Leon Draisaitl is convinced the Edmonton Oilers can battle for their division's top rung again and last longer in the playoffs.
The NHL's top scorer and MVP in 2019-20 points to Edmonton's 37-25-9 record — good for second in the Pacific Division, three points behind Vegas — in a regular season shortened by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Draisaitl prefers that version of the Oilers to the one exiting the post-season early in its own arena in August.
"I think we're looking at a team that showed it pretty much all season we were playing for a division title," the German centre said.
"That's a team we want to be and that's a team I think we will be. The playoffs didn't go the way we'd hoped or we weren't as prepared as we should have been as a team."
Edmonton, the Western Conference's No. 5 seed, was jettisoned by the No. 12 Chicago Blackhawks in four games in a best-of-five qualifying series at Rogers Place.
Led by premier forwards Draisaitl and captain Connor McDavid, as well as off-season depth additions up front, goal scoring shouldn't be a problem for the Oilers this season as they take on the six other Canadian franchises in the one-time-only North Division.
The Oilers' play without the puck is the issue. Their goals-against five-on-five ranked 26th in the league last season.
"I don't think we have a problem scoring goals," McDavid said. "It's keeping the puck out of our own net."
The Oilers have finished outside the post-season 12 of the last 14 years. A second-round appearance in 2017 and last summer's qualifying round is the extent of their playoff success in that span.
Draisaitl, 25, and McDavid, 23, are entering the prime of their careers.
For the hockey world to get an extended look at them in the NHL playoffs, more is required from the Oilers' supporting cast.
"This is my sixth season here and we haven't done a whole lot of winning," Oilers forward Zack Kassian observed.
"We've had some success. We've had some bright spots, we've had some good stretches, but at the end of the day we've had some failure and some upsetting moments.
"I feel like we made a lot of good strides before the pandemic hit. We just have to get back on that horse and continue to get better."
The No. 4 pick in the 2016 NHL entry draft rejoins the Oilers after a season and a half with Finland's Karpat. More comfort with the English language and assurances from Oilers head coach Dave Tippett and general manager Ken Holland he can play a larger role convinced the six-foot-four, 201-pound Puljujärvi to give Edmonton another try.
The shoulder injury sidelining big-minute defenceman Oscar Klefbom for the season is a major loss to the back end and the power play. Early indications are Barrie, signed in October, will take over quarterbacking the top power-play unit. That's significant because Edmonton boasted the NHL's No. 1 power play last season with a 29.5 per cent success rate. Barrie, a right-handed shot, has more of a shooting mentality than the lefty Klefbom, according to Tippett.
Until one asserts himself as a starter, or is injured, Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen will continue splitting duties in the Oilers' net. Edmonton re-signed the 38-year-old Smith to a one-year contract in the off-season.
"A little more consistency from them would probably would be a good thing, but more consistency with how we play in front of them will be a bigger factor," Tippett said. "With the schedule the way it is, you're going to need two guys."
Veteran centre Kyle Turris, left-winger Dominik Kahun and defencemen Slater Koekkoek join new arrivals Barrie and Puljujärvi. Departures include centres Riley Sheahan (Buffalo) and Andreas Athanasiou (Los Angeles) and defenceman Matt Benning (Nashville).
It's all about the Battle of Alberta given its recent rise in temperature. The rivalry renews Feb. 6 when the Calgary Flames host the Oilers in the first of 10 regular-season meetings. The Oilers open with back-to-back home games Wednesday and Thursday against the Vancouver Canucks.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 12, 2021.
Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press