Oilers’ fast start begs the question: Is this for real?

NHL insider Mark Spector joins Gene Principe to discuss the amazing start to James Neal's Oilers tenure, and why he was just never a fit in Calgary last season.

NEWARK — The Edmonton Oilers are 3-0 after blowing the New York Islanders out of Nassau Coliseum Tuesday night. Frankly, Connor McDavid’s team looks nothing like the confused crew that stumbled through the 2018-19 season.

There is really only one question worth asking on a rainy New Jersey practice day, with the Devils on tap Thursday night:

Is this for real?

"It’s early," winger James Neal said, "but you like to think it’s for real."

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OK — they’re not going to go 82-0. And even though Neal — the "Real Steal" who has six goals in three games — leads the NHL in goals, he’s probably not going to win the Rocket Richard Trophy.

More to the point, however, the Oilers have received steady goaltending and they’re breaking the puck out of their zone with far more skill and consistency. And if you dig into the ‘why’ a little bit, it sounds very much like the big guns (read: Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl) have changed their games to help the concept of team defence take hold.

"There are certain things we want to do as a team defending, and it has nothing to do with the offensive game," head coach Dave Tippett said. "Our goals against has to come down, and it’s not, ‘OK, you guys over here defend. And you guys over here, don’t worry about it.’ It’s, ‘Everybody defend.’"

It’s not about McDavid, Draisaitl and the rest of the forwards becoming checkers. It’s about going on offence only when the team is ready to support that offence. It’s about the subtle changes we’ve seen in their game, like getting lower in the defensive zone and staying longer, so when the defenceman looks up with the puck on his stick, the pass is short and quick, not long and far away with a chance of being intercepted.

"We’re playing as more of a unit, offensively and defensively," said left-shot defenceman Kris Russell, who looks far more comfortable playing his proper side this season. "Our forwards are coming really low, so we’re having those little ‘pop plays’ instead of 10, 15-foot passes."

These are Dave Tippett asks: That when the puck is in the defensive zone, there are five Oilers in that zone; that the same goes for the neutral and offensive zones, and no one is cheating for offence.

The result is, McDavid has eight points in three games, and has been in on roughly 50 percent of team scoring — just like last season. But an Oilers team that was minus-42 in goal differential last season is plus-5 through three games, a clear sign of more support scoring and better defensive play.

"Connor and Leon, they get lots of points," said Tippett. "But for us to be a better team, we need other people to get points too. To balance the scoring throughout the lineup.

"Same thing for defending. We can’t just have a couple of people defend. We need everyone to defend. That’s what I mean by playing as a team."

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To decide if this is all for real, we should ask if the things that are working here are sustainable:

• Like the goaltending, which has been steady, yet not asked to be spectacular. Edmonton is allowing 31 shots against per night, but not a lot of high quality chances. We’re not bullish on the goaltending here, but if Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen aren’t under siege, they may be able to stop enough pucks to survive.

• The defence: Russell has made a tidy third pairing with Matt Benning. All four of the current Top 4 can move the puck, a huge improvement from last season. Ethan Bear has been smooth and patient beyond his years thus far, and Joel Persson just quietly moves the puck. Darnell Nurse (three points) is maturing in his decision making, while Oscar Klefbom (four points) has passed the 300-game plateau and has a calm air about his game that wasn’t always there.

The verdict is, if this team continues to play Tippett’s style, they have a chance. Maybe better than a chance.

"It’s just a good start — nothing else," cautions Klefbom. "The work ethic from our whole group — especially from our forwards — that’s going to be a big key for us, to keep up the work ethic. If we work all over the ice, and control the middle, we’re really hard to play against.

"The biggest thing (Tuesday) was the work ethic. Just to see the forwards back-checking hard, and be there for the defencemen so we can break out easily, that’s a good sign for us."

It can’t just be about two all-world players, and a team that never makes the playoffs. There has to be more in Edmonton, and Tippett will tell you, "I think Connor likes to win more than he likes personal accolades."

"A few changes have made a big difference," said Neal. "Talking to guys, they feel like it’s a different vibe.

"We’ve got a winning attitude around here."

Could it really be for real?

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