It’s no surprise fans of the Edmonton Oilers are falling all over themselves about Connor McDavid, who has been drawing oohs and aahs and applause from the thousands of faithful filing into Rexall Place to watch prospects do drills at an orientation camp.
McDavid steps on the ice. Fans cheer. Clips of same are duly Tweeted. McDavid shoots a puck into an empty net. More applause. Another clip hits the internet. McDavid does agility drills. Onlookers, including media types, marvel at his footwork. You can hear the buzz. More clips. McDavid drives past a defender to the net in a one-one-one drill. Did you see that? Send. Send. Send. McDavid adjusts his jock . . .
It’s all good. If McDavid lives up to half the hype we’ve heard, half of what fans are seeing with their own two eyes now, albeit in drills, he’s going to be a special player. Oiler fans have paid for every one of the goosebumps they are getting now in misery these past nine seasons. If they want to swoon like a gawky teenage boy who has somehow landed a date with the hottest girl in Grade 10, have at it.
I expect we’ll see the same breathless adoration through training camp and pre-season. That’s all good, too, because No. 97 will take the spotlight and maybe a little pressure off two promising youngsters who’d normally command it if not for McDavid – Darnell Nurse and Leon Draisaitl — and allow them to fly somewhat under the radar in bids to win roster spots.
Nurse, 20, selected seventh overall by Edmonton in the 2013 Entry Draft, wasn’t far off making the grade with the Oilers last September. He got into two games with the Oilers, then was (wisely) returned to Sault Ste. Marie, where he captained the Greyhounds to the OHL’s Eastern Conference final, losing to McDavid and the Erie Otters.
The past year also saw Nurse play with Canada’s gold-medal winning team at the World Junior Championship and he saw action in four playoff games with the OKC Barons in the AHL. Nurse is bigger, stronger and a year older than when we last saw him in Oiler silks, and it shows. Watching him, he is clearly ready to take a real run at a roster spot.
He’ll have to be because Edmonton’s blue line, while far from set, is going to be tougher to crack this season with the addition of Andrej Sekera, Griffin Reinhart and Eric Gryba to go with Oscar Klefbom, Mark Fayne, Andrew Ference, Justin Schultz and, for now, Nikita Nikitin.
“Anyone in my position wants to play as fast as possible, but it was a good year of growth,” Nurse said. “I got to play at a lot of different levels and a played a lot of hockey, which really benefited me. Looking back, it was definitely something that helped my development.
“It was good to really hone my skills, really learn the balance of when to jump in, when to sit back. Year by year you gain a lot more knowledge and become a better player and I felt last year was a real good step for me.”
Draisaitl, 19, the third overall pick in 2014, was gifted a spot at centre by the Oilers, who saw fit to open the season with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Boyd Gordon as their only proven pivots. It did not, as we all saw first-hand, go well for the big German.
The Oilers finally made right that wrong after 37 games by sending Draisaitl to the Kelowna of the WHL, where he scored 19-34-53 in 32 games for the Rockets. Draisaitl tore it up in the playoffs with 10-18-28 in 19 games, being named playoff and Memorial Cup MVP.
As is the case with Nurse, Draisaitl absolutely looks like he benefitted from another year to develop, but he won’t be handed a job at centre as he was a year ago, not with RNH, McDavid, Anton Lander and Mark Letestu also on the depth chart. Talk, as we all know, is Draisaitl might have to earn a job on the wing rather than in the middle.
“I know that, I’m well aware of that,” Draisaitl said. “That just makes it more fun. There’s going to be a big competition for spots. Obviously, I want to make a case for myself and I want to be on this team. I’m going to battle hard for a spot.”
As for finishing last season with the Rockets: “I think it was a great experience. It’s a big hockey stage. We fell short, but at the same time it was very exciting. It helped me a lot. I had a lot of confidence down there, I played a lot of minutes. And with the 37 games up here, that gave me experience as well. I know what it takes to play in the NHL and now it’s time for me to show that I’m capable of being a full-time NHL player.”
LET IT PLAY OUT
We don’t know if GM Pete Chiarelli is done making moves, so it’s difficult to say where, or if, Nurse and Draisaitl fit with this team with training camp and pre-season still to come. There is no need to rush them, no downside to having one or both start this season in the minors. Performance must dictate.
What’s clear, with McDavid firmly front and centre in the spotlight – look, he’s taping his stick on the bench – is Nurse and Draisaitl are more ready to actually earn a job now than they were last year at this time and they’ll have the luxury of trying to do it with fewer distractions and off-ice demands of their time.
Months until the first game of the season and already an assist for McDavid.
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TSN 1260.