EDMONTON — “The answer would be, yes.”
General manager Ken Holland knows there are plenty of areas where the Edmonton Oilers have improved, and just as many that have to be improved in the future.
We’re not blaming a four-game loss to the Chicago Blackhawks solely on the two Oilers that finished one-two in the NHL’s scoring race this season.
We are, however, saying that an Oilers team culture is set by a pair of leaders who had 207 regular-season points between them and were a combined minus-13. A pair that combined for 15 playoff points and a plus-2, while Patrick Kane had four points and was also plus-2.
So we asked Holland a simple question regarding McDavid and Draisaitl on Monday:
“Does your team require their defensive leadership more than it needs their offensive leadership right now?”
“The answer would be, yes,” said Holland, before he qualified it: “But I saw that happening.”
Holland has to qualify that quote. And part of me wishes he would not.
Ever since then-coach Ken Hitchcock uttered the memorable quote, “The coaches can’t care more than the players,” it’s the rare time you’ll hear anything other than rainbows and sunshine when it comes to Edmonton’s two superstars.
This was as tough as anyone gets on 97 and 29. “The answer would be, yes.”
In Draisaitl’s exit meeting Saturday with Holland and head coach Dave Tippett, the GM reminded Draisaitl of a play he’d made in Carolina this year, steaming back to break up a Canes two-on-one from the back side.
He didn’t remind Draisaitl of a flashy goal, or a deft pass. It was a defensive play that showed leadership that they wanted him to go into the summer thinking about.
“They are getting better,” Holland said. “But in this playoff series, we were playing against battle-tested players (some of whom) had won three Stanley Cups.”
What Holland was saying there was this: Give our guys a chance to learn what Jonathan Toews, Kane and Duncan Keith have already learned.
Because he knows that when the leaders on a team are absolutely resolute in keeping the puck out of their own net, then it becomes culture. That when players like Yzerman, Sidney Crosby, Mike Modano and Toews decided to prioritize defensive play, the rest of the team — and championships — followed.
Here is how a hockey team works:
A depth player does not look at McDavid breaking wide on a defenceman and say, “Man, I have to do that too.” Because he can’t.
But when he sees McDavid employ that speed in his own zone, or going south to break up a play the way Draisaitl did that day in Raleigh, then the depth player says, “That IS something I can emulate.”
When he sees Draisaitl using his ample size to muscle an opponent off a puck — retrieving that puck for himself, rather than waiting for someone to do that dirty work on his behalf — he sees a template of how Oilers players are expected to play.
When he sees the best player on the team become furious that he has been scored on, then everyone knows that the leadership group is all-in on winning team trophies, not individual ones.
Be pissed off when you get scored on. Check like you mean it.
Until the leaders play that way, the followers don’t have a chance.
“It felt like we were chasing the series. We had a lead in every game, but it seemed to last only three, four, five minutes,” said Holland. “You’re not going to run amok in the playoffs. You’re playing against good hockey teams.
“We went from 25th to 17th (in goals against this season from last), but we need to make more strides,” he continued. “You’ve got to be able to defend. You can’t just outscore your opponents. I don’t think that’s totally a reflection on the defencemen. It’s a reflection on the whole team, and their commitment to keeping the puck out of the net.”
Here is the primary impediment that has kept the Oilers where they are for all these years, and a defence of McDavid and Draisaitl:
When young Jake DeBrusk or Torey Krug arrives in Boston’s dressing room, they are met by Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara and Brad Marchand. Three Stanley Cup-winning veterans who can impart the hard lessons, or warn of what is to come in the playoffs, so as to speed up the maturation of the young player.
In Chicago, Kirby Dach is a sponge around Toews, Keith and Kane. In Pittsburgh, Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang are the professors from whom young players learn.
For years now in Edmonton, the best players have been the kids. Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, McDavid, Draisaitl… There was no institutional knowledge waiting for them. Often, the veterans were over the hill, with depleted skills that mitigated their wisdom.
Finally, however, the current group is learning.
What we talked about above is the last impediment to building a culture that wins in Edmonton. A dressing room inhabited by older players who have something of value to pass on to the younger ones.
It always starts with your best players. On every team, in every sport.
Is it the same with the Edmonton Oilers?
The answer would be, yes.