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The bar has been raised

For the Oilers, 2016-17 raised their expectations moving forward into next season and beyond

by Chris Wescott / Head Writer

Video: OILERS TODAY | Season Wrap

There is no question the bar has been raised in Edmonton.

When Todd McLellan first took over as head coach of the Oilers, his favourite analogy for the team involved playing cards.

His goal was to teach his players to not fold their hand too quickly.

How much further could the Oilers push it against the better teams? How long could they hold on? It was a journey to build mental strength in a club that for some time had been spinning their wheels with little reward.

Hold your hands a little longer, build the mental strength to play against the best and then grow from there.

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Just look how far the Oilers have come from that. No longer is that the goal of the players in the room. They now have their eyes set on loftier accomplishments.

"We're not expecting to sneak into the playoffs," said forward Mark Letestu. "We're going after division titles and the Stanley Cup is the goal here. It's no longer the hope, it's the goal."

The team no longer folds their hand. In fact, this season, they took the pot quite often.

Finishing 2016-17 with 103 points and their first playoff berth since 2006, Edmonton's growth was quite visible. Then they beat the San Jose Sharks in six games in the first round, and all of the sudden they were playing with house money. Against the Pacific Division champion Anaheim Ducks, the Oil took the series to seven.

"I don't think a lot of people had us in the second round in September, back when we first came together," said Oilers Captain Connor McDavid.

Even though not many expected this run, now that the Oilers have gotten to this point, they'll be expected to return consistently and even improve on what was an impressive season.

"We just had a team meeting where we addressed it," said McLellan. "We've turned the page. Just like in the playoffs where we talked about parking games, we've got to park this year now. We're already beginning to prepare for next year, in my opinion. You recover physically and mentally, you get some rest, you enjoy your family time then you get to physically prepare but you also mentally have to prepare for next year.

"We had a good run this year, but this should become what the standard is, not an exceptional year. Make this type of year the standard and then push it from there."

McLellan says for teams like the Capitals, Blues and Rangers, there's likely more pain in the cities after losing in round two than there is in Edmonton. That is because it's been so long for the Oilers to be among the best in the League, the run itself is something to revel in. But soon enough, that will no longer be the case.

Playoffs will become the norm, premature exits will become the enemy, Cups will be the only acceptable endgame.

"Our group was told if we're lucky enough to get back to that situation and have success that should be very painful," said McLellan.

"It was painful because we didn't win, and the guys wanted to but there's a lot to build on, but eventually this has to become the norm with the organization and that's a huge task we have at the beginning of next year. We better be ready for it."

Even with the success this season, it's clear the best is yet to come. The Oilers have solidified their starting goaltender, they've bolstered the defence, boast the League-leading scorer and have their two best players under the age of 21. Those, among others, are reasons for optimism.

That said, they're still growing.

In the words of Bachman Turner Overdrive, "You ain't seen nothing yet."

"We're still a developing, growing team," said McLellan. "We'll have good nights next year, we'll have some bad nights next year. We'll continue that growth process. The difference will be expectations. It'll come from our fan base, it'll come through the media, it'll come from us as a staff, as an organization, and most importantly, it'll come from the players."

As the players met with the media following their exit interviews, the common theme was them looking ahead to better things.

"Coming into next year, it has to be a different mindset," said McDavid. "We're not going to surprise any teams anymore. Teams know we're a good hockey team and they have to be ready to play."

"We're going to come out next year and push the envelope a little more and try to get a little further and get to our ultimate goal," said goaltender Cam Talbot.

The bar went from be competitive, not folding their hand, then make the playoffs, then make some noise in the playoffs, and now it has been raised even higher.

"The expectations have gone up," said Letestu. "Does that mean we're going to get to where we got to this year every year? Maybe not, but that's our expectations."

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