Teams can win by having more skill than an opponent. Likewise, teams can win by being willing to compete and work harder than the other guys. Those are two boxes that every general manager absolutely has to check off when putting together a team – no matter what the sport. When you combine both elements in the right balance, you’ve really got something.
If willingness to compete was enough on its own over the long run, Steve Staios would have been a better player than Ales Hemsky, who was often accused of lacking work ethic and commitment. I’d have Staios on my team all day long, but as good as Hemsky? No way. If busting ass was enough on its own, Wile E. Coyote – I’m dating myself yet again – would have enjoyed a heaping helping of Road Runner for dinner instead of ending up sucking anvil at the bottom of a cliff week after week.
Yes, willingness to compete and hard work can close the gap against a more talented player or team, but if that gap is too great, or if that more talented team has close to the same work ethic, that combination will prevail almost every time. Try only goes so far, as fans of the Edmonton Oilers saw all-too-often in the late-1990s and early 2000s when the Oilers would throw everything they had at the Dallas Stars, only to end up at the bottom of that cliff more times than not.
Framed in all that, I’m liking what I’m seeing taking shape with the Oilers with GM Peter Chiarelli and coach Todd McLellan at the helm. I think we saw that play out on the road in Wednesday’s 4-1 pre-season win over the Winnipeg Jets. The Oilers have not only assembled some of the best young talent in the league over the last three seasons, they left a big chunk of it at home against the Jets, who iced most of their NHL roster, and still prevailed after being outplayed early. It’s just one game, I know, but I think wins like that bode well for this outfit.
FINDING A WAY
The Oilers didn’t dress Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Milan Lucic, Adam Larsson, Oscar Klefbom and Cam Talbot, to name six key players. Winnipeg’s line-up, meanwhile, included most of their top players, as you’d expect for a home game – Blake Wheeler, Patrick Laine, Bryan Little, Dustin Byfuglien, Mark Scheifele and Jacob Trouba.
Up stepped veterans Mark Letestu, Jussi Jokinen, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Kris Russell, plus raw rookie Kailer Yamamoto, in front of some really good goaltending from Laurent Brossoit and Nick Ellis. The Oilers survived early until they shook off a late flight into Winnipeg, then dug in and won it going away thanks to a couple of power-play goals and very good nights from the aforementioned veterans. Jokinen? Looks like a find.
“I liked the overall effort from our group,” said McLellan after the Oilers ran their pre-season record to 3-0. “When you play these types of games there’s some tough circumstances when you fly in an hour before you play. I thought we got off to a slow start, but we responded and I thought we had real good leadership tonight. Jokinen, Letestu, Nuge, (Eric) Gryba.
“Those types of guys stepped up when it would have been easy for them to take the easy route. They played hard and everybody followed, so I was happy with that. We still have some pretty smart players out there (on a power play without McDavid and Draisaitl). Jokinen, Nuge, Test (Letestu), they moved the puck around quite well and they found holes to finish off. I thought our penalty kill, after the first one, did a real good job. For this time of year, to have those types of results, we have to be somewhat pleased, but we still have a long way to go.”
THE WAY I SEE IT
With another roster cut on the way, my takeaways from last night go something like this:
- Yamamoto, denied a goal that should have counted by a bogus call he kicked the puck in, doesn’t look the least bit overwhelmed. While he needs another year to get stronger and a return to Spokane of the WHL makes all the sense in the world, I want to see more of him.
- Jokinen, credited with a goal that was scored with a far more distinct kicking motion, is a smart player who finds a way to be in the right place. Aside from any benefit he might provide sophomore countryman Jesse Puljujarvi, he looks like he’s going to be a bargain and provide much-needed secondary scoring.
- Jujhar Khaira looked bound and determined to grab a roster spot among the bottom six forwards. Clearly a step quicker, Khaira played almost 18 minutes, including more than two minutes (2:02) on the power play with the big guns sitting. He scored Edmonton’s second goal to make it 2-1.