, we get a video and it’s Connor swimming to the island. He does it in like 10 minutes.

“Just seeing that work ethic and that drive, if he’s doing that, there’s no reason why we can’t work hard in the offseason.”

McDavid called everyone back to Edmonton more than a week earlier than usual for pre-training camp captain’s skates so the Oilers could get a head-start on the season.

But Ekholm, arguably their top defenseman, and Ryan McLeod, their third-line center, sustained injuries in those informal practices and missed all the exhibition games. Ekholm sat out the season opener, too, an 8-1 drubbing in Vancouver. Both players took a while to get up to speed.

McDavid missed two games early, and he and Draisaitl got off to slow starts offensively.

As the team struggled, Woodcroft was in the early stages of implementing more of a zone defense to mimic the reigning Presidents’ Trophy-winning Boston Bruins, who allowed the fewest goals in the league. There were plenty of kinks in their end, and the Oilers also were miserable at defending off the rush.

They couldn’t score; they had the second-worst shooting percentage at five-on-five. They didn’t get enough stops; they had the worst save percentage — which led to high-priced goalie Jack Campbell being waived and demoted.

The first day at the rink for Calvin Pickard, Campbell’s stand-in, was the morning skate of that San Jose loss.

“It sounds weird, but I think it was a good thing we lost that game,” Ekholm says. “Sometimes you need to hit rock bottom before you can get back up.”

And while there were plenty of tangible reasons for the slow start, there might have been a lingering mental hurdle to clear, too.

“From the start of the year, you’re thinking about that loss from the playoffs again,” says Hyman, who signed with the Oilers in 2021 in large part to play with McDavid and Draisaitl. “You’re thinking that you’re already going to be there. In reality, it’s a new season and you’ve got to flush the past.”

“It was looking pretty bleak,” McDavid says. “But this group was resilient. We stick together. I’m not going to say it was never in doubt, but we knew that we have the group to do it and that belief was there.”

Oddly enough, one video clip at the end of another lopsided loss might define the Oilers’ turnaround.

They were down 5-1 with just over five minutes to play in the second period of a loss, their third in a row, to the Hurricanes in Raleigh, N.C. McDavid and Draisaitl sat next to each other on the Oilers bench, both looking miserable. McDavid shook his head in frustration. That’s when Draisaitl gave him a supportive tap on the arm and McDavid returned the gesture.

From the moment of those subtle motions, the Oilers have been a different team.

They scored the next two goals to make a game of it before losing 6-3. From there, though, the talk in the room turned.

“It took us time to say, ‘Hey, we better grab this — this is a new year — and we need to start playing the way we need to play,’” Hyman says.

The day after American Thanksgiving, the Oilers had a game in Washington. Knoblauch, an analytically minded coach, wanted to provide a different perspective. He broke down the remainder of the season into eight-game blocks and, upon crunching the numbers, felt the Oilers would need to win five out of every eight games to make the playoffs.

“That benefitted us a lot,” says Foegele, who also played for Knoblauch in OHL Erie. “When you break it down into a small picture the way Knobber did there with small segments, it gave this group belief. We just went on a roll.”

The Oilers destroyed the Capitals 5-0 in what was easily their best performance to that point. “There was a sense in the room that things were going to be OK,” McDavid says.

Oilers center Mattias Janmark hands the puck to goalie Stuart Skinner after their 5-0 win in Washington. (Geoff Burke / USA Today Sports)

It was the first of eight straight wins. After another three-game losing streak, the Oilers won their final two contests before the Christmas break and then kept that going by upping their victory streak to 16 — one shy of an NHL record — heading into the All-Star break.

That 24-3 stretch saved their season.

“Pucks were going in. We were getting saves. We were collectively playing better as a group,” Foegele says.

Knoblauch put a greater emphasis on rush defending after he came aboard. He also tweaked the penalty kill, giving the responsibility to Mark Stuart — a former NHL blueliner and a holdover from Woodcroft’s staff. The Oilers began limiting the number of forwards that got short-handed time and put them in regular pairings. Coffey encouraged the defensemen to work on their breakout passes.

“When you get a new coach — I’ve had a few now — you go back to your roots and your details,” Ekholm says.

