It should be a great time to be an Edmonton Oiler, what with the new season about to start, the inherent promise of a new front office, and a largely new roster.
But as the Oilers try to make the playoffs for just the second time in 14 seasons, it is also Groundhog Day in Edmonton. Yet another restart, identical to the last restart.
This season brings new head coach Dave Tippett, savvy general manager Ken Holland and a “whole new approach” — at a time when we were supposed to be well along in the successful era of those who had approached before, but were fired.
So Leon Draisaitl, who is on coach and general manager pairing No. 3 as he enters his sixth NHL season, was trying to see the positive in yet another roster upheaval in Edmonton. Bless him, they are difficult questions to answer.
“A lot of new faces,” he said of this latest Oilers edition. “In the last couple of years it hasn’t really been working. That’s what happens when things don’t work. There’s going to be change.”
At practice on Monday, Tippett ran centremen Connor McDavid, Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins on three separate lines, a new coach with a familiar tactic. And if the offence sputters, and Plan B turns out to be something that fired coach Todd McLellan had also employed, don’t colour Draisaitl surprised.
“We’ve tried it a lot over the last couple of years. There is more than once that we started games on separate lines,” he said. “Sometimes it works out sometimes it doesn’t work out. Hopefully it’ll work out this time.”
When a reluctant McDavid spoke in August at the Gary Roberts camp in Toronto, he was painted as a player who was fatigued with losing in Edmonton. People read — or misread — his body language, or his general disinterest in conducting media scrums, to draw their conclusions.
With Draisiaitl, it’s more about German straight forwardness.
Young Leon speaks plainly, and is not afraid to let the questioner know that his or her query is not quite up to his standard. He does not suffer fools well; it is simply his personality. And he is not the type to tell you what you want to hear, just because ticket sales aren’t expected to be what they once were in Edmonton.
Asked about how differently this Oilers team will play under Tippett, Draisaitl lifted his palms to the sky, and gave an honest, accountable answer.
“There are only so many systems you can play in the NHL. It’s not rocket science,” he said. “He’s not coming in here and changing the entire system. It’s a matter of if we can figure out how to defend better and keep the puck out of our net. That’s all that matters.
“Essentially, we need to score one more goal than the other team in a lot more games than we did the last couple of years. The system is almost the same. It’s a matter of us players buying in,” Draisaitl explained. “There’s only so much you can do as a coach. At the end of the day we’re the ones playing out there and we have to figure out how to win hockey games.”
To Draisaitl’s credit, he is shouldering the responsibility here in Edmonton, along with his teammates, for putting this train back on the tracks. Of course, the reality is that the near criminal work by ex-GM Peter Chiarelli, and those before him, have left this roster in such a state that even having two of the NHL’s top four scorers last season was not enough to field a contender.
The reality is, this team has made deals like Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson, and turned Jordan Eberle into Sam Gagner, who was waived on Monday. Now, you look at their eight wingers, and it is impossible to see how that group can support McDavid, Draisaitl and RNH on separate lines.
The Oilers open the season with questionable goaltending (at best), without a legitimate No. 1 defenceman or top line winger, and they appear to have two fourth lines. On their 23-man roster are three European players who have never played an NHL game, and the oft-injured Tomas Jurco (who led the team in preseason scoring).
Yet, they are likely better than they were last season.
“It’s fair to say we needed more depth. More guys who could score 8-10 goals,” said winger Alex Chiasson. “So far in the preseason this has been shown. We have more identity, where guys fit throughout the lineup. What their roles are.
“All that has happened in September,” he cautioned. “Once the season starts … that’s when it counts.”
As for Tippett, he walks through the door this fall minus the baggage of those who have followed this project inch by painful inch over the years. For him, as it is for Holland, this is the beginning of something. Not a continuation, or some kind of a torturous loop.
Can they be the duo to turn this around in Edmonton? Can this Oilers team be better than what we have watched for all but one season since September of 2006?
Well, it would be a welcome change, we will vouch for that.
“I don’t think there are a lot of people picking us to do much, and I think our group feels that,” Tippett said on Monday. “I like some of the new energy we have — our pace has picked up from last year. Our bottom six forwards are better suited to handle what we want them to do…”
He is, of course, positive. Like a guy who just hopped on board this fall.
“I like where we’re at,” Tippett said. “There’s lots of growth left, but I don’t mind where we’re at.”