EDMONTON — The day Milan Lucic arrived in Edmonton, as a free agent on July 1, 2016, he stood under a gleaming sun atop a parking garage across from Rogers Place and beamed, "The McDavid factor changes it all. That’s why I chose to come here."
He had come to Northern Alberta to ride shotgun for the game’s new rising star, with a fat, new seven-year, US$42-million deal in tow.
Fast forward to Sunday night, where Lucic was one of the most impactful players on the ice in a 1-0 win over the Calgary Flames — playing on a line with Kyle Brodziak and Zack Kassian. He’s a hard-working checker now, working two lines and a power-play unit below McDavid these days, simply trying to help settle a flagging franchise into a style that can bring home some wins.
"I’m just embracing the role, having fun playing a certain way with Brods and Kass. We know what’s expected of us, and (head coach Ken Hitchcock) counts on us to play the right way and do the right things," said Lucic.
It’s not easy to be that guy who makes $6 million on the third line; that guy who now has two goals in his last 76 NHL games. It’s hard on the pride — it has to be for a proud man like Lucic.
But in a perverse way, that allows Lucic to become an example here in Edmonton, where the easy way has all too often been the chosen route. In this town, a 1-0 lead has always been an excuse to fly the zone in search of a 2-0 lead, with the result usually ending badly.
Lucic has given up being a Top 6 player, for now. He’s been moved off the top power-play unit, for now. He carries the weight of a once-gifted scorer who almost never lights a lamp anymore.
And there he was, busting his rear end in a tight, 1-0 Battle of Alberta tilt, forechecking like a demon and hitting like a truck. Laying it on the line in whatever role he is given — putting his own expectations behind what’s good for the team.
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Forget about the pay check for a moment. As a teammate, how could you not follow this player?
"He’s an unreal teammate. One of the best I’ve ever been around," said rugged defender Adam Larsson, for whom this new kind of hockey under Hitchcock fits like a favourite old winter sweater. "He brings it all every day, in practice and in games. Sometimes you go through tough times, but … he still brings a lot to this table. We’re very glad to have him here."
Connor McDavid scored the game’s only goal in the first period, and Mikko Koskinen posted his third shutout in just 13 starts this season as the Oilers kept first-place Calgary in their Pacific Division sights.
After beating Minnesota 7-2 on Friday, this was the exact opposite for Edmonton, a game that quantified exactly what the Oilers’ shortcomings have always been, and what Hitchcock is doing to try and fix them.
"We’re playing hard, structured hockey," Larsson said. "And when we play good defence we’ll always create chances — that’s how good our forwards are.
"Sometimes we’ll score seven, sometimes we’ll score one. As long as we play good defence, we should be able to win every game."
McDavid had four points against Minnesota, but in this one the worker bees brought home the two points. The Lucic line was impactful, clocking in for a tough, physical and responsible shift.
They’re building something here, in the wake of having fired former coach Todd McLellan.
What exactly is it?
"Just an identity, in the way that we’re playing, and momentum in winning hockey games," Lucic said. "It’s what Hitch says: Playing for each other, instead of with each other. Doing all the little things that matter, and getting good, hard minutes from everyone in the lineup. You know, we might not get five, six goals a night. But we’re getting the wins."
They’re 7-2-1 under Hitchcock, who said when he arrived that he wanted to see Lucic revert to the player he was back in his junior days with the Vancouver Giants. So, naturally, Hitchcock called Lucic’s old coach Don Hay, a long-time WHL coach who Lucic recalls as "Hitch’s protégé."
"One of the first calls was to my friend Don (Hay). He loved (Lucic) and used him in a certain way, and I copied it. I didn’t invent this," said Hitchcock. "I think he’s played great since the day I came here. And that line’s been terrific."
He’s a $6-million third-line banger, but Lucic’s team is winning and that’s what he’s all about. Still, he’ll never forget what it’s like to raise his arms in celebration now and again.
He’d love for those days to return.
"If we keep going the way that we’re going, eventually they’re going to start going in," Lucic said. "I know I’ve said that too many times, but this time I believe it more than I did before."