It’s impossible to know if the Oilers would be where they are today, just coming up short of their first division title since 1987, with Woodcroft and Manson still behind the bench. They have by far the best points percentage in the NHL since American Thanksgiving.

“Knobber’s come in and just been a calming presence,” McDavid says. “He settled the waters. He’s calm behind the bench. He’s brought that sense of confidence.”

It didn’t hurt that McDavid and Draisaitl got back on track. An incredible scoring run after the coaching change got McDavid back in the conversation for a fourth straight scoring title and sixth of his career before a late minor injury prevented that from happening. He became the fourth player in NHL history to record 100 assists in a season. Draisaitl surpassed the 40-goal, 100-point thresholds yet again.

“It was a hard move at the time,” says Hyman, who surpassed the 50-goal mark for the first time. “But, in hindsight, the way the season has gone with Kris’ success, it was the right move.”

With all his teammates gone after a late-season practice, Foegele sits in his stall in the vacant Oilers dressing room. He glances at all the nameplates of the star offensive players and smiles.

“I feel this is the best team I’ve been on,” he says, scanning the room. “There’s a lot of leadership, a lot of games played.”

Then Foegele’s eyes fixate on Draisaitl’s stall.

Foegele had the best offensive output of his career, hitting the 20-goal mark in a contract year, while playing nearly 40 percent of his five-on-five minutes next to Draisaitl. He credits Draisaitl for teaching him how to be more patient and look for the optimal play in the offensive zone. But he knows Draisaitl’s contractual status is the elephant in the room.

“You’d be silly not to be aware of that. He’s a big piece of this team,” Foegele says. “He’s a three-time 50-goal scorer, a five-time 100-point getter. Everyone talks about Connor and then you talk about (Auston) Matthews. But probably Leon’s name should be up there a lot.

“He wants to win. He cares. I don’t think you’d be able to find anyone like him. You want to win with one of the best players in the league.”

Holland, the GM, is in the final year of his contract — something Jackson wouldn’t address for this story. Holland would say only that he, Jackson and Katz will sit down to discuss his status after the season. But with due respect to the Hall of Fame manager, Draisaitl’s future is the most pressing issue facing the franchise.

Jackson told The Athletic in January the Oilers plan on offering Draisaitl a contract extension in July, the earliest time that can happen.

How will the playoffs impact Draisaitl’s decision to sign?

“It doesn’t really,” he says. “I’m not in a mindset right now where I think about those things.”

Until he puts pen to paper, this version of the Oilers as we know it — the one with Draisaitl and McDavid leading the way — is in limbo.

“They’re one of the best one-two punches the NHL has ever seen,” Jackson says. “I can see them wanting to continue that goal of trying to win Cups together. I’m not up at night worrying about it. We’ll deal with it when we have to deal with it.”

Over 28 playoff games in 2022 and 2023, McDavid and Draisaitl have posted 53 and 50 points, respectively. But they don’t have a championship, or even a Stanley Cup Final appearance to show for it.

Of course, those in the Oilers’ room feel a heightened sense of urgency.

“We like our group. There’s no doubt about it,” McDavid says. “That’s all there is really to say.”

Aside from Bouchard and goalie Stuart Skinner, McDavid is the youngest part of the core. He’s 27. Draisaitl is 28. Nurse is 29. Hyman and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins are 31. Evander Kane is 32. Ekholm is 33.

No wonder McDavid and Draisaitl went with “Cup or bust” right after the Vegas loss.

“It is the time (to win). I don’t know if I’m sticking with that slogan,” Draisaitl says. “There’s 15 other teams that are going to make our life hell — and we’re going to try to do the same thing. It’s a little easier said than done.

“But it’s definitely our window. We’re also aware of how much work it’s going to take.”

All that means is the Oilers can’t afford to let opportunities slip away.

“Everybody’s in their prime or, if not, really close to it,” Ekholm says. “We know the situation we’re in. We know what kind of personnel we have in here. Everybody’s been around. We’re not waiting for anything.”

(Illustration: Eamonn Dalton / The Athletic. Photos: Bill Wippert / NHLI via Getty; Steph Chambers / Getty)