At its most basic level, it is the little things that big things are built on top of that make or break a hockey organization. The mundane foundation is an absolute necessity, if the goal is to build an inspiring, exciting masterpiece on top.
The Edmonton Oilers have done it backwards, up until now, with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl among the various star players who operated without the safety net of a properly built organization underneath.
Today, at long last, it seems like that net is in place; that Edmonton has poured a proper foundation on which a functional National Hockey League team can be erected. Both in the micro and macro sense, the reason Edmonton heads into Tuesday’s game at San Jose in second place in the Western Conference and the (nearly) wire-to-wire leaders in the Pacific Division this season, is because they are doing the small things properly.
Like developing the right way. Like improving the goals against. Like (yawn) winning more faceoffs.
Yes, Draisaitl and McDavid are first and third in NHL scoring as we speak. But recall a year ago, when all of McDavid, Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Darnell Nurse (and a few others) had career seasons statistically, yet the Oilers were not close to being a playoff team.
This isn’t basketball, where four really good players guarantee a level of success. The Oilers proved that last season, and are proving it again in 2019-20 by showing us what things look like when putting a foundation underneath their superstars.
So, define foundation, you say?
Well, it comes in many forms.
Properly run organizations are supposed to spit out a prospect or two from the depths of the draft — not just turning first- or second-round picks into NHL players. Along comes Ethan Bear, a fifth-rounder in 2015, who is drawing some Calder Trophy love.
Bear is already a Top 4 NHL defenceman — a right-hand shot with exceptional puck retrieval skills. Here is a 22-year-old new-age defenceman who should be an anchor on Edmonton’s blue-line for the next decade, drafted in Round 5.
Organizations with sufficient, professional roster depth have players on the American Hockey League roster who are ‘tweeners’ — players who have proven they can play in the AHL and are not there specifically for development, but as the 24th and 25th players on the NHL roster. In the past, whenever an injury occurred the Oilers were calling up some kid who hadn’t even proved himself at the AHL level, and was seldom able to help in the NHL.
Now, that call-up is an 800-game veteran like Sam Gagner, or Colby Cave, who has played less (61 games) but possesses the NHL skills a fourth-line player requires. Neither are overwhelmed at the promotion, and both have actually helped when they come up — a whole new experience in Edmonton. On defence, Caleb Jones is officially over-ripe in Bakersfield, and will allow Evan Bouchard to remain in the minors should a D-man go down in Edmonton.
A successful NHL team hits on the odd European free agent signing. While neither of defenceman Joel Persson, who is 25, nor winger Joakim Nygard (26) are superstars, both have made this NHL roster better. If we can assume that the two Swedes will get more comfortable as they pile up some games in their new environment, not only will they help the Oilers win now but they buy time for young, drafted players to be in AHL Bakersfield, rather than being rushed into the NHL.
Sexy? Not at all.
Efficient? Well, the Oilers aren’t a great team, but tonight marks the quarter pole of the ’19-20 season and they are not showing signs of folding their tents.
Between Bear and Persson, the Oilers have survived losing defenceman Adam Larsson in Game 1 of the season. That injury would have crippled the Oilers a year ago.
On the ice, this is an organization that ranked dead last in the NHL in penalty killing over the past five seasons. Today they are fifth in the league (85.7 per cent), another area that fans of the good teams often take for granted.
They are also fifth best in the NHL in goals allowed per game (2.47), evidence of a team that is getting vastly better goaltending. Among NHL goalies with at least eight starts this season, Mikko Koskinen (.928) ranks sixth in saves percentage, while Mike Smith (.926) ranks eighth.
It’s a pretty simple: Good teams get good goaltending, and while Smith has come in and stopped pucks, his value in allowing Koskinen to play less doubles his worth.
So, five-on-five, the Oilers are not dominating, but they are surviving. What puts them over the top is the fact they are winning the special teams game on most nights.
Edmonton’s power play success rate (29.1 per cent, ranked second) and penalty killing rate (85.7 per cent, ranked fifth) adds up to 114.8. That is highest sum in the NHL, ahead of Boston (114.4), San Jose (112.5), Washington (109.4) and St. Louis (109.1).
Goaltending, some bottom six acquisitions like Riley Sheahan, Josh Archibald and Markus Granlund help there, even though the three have added almost zero offence. What they have done is keep games close long enough for the stars to win them for Edmonton.
There are enough goals in this lineup to get to three most nights. There always has been.
Now, they can keep the other team to two.
That’s a whole new ballgame in Edmonton, one we haven’t seen for a long while.