Progress, yes, but an inability to defend a lead against a playoff-savvy team ousted the Edmonton Oilers early from Stanley Cup contention.
General manager Ken Holland pointed to statistical categories in which the Oilers improved in his first season at the helm in 2019-20.
But the GM was “massively disappointed” to fall to the Chicago Blackhawks in four games in a best-of-five qualifier.
“We know that we’ve got a lot further that we want to go, that we need to go in order to be a team that can really compete for the Stanley Cup,” Holland said Tuesday on a video conference call with media.
Fifth in the Western Conference at 37-25-9 when the NHL halted the season March 12 because of the advancing COVID-19 pandemic, the Oilers were poised to make postseason strides after two years of playoff-free hockey.
The Blackhawks (32-30-8) arrived in Edmonton the NHL’s 23rd seed out of 24.
Chicago has enough Stanley Cup winners – a half-dozen own at least two rings if not three – to rise to the occasion, however.
Edmonton led by a goal every game against Chicago, but often couldn’t hold it. The hub-city hosts struck first in Game 1 before giving up four goals to the Blackhawks.
Up 3-2 early in the third period of Game 3, the Oilers allowed two late goals in a loss. Tied 2-2 heading into the third in Game 4, Chicago produced the series winner to close it out Friday.
“I thought in Game 1 we weren’t ready to play,” Holland said. “I thought that was a veteran team in the other locker room and they were up 4-1 10 minutes into the game.
“They knew the playoff series started when the puck dropped. It looked to me like we were going to try to wait into the series.
“Every game we had a one-goal lead, but when we got those leads, we didn’t hang on to them for any longer than three, four, five minutes.”
Edmonton got the necessary production out of its stars.
Captain Connor McDavid led all scorers in the NHL’s restart with five goals and four assists, including a hat trick in a Game 2 win.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Leon Draisaitl combined for 14 points between them. But Edmonton allowed an average of four goals against in the series.
“You’ve got to be able to defend. You can’t just outscore your opponents,” Holland said.
“I don’t think that’s totally a reflection on the defencemen. I think it’s a reflection of the commitment of the entire team to keeping the puck out of the nets.”
The Oilers climbed from 25th in the NHL in 2019 to 12th this year due in large part to improved special teams.
Edmonton boasted the league’s No. 1 power play and No. 2 penalty kill units.
Winner of four Stanley Cups with the Detroit Red Wings – three as GM – Holland says the Oilers must make the playoffs more consistently.
“We can’t fall back,” he said. “The good teams find a way to play their way into the playoffs every year.
“With multiple opportunities, somewhere along the line, you start to piece it all together. That’s what happened in Detroit. If we go out next year and go backwards, the progress is all for naught.”
The GM gave head coach Dave Tippett a stamp of approval in the latter’s first season behind the Oilers bench.
“I think he was a big piece of the progress,” Holland said. “He keeps everybody feeling they’ve got stock in the company and that’s really important as a head coach.”
Defenceman Adam Larsson sat out the third and fourth games of the series because he injured his back in practice. Forward Tyler Ennis fractured his leg in Game 3 and didn’t play the fourth.
Goaltender Mike Smith is an unrestricted free agent as are defenceman Mike Green, who opted out of the NHL’s restart, trade-deadline pickup Ennis and forwards Riley Sheahan and Russell Patrick.
Utility forward and trade-deadline acquisition Andreas Athanasiou and defenders Matthew Benning and Ethan Bear are restricted free agents.
“We’re salary-cap challenged, but there’s probably 20 like us,” Holland said. “Trades are going to have to be similar money for similar money if there is a trade.
“With the cap being flat and it looks like it’s going to be flat for the next two, three years, certainly, lots of teams are going to be looking for cheaper support players.”