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.”



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.

  • O.C.

    (Nah…too easy)

    With what was here, I say that Darnell was better than at least one and maybe two of last year’s starters.

    BUT, the right choice was development in junior.

    • Randaman

      Totally agree dude…but if he’s ready this year I would play him on the big club cuz he’s that good…The guys a stud. He was the best D-man at the world jrs and that battle behind the net with that russian who was bigger than him was awesome! If you want to be the best you have to play against the best is my motto. A year in the minors definitely won’t hurt him but if he’s better in training camp and preseason than some of the vets then he’s in my top 6 to start the season. PC said that they expect Reinhart to be on the big club, well in my opinion Nurse is a lot better than Reinhart and he’s pretty good. Cheers dude and Go Oil!

  • nullterm

    What an accomplishment for Leon winning MVP for playoffs AND memorial cup. The dude looks huge and could fit a role of a power winger very, very well. Great article, Robin. Love your writing keep it coming!

    • BlueHairedApe

      Leon never won the Memorial Cup although winning the tournament MVP was a great accomplishment considering he was on the losing team. That doesn’t happen very often.

  • camdog

    It’s a night and day turn-around in only a matter of a relative few dark nights and days since the heady days of ’06. I have gone from being a totally pissed off fan to an optimist in about 3 mos.

    The spectre of young players being rushed to the bigs seems much less likely now. Prospects like Ethan Bear, Gregchase and Kyle Platzer are apparently showing potential and growth. Go Oil.

      • Zarny

        Connor is our future captain
        Nuge and hall get ( A )’s
        Lander, Nurse , GR , and Eberle
        Could also do a great job.
        Lander was Sweden captain (WJ)
        Nurse was captain this year.
        Griffin was captain of memorial cup champ z
        But it will be McDavid who lifts lord Stanley
        First. And hands it to his bff Darnell.
        And while im dreaming a good dream.
        When we go back to back
        Hands it to playoff M.V.P Hall.
        And when we go three in a row.
        The first team since 82 N.Y. islanders
        Hands it to…wait for it.
        D.r Dri.
        Ill bet any one 100 $ Connor,
        Will win 3 cup as an Oiler.
        Maybe not 3 In a row…
        But but with this supporting cast
        6 in the next ten . Wouldn’t surprise me

        Happy McDavid career

  • Oil Vice

    If PC can’t move Nikitin or Ference this off season then I can see them keeping Nurse in the AHL until we acquire an ideal partner for him. This gives Nikitin and Ference time to possibly upgrade their value. Long shot but their value can’t get any lower than it is now. This would also gives Nurse a bit more time to develop his pro game. It will be tough to keep him out of the lineup based on his raw skills but at this point I don’t see an ideal partner for him here based on NHL experience and player types.
    As for Leon I think it may be easier for the coaching staff to mix and match their current veterans with the young guns and find a spot for him. He also has the tools to play now but could really use some effective journeymen around him.

  • Randaman

    I believe there is 9 defensemen vying for 7 jobs on main club . I choose Nurse and Reinhart over Nikitin and Ference for atarters . If you agree vote Cheers , if you disagree vote Trash . I gave my reasons for both newbies to make club on blog #89 on previous defence article if you care to read figures, etc.. .

  • Randaman

    The Other, Other guy is Anton Slepyshev, …21 years old, several pro seasons already under his belt, First over all for KHL should start him way up the curve

  • I cannot tell you who is going to be on the Oilers roster this coming fall nor can I say exactly when the Oilers will contend for the playoffs and ultimately the Cup. That will be determined by McLellan and PC as they make their decisions.

    What I can tell you is that I have a far higher level of confidence that management will make intelligent decisions regarding our young talent and where they play their hockey this year.

    In past seasons, I always felt that Oiler’s management was so desperate to improve that they would take wild gambles with young players. It appears our management has matured and have a sound game plan.

    What a relief that is. Good luck.

  • The best news is that player’s will have to earn their spots this year. At all positions. If both Nurse and Reinhart are two of the 6 best forwards in camp they should both make the team. If Draisaitl earns a third line winger spot he should stay as well. And if they don’t, they should go to Bakersfield. This time I’m confident the people making those decisions know what they’re doing.

