Let’s be honest, the once hyped Battle of Alberta hasn’t been much of a battle at all for the better part of a decade.
That will change this season.
While the Oilers have missed the playoffs for 10 straight seasons and the Flames missed the dance in six of the past seven years, both once-proud franchises are on the rise. Finally!
That is not only good news for the faithful (and sometimes tortured) hockey fans of Alberta, but also for the NHL which benefits greatly financially when the Canadian-based teams are healthy.
It is not a given that both teams will make a serious run for the playoff in 2016-17, but if they do, it will not come as a complete surprise either. After making the playoffs in 2014-15, the Flames took a step backward last season (20 fewer points) and that led to coach Bob Hartley – the NHL’s coach of the year in 2014-15 – being replaced by former Dallas Stars coach Glen Gulutzan.
The addition of Gulutzan is just one significant change the Flames made in the off-season in an effort to get back to being an NHL force. The Flames gutted the goal crease replacing Kari Ramo, Joni Ortio and Jonas Hiller with Brian Elliott from the St. Louis Blues and Chad Johnson from the Buffalo Sabres. Calgary also added veteran right winger Troy Brouwer, 31, who is coming off an 18-goal, 39-point season with the Blues and it is hoped he’ll add to a leadership group headed up by capable captain Mark Giordano.
The Flames have two of the best young players in the NHL in Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, and a rising star in GM Brad Treliving. All in all, despite last season’s dip in the standings, the Flames appear to be prepped to move forward in a major way.
The same goes for the Oilers, although their fans can be forgiven for taking a we’ll-believe-it-when-we-see-it attitude.
For starters, the Oilers have Connor McDavid – a generational talent who proved beyond a shadow of a doubt in his rookie season that despite still being in his teens, he is capable of leading an NHL team. Despite suffering a shoulder injury that limited him to 45 games, McDavid still managed to score 16 goals and 48 points. His 1.07 points per game ranked third best in the league.
The Oilers, to absolutely nobody’s surprise, made McDavid, 19, captain on Oct. 5.
McDavid singlehandedly gives Edmonton a boost, but his supporting cast will be equally important in the quest to get the Oilers back to the postseason for the first time since the Chris Pronger-led Oilers made it to the Stanley Cup final in 2005-06.
Since then the Oilers have been a source of frustration for their fans, often finishing dead last and despite having the No. 1 pick in the NHL draft three years in a row. They showed no imagination at the draft, instead simply going for the top-rated player even if it meant drafting the type of player the organization already possessed and it hasn’t helped matters than Nail Yakupov, chosen first overall in 2012, has been a bust.
No doubt about it the Oilers had plenty of skill up front, but they did not have the types of foot soldiers among the bottom six forwards successful teams require. Also, their goaltending was weak and the defense more D-lite than delight.
Former GM Craig MacTavish promised to aggressively work to change the culture of the team through trades, but his words turned out to be empty and he was out after two years, replaced by Peter Chiarelli.
It remains to be seen if Cam Talbot is indeed a capable starting goalie, but Chiarelli addressed his team’s need for skill and depth on the blueline by acquiring Adam Larsson from the New Jersey Devils for Edmonton’s top scorer, Taylor Hall.
The team also had two other key additions in veteran left winger Milan Lucic, a physical presence who will not only offer protection and room for McDavid, as well as right winger Jesse Puljujarvi who was chosen with the No. 4 pick in the draft. The Oilers now have a nice balance of skill and size.
Nobody is suggesting the Flames and Oilers are well on their way to being Stanley Cup contenders in the immediate future. There is still plenty of work to be done. However, when the two teams go head-to-head this season (they meet four times including the first two games of the season) it will once again be the Battle of Alberta and not just in name only.