Can any team beat the Edmonton Oilers for Stanley Cup 2024? I can think of only one

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There are many fine teams in the National Hockey League this season, many teams stacked with star players and a solid supporting cast.

But can any of them beat the Edmonton Oilers when it comes to winning the 2024 Stanley Cup? I can think of only one.

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That’s a bold statement, I know, given the impressive quality of teams like the Dallas Stars, Colorado Avalanche, Vancouver Canucks, Winnipeg Jets and Vegas Golden Knights, to mention only the leading contenders in Edmonton’s own conference.

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But I hold to my prediction given both the excellence of Edmonton’s play under coach Kris Knoblauch, the growth of the Oilers team from the start of the season to the end, and the overall quality of Oilers squad.

NHL knoblauch

Since Knoblauch took over in mid-November, Edmonton has been the best team in the NHL with 45 wins in 64 games for a .734 points percentage. Next best is Carolina with a .695 points percentage, then Winnipeg, Colorado and Dallas, all .667.

When it comes to goals differential in that same lengthy stretch, Edmonton is +77, Carolina +63, Colorado +55, and Dallas and Winnipeg  +48.

Under Jay Woodcroft the Oilers were also a mighty powerful squad, but Knoblauch has the team playing better than ever before. The Oilers are getting off more Grade A shots, 16.1 per game, than they did under Woodcroft and they’re giving up fewer Grade A shots, 11.9 per game.

Knoblauch

The numbers bark like a loud dog about Edmonton’s two-way prowess but what has me just as bullish about this particular Oilers’ squad are its stretches and instances disciplined defensive play and also some newfound discipline in the offensive zone, not to mention the intangible quality of its leadership group finally demanding and getting the best out of itself and the squad’s foot soldiers.

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In December and January, the Oilers showed a controlled, defensive game that they’d never before consistently attained during the McDavid era.

They cracked down hard on cross-ice passes.

They boxed out diligently in front of the net.

They looked for and covered the danger man coming late into the slot to score.

They made fewer bad pinches in the neutral zone. All this enabled Stuart Skinner to have his most successful run of game as an Oiler, a 22 game run where he had 19 wins and just three losses, with a .934 save percentage.

That is the level of play that can win you a Stanley Cup.

More recently, against Vegas this week, Edmonton showed the kind of smart passing game needed to break down a zone defence and score goals at even strength. The Vegas zone had gotten the best of Edmonton in the 2023 playoffs, but Edmonton’s now displayed the attitude and tactics to get the best of it.

As for leadership, this has most starkly been seen with a few public incidents, most recently veteran newcomer Corey Perry calling out Evander Kane, presumably for some impatient play in the offensive zone where Kane had turned over the puck making a hope pass into the slot instead of making the smart play by putting it back behind the net and keeping the cycle alive.

This led Sportsnet commentator Elliotte Friedman to engage in some speculation that the Oilers leadership group had enlisted Perry to help bring out the best in Kane, who at his best is one of the most fearsome forces in the NHL.

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Said Friedman this week on his 32 Thoughts podcast, “My theory is that the Oilers know if they’re going to be successful in the playoffs, they need Evander Kane. They need him. And they don’t just need him to be moderately engaged. They need big pain-in-the-ass Evander Kane. They need Top 4 checker in the league Evander Kane. And I think they’ve just decided that they are going to ride him until he gets there. It’s going to be tough love. And it’s not going to be the coach who’s going to do it, it’s going to be the players who are going to do it. And they are saying, ‘If we want to win the Stanley Cup this year, we need a great Evander Kane and we are taking the responsibility of making sure he gets there.’ Because one thing about [fellow Kevin Bieksa] he said is that Perry doesn’t do that a lot. So my theory — and I got a lot of theories — but my theory is McDavid and Draisaitl have gone to Perry and said, ‘We need your help with this because you, in addition to us, you also have the gravitas as a veteran player to go to him.’”

When the Oilers Nation blog posted on Friedman’s theory earlier this week, there was a huge amount of criticism and pushback from Oilers fans who felt the website was making something out of nothing.

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But I can’t imagine that Friedman’s theory isn’t accurate. Of course McDavid, Draisaitl and the Oilers leadership group is pushing hard on Kane. Without any doubt whatsoever, they are on Kane and on every other Oilers player, including themselves, to play winning hockey.

As long-time Oilers trainer Barrie Stafford has said, the job of the team captain and his assistants is to enforce the will of the coach, to crack down on any players who aren’t fully living up to expectations.

The captain and his henchmen, Stafford called this leadership group.

As he described it, a winning team will always have a strong group of leaders at the top. For instance, one of the game’s many unwritten rules is a player will never turn around on the bench and question the coach: “You never talk back to the coach under any circumstances on the bench or do it in public or in front of your teammates. Never,” Stafford said.

“You don’t talk back. It’s disrespectful. Your job isn’t to question the coach, your job is to be a hockey player. If you got an issue with that, you go see him behind closed doors. It’s a serious faux pas. If it ever does happen, especially in front of the captain, or any of the captain and his henchmen, the circle of influence in that wolf pack, they would be all over it. They’d be in that guy’s face now. ‘Don’t you ever *%#@!& talk to the coach like that!’ ”

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By the way, if you doubt Stafford’s qualification to talk about what makes a winning team in hockey, in his 30-odd years in the game he was on staff and behind the scenes with 15 winning squads: five Stanley Cups (1984, 1985, 1987, 1988, 1990), three Canada Cups (1984, 1987, 1991), the 2004 World Cup, the 2002 Olympics and the 1994 world championships. As a player in the late 1970s, Stafford also won one minor pro championship with the Amarillo Wranglers and three Canadian university championships with the University of Alberta Golden Bears.

McDavid, Draisaitl, Ryan Bugent-Hopkins, Darnell Nurse and other veterans like Perry and Mattias Ekholm are the captain and the henchmen on this Oilers squad.

There’s a seriousness and fierceness around this team that we haven’t seen before. You can see it in their stretches of outstanding defensive play. You can see it, I’ll suggest, in their on-ice demeanour and hear it in their post-game comments. They are tired of coming up short in the Stanley Cup playoffs, determined to do all they can to avoid losing out in 2024, and willing to hammer on toes to get there.

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That brings me to the one team that can beat this Oilers squad. There is only one.

The Oilers have all the ingredients to win. They know how to do it. They know how to defend and to hit, to attack with patience and check with discipline. If they don’t win the Stanley Cup, they’ll have only themselves to blame.

No other team can beat them.

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology in Calgary on Wednesday, March 13, 2024. Gavin Young/Postmedia

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