    • OilCanFan1

      For sure the best players should make the team and I’m not quite sold that the people making the decision (all of the people) are going to make all the right decisions. I’m more confident than I was last year, but still gun-shy….

    • camdog

      I am sure Nurse could excel at forwards at the NHL level, however I don’t think we should just toss him out onto the wing because he’s better than some of the forwards.

      Reality is that the young guys can’t just be better than the well aged players, they have to be good enough to excel at the NHL level. Being better than Ference and Nikitin is like saying Leon deserved to play for the Oilers at Centre last season…

  • OilCanFan1

    I’m looking forward to Draisatl making the team – big center who appeared to dominant in the face-offs and along the boards in the Memorial Cup. I say the best center gets the center position, maybe Lander (captain material like RNH) could make the move to the wing too if Draisatl wins the spot.

  • YakCity1039

    To me, I don’t think they kept Leon up because they wanted to, but rather because of the way Prince Albert was going, and management wanted him in a winning culture, rather than continue to have him in a losing one in Edmonton then straight to PA.

      • Zarny

        I’m super happy about all the management & coaching changes that have occurred, player acquisitions, etc…

        But, I repeat, but, I am however, super concerned that they decided to keep MacT in the fold. After draft day, during a presser, Chiarelli actually gave MacT credit for his input into all the work done at the draft. Yikes.

  • OttawaOiler

    I wonder, when deciding whether to keep MacTavish around, if Chiarelli asked him why Draisaitl didn’t go to the World Juniors. I know there are a hundred dumb moves that were made by MacTavish and friends, but that one, if I’m the hiring/firing manager, speaks to a level of dumb and incompetence that I just can’t understand and would lead me to move on. (Not to mention the end of year press conference giving cover for future failure).

    • radicator

      It was interesting to see Nurse and McDavid do cycling drills against each other at practice this morning. Nurse even coached McDavid with some tips at one point!

      I can see McDavid as a captain someday, but Nurse is going to battle to defend his team for many years. He will get the respect from his teammates like Gator did.

  • camdog

    We all know Connor McDavid is the real deal, we all know he’s the hottest player since Gretzky, and that is wonderful for us fans, but we also know that there are 30 other players at camp who deserve some respect and recognition. They may not be future NHLers but they have done their very best to get to where they are today. They deserve some time from the journalists and McDavid deserves a break from all of the hype.

  • radicator

    I went to the practice on Saturday. I completely agree with Casey – Nurse looks poised, mature, ready. He was a leader in practice for sure.
    I expected McDavid to be awesome, of course, and even though everyone says it, his speed with the puck still caught me off guard (like all the guys he skated around today). Amazing.
    But what I really liked about McDavid was his eagerness to learn and do his best. When the coach wanted a lap, he took off right away, skated hard, and did not cut corners. Everyone knows he’s on the opening roster, but he still worked hard to impress.
    I also liked John McCarron. Excellent skater, great size. Strong on the puck.
    Greg Chase was good.
    Draisaitl was as I expected, but I wondered why he was there. I would think that everyone has seen lots of him.
    Would have been exciting to see our Russian prospects…

  • Zarny

    It’s good to hear Nurse and Draisaitl talk about their growth last year in Jr. Playing lots of minutes. Playing in lots of situations. Playing as the player the Oilers want them to be instead of getting pummeled in the NHL as fringe contributors.

    As for predictions, perhaps let’s wait to see these kids against actual NHL players.

    • ^ THIS.

      Alot of guys are gushing at how good Nurse and McDavid look – in a training camp against their peers.

      Let’s see how they stack up against actual NHL’ers before giving them the keys to the kingdom.

  • Zarny

    Brownlee excellent writing as usual but im freaking out. In the Defencemen list from this article Justin Shultz was no where to be found.
    I understand some people have a problem with him as a player but the reality is with him and the rest of the core expect multiple Stanley Cups.If he is on another team he will Iginla the team for years. Whats the holdup on the signing.

  • BigOil

    Not sure if it lost in the shuffle or not but sounds like a great crop of young LEADERSHIP coming into Oil silks and I believe that was one of the things missing all these years. Hope abounds!!!!


    I watched Nurse on Friday. He looks ready, very strong compared to the other guys.

