Oilers’ young leaders, veteran depth hungry to write new playoff narrative

Oilers captain Connor McDavid joins Zack Kassian and Darnell Nurse on the podium to discuss the hunger and excitement to get things going in their play-in series vs. the Chicago Blackhawks, and qualify for the playoffs.

EDMONTON — We’ve waited for it to be real in Edmonton, for how long?

Since their first No. 1 overall pick, Taylor Hall, in 2010? Since they picked at No. 1 in ’11 and ’12?

Since Edmonton finally added an experienced general manager, hiring Peter Chiarelli in 2015?

Since McLellan? Since McDavid?

They took a nice run to Game 7 of Round 2 back in 2017, and we all thought, “OK. Finally. This will be a good team now, for a long time.”

Then they missed the playoffs two years in a row.

Failure has dogged this franchise through four No. 1 overall picks, through new GMs, new coaches, new game plans and road maps. Twelve of 13 playoffs missed prior to this season. Miss one more and it was history: In a 14-year window, the least successful franchise in the history of the National Hockey League.

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Today, with the Oilers fixing to open their Qualifying Round series on Saturday against the Chicago Blackhawks, we return to that place we were three years ago. An Oilers team that seems impossibly promising, embarking on a playoff run that, surely this time around, will be the first of many.

“We’re all just hungry to get back and play [playoff hockey], the guys who went through that experience,” said defenceman Darnell Nurse, one of the young internal leaders around which this team is built. “Yeah, it was a great year, 2017. But the let-off came the following couple of years. We’re hungry to prove ourselves. That we’re capable of being in this position, and capable of playing at this level of hockey.”

So, what’s the difference now?

Why does the football stay on the tee for Oilers fans this time, as opposed to all those other times (like 2006) when the sky was the limit — and then it wasn’t?

And don’t tell me it is because they have Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. They had both of those players in 2018 and 2019 and missed the playoffs.

“Those young, high-end talent guys have all matured,” points out Dave Tippett, head coach and chief psychologist in Edmonton. “They’re not only great players, but they’ve matured into figuring out how to win a little bit in this league.”

So, we’re hitting on something here.

It used to be that the best players were all aged 20 and 21, and the so-called “leaders” were often washed up imports who couldn’t believe the entitlement that was allowed to fester among young players who hadn’t won anything yet.

Now, those young skilled guys ARE the leaders, for the most part. McDavid is 23, but mature beyond his years. Draisaitl is 24 and also an old soul. Nurse is 25, Oscar Klefbom 27. Not grizzled veterans but not teenagers either.

“Our leadership group is a little bit younger, yet they’re engaged with the veteran guys on our team, and we’ve got better depth,” said Tippett. “All in all, we’ve talked about building a team that’s not just competitive ion the high-end skill part, but competitive in winning. The things you don’t normally think about when you think of a high-skill team, we’ve made improvements on.”

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The older guys, the imports, fulfill roles that younger players traditionally struggle with. Like killing penalties, an area that has plagued the Oilers for many, many seasons.

Today, veterans like Riley Sheahan, Josh Archibald, the drafted and developed Jujhar Khaira, Kris Russell all take a PK into the playoffs that was better than any other team in the tournament.

Tippett’s Oilers have some nice skill on the blue line, but also possess defencemen like Adam Larsson and Kris Russell who do the unquantifiable dirty work on a nightly basis. Two guys who never make a highlight package — the same way Rob Scuderi, Ken Daneyko, Sami Pahlsson or John Madden never did.

They don’t have individual awards for players like these. Just Stanley Cups.

“They’re the heart and soul of our team,” Draisaitl declared in a Zoom call this week, looking to his left where Larsson and Russell sat. “We all know we can score and fans like that part of the game a lot more, appreciate it more. But these guys go unnoticed a lot of times. They should get some recognition. Rusty blocking the shots, Larsson playing the minutes, the toughest competition against the other team every night. They set the tone.”

The “tone” they set is simple: We’re not that old Oilers team that is easy to play against. That would rather the game wasn’t painful, or left a bruise. That rushed home to catch themselves on the highlight packages, often scoring the second goal in a 5-2 loss.

Everyone talks about the Oilers’ skill and speed. They’ve been doing that for a decade.

Now they talk about the parts of the game that used to be easy wins for the opponent. Penalty killing, puck battles, discipline in a 1-1 game — they’re a problem for the Blackhawks now.

And isn’t that something new in these parts?

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