EDMONTON — General manager Ken Holland just didn’t have the cap space or the draft ammunition to really impact his Edmonton Oilers roster at the trade deadline. So he settled for a No. 4-5 defenceman in Dmitry Kulikov, and left the improvement up to the guys he already had.
Enter third-line centre Ryan McLeod, who has gone 62 per cent in the faceoff circle in two games. At six-foot-three, he skates so well that you can see him as this team’s 3C for a decade to come.
How about Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who is doing his best to rescue a lousy offensive season while back on Leon Draisaitl’s left side? He had a goal and an assist Wednesday in a 3-1 win.
And Jesse Puljujarvi, whose game has reached the point that he and Connor McDavid can make it work with whomever ends up as their left winger. Even Dominik Kahun.
“I liked the way Kahun has played there,” said head coach Dave Tippett.
On Monday the Oilers won a wide open, free-wheeling game by a 6-1 score. It was a Connor McDavid highlight reel, with all six Edmonton goals coming at even strength.
Two nights later, they flipped the switch. It was a defensive slog-fest with zero space, against a Winnipeg Jets team hellbent on not letting the Oilers lord a six-game winning streak over the Jets when Round 1 of the playoffs opens. So, Edmonton scored twice on the power play, and watched backup Mikko Koskinen make 29 saves before a Draisaitl empty-netter sealed a 3-1 win.
However you want to play, the Edmonton Oilers can play that way. When’s the last time we’ve been able to say that about this organization?
“It’s a lot more fun winning than losing,” chuckled Nugent-Hopkins, the longest-serving Oiler. “We had a bit of a shaky start to our season (3-6) but we didn’t get down on ourselves. Ever since then, we’ve kind of been rolling. This is the time we want to be speaking. Things are going well for us right now.”
They win when the score is 6-1, and they win when the score is 2-1.
They win whether it’s Mike Smith between the pipes, or if it’s Koskinen. They win at even strength, or they’ll beat you with their special teams, killing a crucial Kailer Yamamoto penalty late in this one.
“Our power play got a couple of big goals for us, and it was just kind of a slugfest after that with guys just trying to find space out there,” Tippett said. “Lots of corner play, wall play… (His players showed) a combination of physical play and being able to make a play in a tight situation. Our guys hung in there and we found a way to win.”
If you didn’t see the highlights on TV, that’s because there weren’t any. This was hand-to-hand combat against a Jets team that has now dropped five straight and lost touch of second place in the North. They’ll be much better when Adam Lowry and Nik Ehlers return for sure, but by then they’ll be boarding a plane to open Round 1 in Edmonton.
“It’s a fresh start in the playoffs,” said Nugent Hopkins, who rifled home a powerplay wrist shot. “They’ll be fired up to play, we’ll be fired up to play. Who knows if we’ll play them?”
The only way Edmonton won’t play the Jets in Round 1 is if they somehow catch Toronto for the North Division lead, which seems ridiculous the way the Leafs are playing. But, just for fun…
Of Edmonton’s nine remaining games, only two — against Montreal — are against playoff teams. There’s a two-game set at home against Calgary starting tonight, and five more with a dispirited Canucks team that was embarrassed by Ottawa on Wednesday.
The Maple Leafs have seven games left and a seven point lead on Edmonton. They’ve got Vancouver twice, Montreal three times, an Ottawa and a Winnipeg.
Tippett won’t be looking at the standings over the final nine games. Not as much as he’ll be looking at his roster.
“We’re trying to get our team ready,” he said. “If we continue to build our team game the way we hope, the standings will take care of themselves.
“All the little parts of the game that need to be clicking at the right time? That’s what we’re working on every day.”
Give Tippet and his staff some credit.
They stuck with struggling defenceman Ethan Bear and he has found his game, making those smart, quick plays in his own zone that result in multiple zone exits per night. And they’ve realized the value in depth winger Alex Chiasson, who screened Connor Hellebuyck on Tyson Barrie’s power play goal — a goal that doesn’t happen without Chiasson’s work, even though he went pointless in the game.
They’ve been unafraid to use McLeod, whose size and speed remind of Lowry. When healthy, Jujhar Khaira falls right into his wheelhouse as a rugged fourth-line centre, and Edmonton is set up the middle.
Barrie, with a goal and an assist, became the highest scorer among NHL players who switched teams in the off-season, and with another three-point night McDavid did something that has been done once in the NHL in 15 years, notching his fourth consecutive game of three points or more.
But it’s the team around McDavid and Leon Draisaitl — despite their nightly production — that has given Edmonton the fourth-best winning percentage in the NHL since their 3-6 start.
“It’s been a unique year that way,” began Tippett. “You’ve got this taxi squad all around, so you’ve got a good selection of guys you can pick from. There are some veteran guys who probably haven’t played as much as they’d like, but we’re trying to find the right mix.
“McLeod’s had such a good (AHL) year, we wanted to give him a look. Kulikov’s come in and … he’s a good veteran player. It’s a different year — you’re carrying 30 players on the road in the regular season, and that’s usually a playoff (roster).
“We’ve got lots of options, and we’re probably going to need that depth.”
That’s a new one here in Edmonton.