Is this the year the Edmonton Oilers break Canada’s 31-year Stanley Cup drought?

The Athletic is launching a series of sports debates in which two writers break down a specific topic. In this edition, it’s Sean McIndoe vs. Sean Gentille tackling the big question in hockey right now: Who will win the Stanley Cup — the Florida Panthers or the Edmonton Oilers?

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McIndoe: Other Sean, we meet again. They’ve asked us to debate our winner picks for this year’s Stanley Cup Final. An American and a Canadian, which some years would feel clichéd. But this year, I suppose it’s appropriate, given we’ve got the Edmonton Oilers trying to end Canada’s 31-year Cup drought, a length of time that feels mathematically impossible. Standing in their way, the dastardly Florida Panthers, a team that only a genuinely terrible person could support. Who you got?

Gentille: Panthers in six, baby. I’ve tried to suss out exactly why I feel that way — am I pro-American? Am I anti-Canadian? Have three decades in Pittsburgh made me reflexively pick against anyone who might threaten Sidney Crosby’s spot on Hockey Rushmore? The answer is “Yes.”  Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a shopping cart to leave in the middle of a parking lot.

McIndoe: I’m picking the Oilers in six, because the Cup drought has to end on Canadian soil. Although if I’m being honest, I could see an Edmonton win coming even earlier. And yes, you Crosby fans absolutely should be worried, because Connor McDavid is a big part of why the Oilers are going to win this. He’s been historically good over the last three rounds, and he finally has the supporting cast to make sure it doesn’t go to waste.

Since you’re picking Florida, would you mind explaining how they’re going to stop the most unstoppable player in modern NHL history?

Gentille: It’s not tough to see Florida’s path here. 1) Bend but don’t break against McDavid; they’ve already done better than that against a bunch of high-end forwards so far in the postseason. 2) Lean on their vastly superior depth to win the bulk of the other matchups. 3) Throw quality chances at Oilers goalie Stuart Skinner until he short-circuits. It’s highly doable.

My main question for you: Do you believe in the supporting cast that much? Be honest with me, and be honest with yourself.

McIndoe: I’m glad you asked that, because I want to push back on this narrative that’s emerged about the Panthers having, as you put it, “vastly superior depth.” Do they? Even putting aside the fact that Dallas actually did have better depth, and it didn’t help them at all against the Oilers, I look at the bottom six for Edmonton and Florida, and I’m not sure I see any significant needle-movers on either side. Are we really banking on Evan Rodrigues being the key to this series? 

Gentille: I’m not trying to gas up the Kevin Stenlunds of the world here. The issue is that Edmonton, overwhelming as the top of the lineup might be, has too many guys that move the needle in the wrong direction. I guess I just want my Cup pick to have more than one good defensive pair, y’know? I’m old-fashioned that way.

McIndoe: OK, fair. The Oilers’ supporting cast isn’t great, and probably isn’t as good as Florida’s, but I’m arguing that it’s good enough. And may I remind you that what they’re supporting is a) Connor McDavid, by far the greatest hockey player alive, and b) Leon Draisaitl, a guy who might somehow be even better than McDavid once the playoffs arrive. But let’s circle back to the one area that does legitimately worry me: goaltending. How scared should I be that the Stuart Skinner vs. Sergei Bobrovsky matchup is going to make me look foolish?

Gentille: Moderately, I suppose. But we touched on this in another series preview: playoff reps are a funny thing. Skinner had 22 underwhelming postseason games, got benched for a bit and has been, basically, good ever since — he’s averaging one goal saved above expected in his last eight games. That isn’t nothing. It’s also not enough to sell me all the way.

Bobrovsky, against the odds, has sold me all the way. I think the Panthers are good enough to limit McDavid’s chances (relatively speaking), and I think Bobrovsky is a good enough eraser to take care of enough on the back end. He gives Florida an edge. Do I have too much faith in ol’ Bob? Eighteen months ago, we were all ready to chase him out of Florida, and he’s still the same guy.

