It is mid-June 2020, and the NHL is preparing for the Stanley Cup Final between the Buffalo Sabres and Edmonton Oilers. The first overall pick in the 2015 draft, Connor McDavid, skates to center ice to face off with the second overall pick, Jack Eichel.
This, of course, is only a dream, but for many years in these two cities, this thought could not be fathomed. The Sabres and Oilers have been putrid for over a decade, as the two teams combined for three playoff appearances since the 2007-08 season. Times have been painful for the two hockey crazed cities, cursed with constant hopelessness.
Cue in the 2019-20 season, where the Sabres sit atop the league at 5-0-1, and the Oilers are right behind at 5-0-0. Despite the miniscule sample size, the fans of each franchise may be fantasizing over the possibility of playing games late in the spring.
Let’s try not to get ahead of ourselves here. Five or six games is nothing in the span of an 82-game marathon. But even the idea that either of these teams can play meaningful hockey beyond January has to make fans giddy.
For fanbases as desperate as these two, it is only fair for them to come alive with the slightest taste of success. Typically, June in these cities is filled with talk of the NHL draft, so the prospect of higher stakes is thrilling.
It is with these nearly perfect starts to the season that fans hope their everlasting rebuilds are finally over. For once, they can envision the years of accumulating top draft picks coming to fruition with a competitive on ice product.
Regardless of how much Edmonton struggled, they could always rely on knowing that they have one piece that no other team ever will: McDavid. The young superstar is the most talented player in the world, and will be for many years to come. Five games into this season, he is living up to his name, leading the league with 12 points. Right behind him is his wing man, Leon Draisaitl, who has contributed 11 points so far.
Looking around the league, it is hard to find a duo better than McDavid and Draisaitl, as they tear opponents to shreds when they take the ice. The league knew this going into the year, but thought that the rest of their lineup was too weak for it to matter much. The two stars could steal some games for the Oilers, but it would not be enough if the team wanted to make a mark.
James Neal has answered the bell on that count, rebounding from his dismal production with the Calgary Flames last year. Off to a blistering start, Neal leads the league with seven goals. Despite an injury to Adam Larsson, Darnell Nurse and Oscar Klefbom are showing that the Oilers’ defense can be better than expected as well.
While Edmonton has more top end talent, Buffalo may prove to be the deeper squad. The forward corps is flourishing with multiple young skaters like Jack Eichel, Victor Olofsson, Sam Reinhart and Jeff Skinner. Meanwhile, on the back end they remain strong with Rasmus Dahlin and Marco Scandella leading the charge. Not only do the Sabres stand in first place with 11 points, but they also command the best goal differential of +12.
The fans in Buffalo and Edmonton may have their excitement tempered by past disappointments, but the droughts must end eventually. At some point these teams need to break through.
A few games do not guarantee anything, but the results so far at least ignite belief that the wait could end. Known usually as irrelevant and laughable, these teams and their fans deserve their day. So for now, in mid October, we can pretend that the Stanley Cup, a mere eight months away, will feature the Sabres and Oilers in an epic catharsis over years of misery.
Thumbnail photo from the Associated Press.
Dylan Barrett is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. He tweets @dylan_barrett_.