In It Together
Photo credit:Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
7 months ago
Any of you who were around the rink in the late 1990s in the pre-salary cap era will remember more than one edition of the Edmonton Oilers that stayed competitive because they were tight-knit teams that cared about the next guy. They played for each other.
When coach Ron Low would look around the room, he’d see Doug Weight and Todd Marchant, Boris Mironov and Roman Hamrlik, Ryan Smyth, and Kelly Buchberger. Let’s not forget Curtis Joseph and partner Bob Essensa in the blue paint. Low’s teams were long on try but short on the kind of talent Ken Hitchcock could send over the boards with the Dallas Stars or Scotty Bowman could call on with the Detroit Red Wings.
Save for the 1997 playoffs when Marchant’s Game 7 OT goal at Reunion Arena eliminated the Stars in the first round or in 1998 when the Oilers overcame a 3-1 deficit to eliminate the Colorado Avalanche in seven games, too often the bottom line was that lots of try and playing for the next guy wasn’t enough to make up for the disparity in talent.
When I look at this edition of the Oilers, I see a lot of the same play-for-the-next-guy mentality. I also see infinitely more talent led by the two best players on the planet in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl and a supporting cast that includes Evander Kane, Zach Hyman, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Darnell Nurse. What we’re seeing during this 13-2-1 roll into the playoffs is what a blend of big-time talent and try looks like.
A TIGHT GROUP
Apr 1, 2023; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Anaheim Ducks forward Derek Grant (38) looks for rebound in front of Edmonton Oilers goaltender Jack Campbell (36) during the second period at Rogers Place. Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
I’m not around the Oilers like I was working the beat, but I know what I saw Saturday standing in the corner of the rink at ice level as players filed off the bench to congratulate Jack Campbell after his 36 saves to shut out the Anaheim Ducks 6-0. Most notably, how Campbell was embraced by Stuart Skinner, who took Campbell’s job as starter and blanked Los Angeles 2-0 in his last start. There was pure joy in that moment.
“Frankly, my game hasn’t been at the level I expect it to be at any point this year,” said Campbell, who has struggled mightily with his game and confidence much of this season. “Tonight was a great step for me personally. Just having fun and relaxing, getting out of my own way. Tonight was a great step for me. I just want to keep that going.”
I know what I heard from Draisaitl, who hit 50 goals for the third time in his career with a hat-trick, and McDavid, who is enjoying the best season of his career with 62-84-146 with five games to play, in their post-game availabilities. As hard as Campbell has been on himself at times, they have his back – knowing it will be Skinner’s net when playoffs begin.
“He’s such a great guy,” Draisaitl said. “All year, whether it’s gone his way or not, he’s been one of the best teammates I’ve ever been around. He always works on himself and hopefully, this will turn a corner for him. Sometimes it takes a little longer getting to a new team, so we trust him, we believe in him full on, so he’ll be good for us.”
Added McDavid: “I thought that Soup made some really big saves, especially early in the first (period). We were a little bit sloppy at the beginning of the game, but he was solid and gave us a chance to get our feet under us and we’re really happy for him. Obviously, it’s been an up-and-down year for him, and he’s battled so hard. To see him get rewarded, the boys love that.”
THE WAY I SEE IT
With the additions of Mattias Ekholm and Nick Bjugstad by GM Ken Holland at the trade deadline, McDavid and Draisaitl in full-blown supernova mode, Kane back in form after missing so much time to injuries and Hyman and RNH enjoying career seasons, it looks to me like the Oilers are good enough and tight enough to take a run at the whole works right now.
The all-for-one-and-one-for-all dynamic is difficult to measure and we know that it won’t push a team that doesn’t have enough talent or depth over the top. That said, it’s real enough, and these are not your 1990’s Oilers. Let’s see what that looks like.
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