EDMONTON — It was the strangest sweep we’d ever seen.
Usually, when a team sweeps a playoff series, you look at the opponent and say, “Man, they just couldn’t handle that team.” But when the Winnipeg Jets swept the Edmonton Oilers last spring — winning three games in overtime — the analytics told us that Edmonton had actually had the better of the play through four games.
Learning from that series is required reading for this year’s Oilers. But what, exactly, do you learn from a series where every break seemed to go the other team’s way?
“It’s a good question,” mused Leon Draisaitl on Friday. “Honestly, I thought we were the better team in all four games.”
That may be up for conversation, but truly, it was a series where one team got the big goal at the right time through four games, while the other simply couldn’t find any fortune at all.
“It’s really hard to pinpoint one thing,” said Draisaitl, when asked what Edmonton could improve on. “It’s the little things: We couldn’t score at the right time. When it was 3-1 or in overtime, we couldn’t find that goal that really put the game out of reach. We couldn’t score at the right time.”
This year’s team is deeper. Derek Ryan’s faceoff prowess will allow Draisaitl to sit out some key defensive draws, and be more fresh. Zach Hyman will free Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to stay on Draisaitl’s wing long-term, and the hope is that Warren Foegele will beef up production from the bottom-six.
“This is the deepest group since I’ve been here,” Draisaitl said. “In 2017 we had a really good team, but this gives us more options for the future. We are a more unpredictable group than we have been in the past.
“We’ve learned from last year. Maybe the bounces weren’t there, but that’s also something you have to earn. Maybe that is something that is good for a team. As much as it hurts in that moment, we’ll be better for it.”
Draisaitl arrived in Edmonton as a 19-year-old and first made the playoffs at age 22. Now, he turns 26 on Oct. 27 and has a Hart Trophy and four playoff series under his belt.
He’s become a top-10 player in the NHL, a full-grown man who is just 22 games short of 500 NHL games. He is in his prime, both mentally and physically — a very good player who is still going to get better.
“You think of him as a great playmaker? Well, he’s strong. He’s like a bull out there,” said head coach Dave Tippett, who has watched his leadership group grow up in front of his eyes over the past two years. “Our leadership, they want to make sure that everything they’re talking about, they’re doing first. Well, he’s the first in line on that.”
With Hyman on board, and the maturation of Jesse Puljujarvi, there’s no more talk about whether Draisaitl and Connor McDavid will play together or apart. Tippett may unite them on a shift after a penalty kill, or in the third period of a game where the offence has sputtered. But they may start 82 games on separate lines this season, if things go as planned in Edmonton.
“I think they kind of like it that way,” said Tippett. “They both want to take the responsibility of making us a more balanced team. (Uniting them) is a nice card to have in our pocket, if you need it.”
On the other side of hockey’s ecosystem sits Kyle Turris, a former star player who is now staring the end of his career directly in the face.
Turris signed a two-year deal to be Edmonton’s third-line centre a year ago, and it didn’t work. He played in just 27 games and had a paltry five points last season. He was told in exit meetings to come back in the fall and compete as a right winger.
“It was really frustrating, sitting there watching. Especially four games in the playoffs. It definitely fuelled some of my motivation,” said Turris, who stayed in Edmonton all summer and worked out daily with Oilers conditioning coach Chad Drummond. “I put on weight and strength and explosiveness. It was nice to get back to a summer training routine like I had in Ottawa. Spent the whole summer here.”
Can a 32-year-old cat like Turris change his stripes in the sunset of his career? He’s looking at his buddy Jason Spezza in Toronto, who has done just that.
“The game’s changing,” Turris shrugged. “It’s younger, faster, more explosive. A lot more change of direction. I just knew I had to be better. Contribute more and make more of an impact on the game.”
This is it for Turris. Either he proves last year was an aberration, that there is something left and he’s really not that player. Or the rest of the NHL sees him in the press box for another season, and deduces that his time has passed.
“He wants to extend his career. He’s a proud guy,” Tippett said. “He’s played in this league a long time and been a good player. I think he was No. 3 or 4 in conditioning on our team, so he’s giving himself a chance.”
Tyler Benson is at the exact opposite end of his career from Turris, AHL-seasoned and ready to crack an NHL lineup for the first time at age 23. He had at least two assists in Friday’s scrimmage (no score sheets kept) and has stood out in the race for the fourth-line left wing spot.
“I always consider myself a hard worker, but coming into camp and seeing my testing results, it made me pretty proud,” he said. “I’m 185 pounds right now, and I probably played at 190 last year. And I’ve definitely gotten stronger in the gym.”
For the first time in his career, Benson requires waivers to be sent down. He hopes not to have to test that waiver wire, of course.
“I feel like this is where I belong,” said the Edmonton native. “I’ve put in the work at the AHL level, and this is where I want to be a full-time player. I feel like I’m an NHL player. I just have to prove I deserve a roster spot.”
In other news, defenceman Kris Russell (neck) skated Friday morning. Tippett said Josh Archibald isn’t ready to join the main group after serving a 14-day quarantine, which begs the question: why didn’t he come to Edmonton a week earlier?