If you’re lucky enough to have never known true despair and yet wish to understand, even only to show empathy, look into the eyes of Connor McDavid. Look deep, and see true hopelessness, the fear that the world will never truly understand what you are through no fault of your own, the knowledge your best years will be spent in a freezer-burned land, that your generational and galactic talent and might will never be more than a furious raging at the dying of the light. That is Connor McDavid.
McDavid scored five goals and had nine points over four games in the Edmonton Oilers qualifying round series. While on the ice at even strength, the Oilers had 55 percent of the shot attempts and 65 percent of the expected goals, simply gargantuan shares. Quite plainly, McDavid was a tsunami during the series, with no one able to even slow his momentum, much less stop him.
And the Oilers lost to the 12th-seeded Blackhawks in four games because, other than Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the rest of McDavid’s teammates show up to the arena with bindles in hand. They lost to a team with the slowest defense in the league. They lost to a team with unquestionably the most airheaded coach in the league. They lost to a team whose goalie had four practices before the series due to recovering from COVID-19. This was as much of a hanging curveball as the Oilers could get. Not only did they whiff and spin themselves into the ground, they somehow managed to hit themselves in the gonads on the follow-through.
The greatest player of the generation, who should be lighting up websites and phones with highlights every night and stories of his playoff heroics being etched into annals of hockey history, will once again be sitting at home when the meaningful baubles are handed out. This was McDavid’s fifth season. The Oilers have won one playoff series in that time. And it doesn’t look to be getting better anytime soon. Even if the Oilers were to be the team to roll 7s and receive yet another #1 draft pick, it is likely Alex Lafreniere would somehow turn into a toad on the plane to Edmonton or simply run away screaming at the news and join a monastery.
Beyond the trio of McDavid, Draisaitl, and Nugent-Hopkins, the Oilers are simply an aircraft boneyard. At least six forwards who skated against the Hawks are AHL-level players. This is the fifth season they’ve counted on Zack Kassian to not be the brainless ogre from every children’s story ever written, and then act shocked when he turns out to be just as witless as he was the last time. James Neal will be pulling down nearly $6 million for the next three seasons to stand still and shoot. Only Kailer Yamamoto is under 25 and showing any promise of being more than a fantasy-camp escapee in the future.
That would be enough of a problem, but the defense is in even worse shape. Darnell Nurse once flashed the skills and ability to be a Norris Trophy candidate down the line. He spent the entire series being irretrievably stupid, wondrously out of position, or somehow both, which is no way to go through life. Kris Russell blocked a lot of shots because he spent 80 percent of the series on his ass. Even Ethan Bear, who had a more than an acceptable rookie season, ended up deflecting the puck into his own net for the series-turning and killer winning goal late in Game 3. Donning the Oilers colors turns everyone and everything into something that has to be forcefully flushed out of your ear.
And still, all of that would have been (and should have been) more than enough to beat the Hawks and give McDavid another puncher’s chance at making noise in the playoffs, if they hadn’t been rolling out scenery as goalies. Mike Smith has been a con man for years now, rang up a paltry .902 SV% during the season, and hilariously threw away Game 1 against the Hawks when he couldn’t figure out which way to face. Mikko Koskinen, who perhaps was giving away the game when he chose to wear #19 for a goalie, is simply “a guy.” The Oilers were crying out for one big save, and they never got one. They never did, they never do, they probably never will. The Oilers had a goalie once, a few years ago. It was Cam Talbot. He authored their one playoff appearance in the past 15 years. They then ran him into the ground like a dog with a chew toy until all that was left was the plastic bit that makes the squeaking noise (140 starts over two years). They haven’t found another one.
If the hope is that Ken Holland will be the architect of a new and improved Edmonton machine, they might as well move the team to Portland now and give their fans the sweet release of no longer having to endure. Holland has proved himself to be a thrashing clod ever since they put limits on how deeply he could dive into Mike Illitch’s wallet. Or has no one seen the mangled heap the Red Wings are now?
In a world that was just, it wouldn’t be McDavid that engineers a trade out of Edmonton tomorrow, it would be Gary Bettman. This is the best player to come along in a decade or more, and he’s trapped in the unlit attic of the NHL. He needs to be somewhere where people can see him and show them what the sport is capable of. But that’s not the hockey way, and McDavid will be the faithful employee, showing up dutifully every season to watch his career circle the frozen Northern Alberta drain, with the only hope being that hockey HOCKEYS more than it ever has to put the Oilers on the other side of the coin, for once, for no reason.
But every so often, you’ll see it in his eyes, as you did during Game 4. You’ll see that he knows there is no escape, there is no hope. There can be no joy as he watches Kassian run face-first into the end-boards for the 734th time each season, or seeing Kris Russell defend at the blue line like Johnny Henshaw from Airplane! without any of the whimsy or comedy.
It is a curse to know your fate.