EDMONTON — We always say it, because it is always true: The players know.
The players always know first where another player fits in their midst. If he is a high draft pick who isn’t ready, or if he’s a solid pro whose skills are underrated. They know first, and they know best — no matter what the management, the media or some agent tries to tell you.
And they know when they’ve just played a team that is their superior. Just listen to Connor McDavid, asked about the Toronto Maple Leafs after losing twice to them in 10 days.
“They are a GOOD hockey team,” he began. “They are solid all over. They are obviously skilled and they just come at you in waves. Our goalie was good — he held us in and gave us a little bit of a chance.”
But McDavid knows. So do all the Edmonton Oilers.
“We played a good team,” said Oscar Klefbom. “They are… five players everywhere. We played a really good team.”
The Oilers held Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner off the score sheet Saturday night, in a game Toronto led 3-0 until a late Oilers push made the final 3-2. Kasperi Kapanen didn’t manage a point, nor did Patrick Marleau.
Toronto, however, has this guy named John Tavares, whom you may have heard of. He had a goal and two assists, and was named the game’s first star on a night where the score was not really indicative of the flow of play.
“Probably other than the last couple of minutes, we played a really good road game,” Tavares said. “We didn’t get rewarded as much as I think we could have.”
No, this could have been far more lopsided than it was, and there isn’t anyone involved in this eternal Oilers project who doesn’t look at the Maple Leafs and realize the breadth of the chasm that exists between the two rosters.
This was Toronto’s bottom six on Saturday: Kadri between Marleau and William Nylander, and a fourth line of Frederik Gauthier, Tyler Ennis (12 goals) and Connor Brown, a 23-point winger whom the Oilers made a pitch for at the recent trade deadline.
And this was Edmonton’s bottom six: Colby Cave between Jujhar Khaira and Josh Currie, a trio that has combined for seven goals and 64 AHL games played this season. The fourth line had Kyle Brodziak (eight points) between Ty Rattie (11 points) and Tobias Rieder, who has played 54 NHL games this season and not scored a single goal.
Toronto’s top two lines are a bear, but with McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent Hopkins, Edmonton can at least compete. It is the depth of talent that tips this matchup in Toronto’s favour, and becomes the nut that the new general manager will have to crack.
“It’s a great game to evaluate on,” admitted Oilers head coach Ken Hitchcock, who is well aware of every point we’ve made in this column thus far. “It tells you what you’ve got now and what you’ve got moving forward. And when you’ve got a team that can play at that tempo, especially through the middle of the ice, any mistakes get exposed. Any time that you decide on the ice to rest, you get exposed. And I thought we hung in there really well.
“But man, from an evaluation standpoint, this was really a rich hockey game. The two best players, for me, were both goalies, and then probably (Morgan) Rielly after that. They’re a deep team and the competition’s rich, so unless you were on top of your game every shift, you got exposed.”
The Oilers never fell out of this one, the way they had the previous Wednesday in a 6-2 loss at Toronto. But as the evening wore on, the disparity became obvious and undeniable.
Toronto pushes offensively, generating second and third chances that — in their totality — break down an opposing team and goaltender. Edmonton flies in over the line, takes a rip on goal, and then the puck is on its way out just as fast.
The Oilers might have rescued this with a sharper power play, but alas, it went 0-for-4, including 37 seconds of 5-on-3 time.
“I don’t think we get enough from the top,” said Hitchcock of his power-play alignment. “So I think we’re going to have to look at that dynamic. We don’t make them turn and face their goalie enough.”
Until the end of the game, of course, when the Leafs were patting Frederik Andersen on the head after another win.
These two teams have played six periods against each other in the past 10 days. Edmonton won one of them, and collected a couple of goals in garbage time Saturday.
The Oilers, with this roster, can’t compete with a team as deep and good as Toronto.
Nobody knows that more than the players, we promise you that.