Oilers’ ‘Cup or Bust’ Failure Means End of Connor McDavid-Leon Draisaitl Era

EDMONTON, CANADA - APRIL 22: Leon Draisaitl #29 and Connor McDavid #97 of the Edmonton Oilers strategize against the Los Angeles Kings during the second period in Game One of the First Round of the 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Rogers Place on April 22, 2024, in Edmonton, Canada.  (Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images)

Codie McLachlan/Getty Images

Rest easy, Oil Country. It’ll never happen again.

This is the last time the sun will rise above Edmonton on the morning after the city’s beloved NHL team—fueled by the helmeted version of Batman and Robin, aka Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl—has been eliminated from the playoffs.

The latest springtime disappointment was made official Monday night, when the Florida Panthers beat the Oilers, 2-1, in Game 7 of their first Stanley Cup Final appearance since 2006, which also ended in a seven-game loss to the Carolina Hurricanes.

It’s the sixth time the Dynamic Duo has fallen short of a parade limo’s jump seat, following first-round losses to Chicago and Winnipeg, previous second-rounders against Anaheim and Vegas, and a blissful albeit fruitless trip to the third round against Colorado that ended in a sweep two springs ago.

We can definitively say here, though, that there won’t be a seventh.

There’s no chance.

But probably not for a reason that’ll make the “City of (Long-Ago) Champions” smile.

Because rather than the suits in the corner offices finally quelling angst and delivering rings by addressing chronic issues with depth scoring, inconsistent defense and porous goaltending, it’s far more likely that the “Why can’t we win with 97 and 29?” question will be put out of its misery by one of the principals himself.

“Boy Wonder” won’t be there.

EDMONTON, ALBERTA - MAY 14: Leon Draisaitl #29 of the Edmonton Oilers celebrates with teammates after a goal during the first period against the Vancouver Canucks in Game Four of the Second Round of the 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Rogers Place on May 14, 2024 in Edmonton, Alberta.  (Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images)

Codie McLachlan/Getty Images

For those unaware, this playoff exit ended the penultimate season on an eight-year deal the prolific German, now 28, signed as a precocious 21-year-old.

And given the five 100-point and three 50-goal seasons Draisaitl’s produced since inking the extension—not to mention the scoring title and MVP he’s won—he’ll be looking for a gargantuan bump from the average $8.5 million salary he’s been bringing home since.

It’s not an unfair expectation.

Considering that of the six NHL players with more than 106 points in 2023-24, none had a smaller cap hit. And only one player league-wide, his crusading teammate in the blue-and-orange cape, has more points since the contract took effect in 2017.

Draisaitl is second, again to McDavid, in points per playoff game (1.80 to 1.53 through Game 6) over that same stretch, well ahead of Nathan MacKinnon (1.28) in third and even further ahead of Mikko Rantanen (1.25) and Nikita Kucherov (1.23) in fourth and fifth.

And his career playoff point total (108) is good for third overall since 2016-17, though it’s come in far fewer postseason games (73) than the one non-teammate ahead of him—Kucherov—who’s played 102, while Rantanen and MacKinnon have played 81 apiece.

The difference?

Those other three guys, with four Cups among them, averaged $12 million in 2023-24.

TAMPA, FL - JUNE 26: Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon (29) hoisting the Stanley Cup during the NHL Hockey Stanley Cup Finals Game six between Tampa Bay Lightning and the Colorado Avalanche on June 26th, 2022 at Amalie Arena in Tampa Florida (Photo by Andrew Bershaw /Icon_Sportswire)

Andrew Bershaw /Icon_Sportswire

So, to label Draisaitl—the sixth-highest-paid player in the series with the Panthers—as the best superstar bargain in sports is hardly hyperbolic.

It’s a fact.

It’s another fact, or a series of them, that’ll make it untenable for him to stay put.

Though the salary cap figures to swell at typical rates, there simply aren’t enough dollars to cover what Draisaitl would warrant even as a “hometown discount,” considering the Oilers are still smarting from the $9.25 million dents Darnell Nurse will leave through 2030 and the $5 million outlays to AHL starter Jack Campbell until June 2027.

Ten players of varying import are due for free agency to come this July alone, meaning any significant raise for Draisaitl would come at the expense of the factors that helped end the latest “Cup or bust” run. And that’s not even considering the stash of cash that’ll be needed to even entice McDavid to stick around when his deal’s done in 2026.

But let’s face it, there’s a great chance Draisaitl won’t want to stay anyway.

Though he and McDavid don’t publicly seem less than contented kittens and haven’t strayed far from the “we want to win here” company line, the same cannot be said of Draisaitl’s relationship with the rabid Edmonton media. He was famously branded “pissy” in a snit with Hall of Fame writer Jim Matheson two years ago and often presents as impatient and disinterested with his role as a team spokesman.

While writers in New York, Boston, Philly and elsewhere would pose a daily challenge with aggressive questioning, the combination of a change of scenery, a huge contract windfall and the chance to make a real run as a C-1 rather than 1-A still make a farewell press conference at Rogers Place seem more a cinch than a long shot.

That’s why it’ll feel more like rebranding than retooling for the Oilers next winter (or sooner) when they come to grips with his imminent exit and try to recoup pennies on the dollar in return, effectively ending the most maddening era in franchise history.

2000 Season: Ranger captain Mark Messier keeps a close watch on Wayne Gretzky.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images)

Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images

Though remembering legends Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier leaving town on one-sided exchanges remains difficult for those of a certain age, their jerseys were ultimately raised to the rafters alongside the five championship banners they helped procure.

In the case of Draisaitl and McDavid, while the stats are equally heady and the Hall of Fame plaques guaranteed, the long-term sentiments will be far less satisfying.

Bamboozling by the likes of Darcy Kuemper and Adin Hill to enable skilled but less dynamic Nazem Kadri and Mark Stone types a jewelry fitting was difficult enough. But knowing there’s an excellent chance a preeminent pairing like 97 and 29 will never find its way to northern Alberta again makes this Last Dance reboot far more angsty.

Evan Rodrigues. Sasha Barkov. Thanks, Oilers fans. Drive home safely.

Meanwhile, the best one-two punch in hockey—certainly lately and maybe ever—shakes hands, offers cliches and makes plans for a midweek locker-cleaning.

No Cup.

Just busted.

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