    So exciting to have all these prospects coming up

    McDavid is the real deal. wow. and wow


    I understand that it takes longer to develop a D man than it does to develop a forward,why is that Nurse is now into his post season draft year and may not yet be NHL ready when the Seth Jones and Ekblads go directly to the bigs from junior and excel? Just curious,not critical.

      • It’s also true that most of the ones who end up being upper tier type players start to force their way on to NHL rosters right around this time, so, if Nurse is going to be as good as we all hope, then even if he goes to the AHL he probably won’t be there all year.

    • Bandwagon jumper

      I would also add that those two young men had proven, top line defensemen to play with and shelter them. I’m sure playing with Shea Webber had a lot to do with why Seth Jones remained, and did well in the NHL.

  • I’m very happy that we have some real competition for spots throughout the line up………we may have some real solid lines playing in the AHL, developing chemistry and learning a similar system.

    Guys like Yakimov, Shepylev, Chase, could make things very interesting. The attention to McDavid, may actually help guys “fly under the radar”, and help them avoid unnecessary pressure.

    I fully expect guys like LD and DN to make the team………..they almost made it last year and nothing in their progression suggests they will not make it.

    For me the addition of a “solid goalie” is the biggest addition and I’m hoping he is the full-meal deal.

    Robin who is your “dark horse” this year, to make the team?

  • Reinhart should not even be listed as competition for Nurse.

    Not sure how you can put a yet proven, probably career minor leaguer in any competition with Nurse.

    There was a reason the Islanders dumped him, and also when the director of players said he did not see him play in the AHL and they made the decision by the fact that he played as an overaged player in the WHL. Reeks of poor decision making and questionable judgement.

    Didn’t excel in the AHL, failed to even come close.

    His foot speed is too slow and he is terrible with the puck compared to quality NHL defense men.

    At best, Reinhart is 5 or 6 on a bad team.

    • Reinhart is “listed” because he will be competing for a roster spot at training camp. He is not listed as “competition” for Nurse.

      Terrible with the puck? Probably career minor leaguer? At best a five or six on a bad team? Honestly, put your real name to posts like this. It makes it far easier to look you up later.

      Just looking for a reaction?

      • I don’t agree one bit about the assessment of Reinhart, I saw him play when he was with the Oil Kings and that guy was very noticeable out there. Not the greatest foot speed but an absolute tower of strength down low. The Islanders had a log jam on their back end when they acquired Leddy and Boychuk. Reinhart will be competing for a spot this training camp and another year working on his foot speed and playing against pros won’t hurt him one bit. He’s almost fully matured and with the right training and coaching he will gain that extra gear and put on another ten pounds. This guy will be a player in a few years and his leadership is off the charts along with his ability.

        • “Oilers” wasn’t assessing anything in comment 55, he was being “that guy” looking for a reaction.

          Reinhart is 21. He isn’t blessed with the mobility and edge in his nature that Nurse is, but he has attributes that make him a very good prospect — the leadership you mention, a heavy shot and a solid grasp of where he needs to be positionally, to name three.

          There’s work to do, of course, but anybody who says Reinhart’s ceiling is a third-pairing guy at best is talking through their backside. We won’t know what he’ll be for at least a year or two, maybe three.

  • rocket289k

    I had the opportunity to watch McDavid play live twice during the OHL playoffs against Oshawa. His ability to think the game and to make plays at a ridiculously high rate of speed is simply amazing to watch in person.

    The only way Oshawa contained him was to play complete team defense. They had 3 players on him at all times like Badger Bob used to do to Gretzky back in the day. Even with that level defensive attention he still managed to shake lose and make plays throughout both games.

    On one play in particular, which resulted in an Erie goal, he was just below the Otters blueline waiting for an outlet pass from the defenseman perfectly triangulated by 3 Generals players. He took the pass and within 2 strides had escaped containment after the 3 strides was at full speed. The General’s center on the ice recognized the danger and attempted to angle McDavid towards the boards. Then McDavid found yet another gear and completely blew by him and gained about 6 feet of separation from the three players that had tried to contain him. It was like watching a combination of Bure and Gretzky in one player.

    He’ll have some growing pains in the NHL as he just needs to get older and stronger (like any other 18 year old). However, he is most exciting young player I’ve seen live since watching Gretzky in his prime all those years ago.