CHICAGO — The popular theory when Ken Holland came to the Edmonton Oilers was that perhaps he could bring a little of that old Detroit Red Wings magic with him.
What we didn’t know was, some of it was already here.
"Pavel Datsyuk is my No. 1 guy. I love watching and learning from him," Leon Draisaitl was saying on Monday morning. "I want to be an all-around player — I don’t want to just be an offensive guy.
"It’s something I worked on a lot this summer. I watched a lot of film of players that I want to be like, that I want to take things from."
Draisaitl is having the best start of his NHL career, with four goals and 11 points in five games. He’s played 2:14 more per night than Connor McDavid, drawn the tougher faceoff opponents, had seven more shots on goal, and in the Oilers’ 5-0 start he is just one assist shy of McDavid’s production. As we wrote about this weekend, he is becoming the Mark Messier to McDavid’s Wayne Gretzky.
Now, Draisaitl is becoming an 82-game player. Perhaps we have spotted just another reason why the surprising Oilers are bringing a spotless record into Monday’s game against the Chicago Blackhawks.
"I used to be a slow starter, but that’s something I wanted to get away from. To (eliminate) it as an excuse. This year it was my goal to start the way I finished last season," said Draisaitl, who spent some time this summer in front of his laptop, watching the Red Wings Baryshnikov, Datsyuk.
"Just the way he takes away pucks. The way he anticipates the game is just on another level. He was just… It seemed like he was one or two steps ahead of everyone."
You can learn that? Wasn’t Datsyuk just born with those skills?
"You can learn that," Draisaitl confirmed. "The way he positions himself, that kind of stuff. There is a lot you can learn, by watching."
The hockey world is also learning a few things by watching this Oilers team roll through its opening five games of the season. Primarily, that there is a far better roster being built around the Oilers’ two star players.
"It’s not Leon and Connor getting so much better than last year. So then you come down to, what’s different?" asked defenceman Oscar Klefbom, who leads the team in ice time (24:58), and the defence corps in points, with a goal and six assists. "Leon and Connor, they are the same guys. I’m really happy with how we look as a team. We have third- and fourth-liners who just work their asses off, and it gives huge energy to the group."
Holland brought in three European players with a grand total of zero NHL games between them: Joakim Nygard, Joel Persson and Gaetan Haas. Normally, the GM would be doing backflips if one or two of those projects turned out, but in Edmonton all three have contributed, with Nygard and Persson both becoming everyday players.
"Those guys have been doing a tremendous job of adapting after coming over from Europe. I’m really impressed with how they’ve accepted the challenge — it’s not easy," said Klefbom. "We just have a really good feeling, and when you’re 3-0, then you want to make it 4-0. We deserve those points that we’ve earned, and coming home to Edmonton and hopefully being 6-0? Then you’re really feeling good."
Mike Smith starts in goal against a Blackhawks team that opened its season in Prague, losing to Philadelphia, and now finds itself on Game 3 of a seven-game homestand, still winless at 0-2-1. The Oilers have a chance to sweep their four-game road trip if they win tonight, rare air for a team that has missed the playoffs 12 of the past 13 seasons.
Another key change in Edmonton’s look is the penalty kill. The Oilers PK has been terminally stationed in the bottom five of the NHL stats. But under Tippett, with names that Holland has collected like Riley Sheahan, Josh Archibald and Markus Granlund, Edmonton sits second with a 94.1 per cent success rate.
"You know what’s good with the penalty kill? It’s the people doin’ it," Tippett said. "Everyone has a scheme, but we have people who have really bought in, really taken pride in it."
All in all, it’s a roster that is deeper with legitimate NHLers, and a set of four lines and three defensive pairings with different characteristics. Underneath two of the league’s best players, there is simply more here than there used to be.
"It’s a team. It’s not two players," reasoned Tippett. "Those two players, they’re both top, top players. But I think if you can maximize every player on your team it makes you a better team. Maximize top players and they’ll do good things. But you can maximize guys underneath in less glamorous roles… and it turns into a good team effort."