McIndoe: He’s flipped my opinion, too. Last year, you could write off his strong postseason as a hot streak, the sort of thing we see from mediocre goalies all the time. But he’s been good pretty much all year this time. And he is a two-time Vezina Trophy winner, even if you have to go back a few years to find them, meaning he hasn’t exactly come out of nowhere. I think the Panthers have an edge, and the only question is how much.

Hey wait, why am I arguing your side? What kind of jedi mind trick did you just pull on me?

Gentille: Did I trick you, or did your brain simply revert to its resting state of “Maple Leafs fan prepared for playoff disappointment?” No way to say.

One thing I’m trying not to put too much stock in, because a bunch of smart people have told me not to, is the experience factor. I’m sorry, though — it counts for something. Florida scaling the mountain last season, running out of gas, then coming back better and nastier matters to me. Matthew Tkachuk trying to play last year with a broken sternum is worth noting. It might even be a little under-the-radar, in terms of storylines.

Do the Oilers have one of those? Not necessarily something that’ll decide the series, but a footnote that’s been lost over the last couple months that seems like it’ll pop up at the right time? 

McIndoe: They’re a Canadian hockey team. There are no underreported stories up here. But as far as possible difference-makers go, let’s not forget about Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. For a guy who was once the No. 1 pick in the draft, and who had 100 points just last year, he flies under the radar as much as you ever can in a place like Edmonton. We saw him have a big game against the Stars that may have tipped the series. If he has one more like that in him, all that talk about the Panthers’ superior depth starts to feel misplaced.

OK, before we wrap up, I might as well ask the one question that might be more important than any other, and could single-handedly determine this thing: In a battle in which Edmonton has superior special teams and the Panthers have a reputation for, uh, bending the rules, are the referees actually going to call penalties?

Gentille: Other than puck-over-glass? Nope. And I’m only being halfway facetious. I’ll use that as an opportunity to bring up one last edge for the Panthers: Paul Maurice. Say what you will about the press-conference chucklefests, but you don’t coach 100,000 NHL games (estimate) without learning a thing or two about ref management. Typically, you don’t coach that long without winning the Cup, either. It’s Maurice’s time, I swear.

McIndoe: I just ran the numbers, and Edmonton’s Kris Knoblauch, a rookie head coach in his very first postseason, is tied with Maurice in Cup rings. So I’m not sure that coaching is as much an advantage as you might think.

And sure, I’ll just put this out there so that people can inevitably laugh at me in a week or two for being naive: I think they will call penalties in this series. At least more than people think. Typical NHL wisdom at this time of year is to put the whistle away, because the refs don’t want to decide a series. But the special teams have the potential to be so lopsided, and the Panthers’ reputation as a team that pushes the physical limit is so well-earned, that I think the league understands that putting the whistles away will determine the series. I think we see some power plays. And that means we see Edmonton goals. That has to worry you.

Gentille: Maybe a bit. Plus, like the saying goes, the 32nd time is the charm. If I’m being honest, that’s the biggest reason I’m going with Florida here. I’m sure a Canadian team will win the Cup again someday. Until that happens, I’m content to be wrong.

McIndoe: Let’s end with a one sentence closing argument. Here’s mine: The Oilers have the two biggest stars, both of whom are playing like they’re on a mission, and the best special teams, which we have to hope will actually matter, and the rest of the roster is just good enough to be good enough. This is the year the drought finally ends.

Gentille: Florida has enough high-end skill to maintain a manageable gap with McDavid and Draisaitl — Tkachuk, Aleksander Barkov, clutch machine Carter Verhaeghe, a 57-goal winger in Sam Reinhart who we haven’t even mentioned — and the depth, system and experience necessary to win almost every other battle. Maybe next year, Canada.

(Photo of Connor McDavid: Codie McLachlan / Getty Images)

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