EDMONTON — From the outside, the Edmonton Oilers are all about past sins.
A litany of management teams. Too many No. 1 picks and not enough success with them. A rebuild that stalled on Floor 1 for, oh, about a decade. Maybe longer.
So when you look at this team in its totality, another early playoff exit comes off just another boulder on the avalanche of disappointments to come out of Northern Alberta over the past 20 years.
Hey – we’ve covered them all. I know how long it’s been.
But if you could simply look at what they have now. Where they are today — without all the Peter Chiarelli or Craig MacTavish shade — you’d be where Connor McDavid sits, as his 24-year-old season comes to a close with a disappointing first-round sweep.
And you might understand how ridiculous those people sound who are predicting that McDavid is just this close to wanting out of Edmonton.
“That’s not the case – at all,” McDavid said emphatically. “We have a great core here. Leon (Draisaitl) and Nursie (Darnell Nurse), Nuge (Ryan Nugent-Hopkins), Larss (Adam Larsson) … These are guys that I’ve kinda grown up with. We want to see this thing through together. Do this thing right – as a group. It’s special to be able to play with these guys. It feels like we’re light years away (after being swept), but we’re a lot closer than it feels today.”
It is disrespectful, frankly, to opine that McDavid is ready to just quit on everything and everybody here and walk away — to the Toronto Maple Leafs, as the narrative goes, that bastion of playoff success.
If you know McDavid, you see a person who doesn’t run away, even from an organization that has floundered like this one. He’s a builder, and this team’s regular season numbers say it actually is on the rise. He even looks at his own Hart Trophy-level game and finds places where it can be improved.
“I’ve got another level I can get to. Leo has another level. Collectively just finding another gear,” he said. “I’m only 24 years old. I’ve got lots left. Lots of ways to grow my game in different areas, find different ways to have success. (Even though) it feels like I’ve been in the league for a long time, ultimately I’m still a young guy in this league and I have lots of good years ahead of me.”
The fact that the hockey world has gone here again, after a three-OT loss to a Winnipeg Jets club that is better than you think, is because expectations have risen, McDavid said. Both from the outside and within.
“The standard’s gone up,” he said. “The culture where we come to the rink every day, demand better from each other, expect better from each other... If this were a couple of years ago we’d be happy we got to play four playoff games.
“We want more. We want lots more.”
There was a time when the Oilers looked with envy at a team like the Boston Bruins, with its deep, successful culture. With players like Patrice Bergeron, the departed Zdeno Chara, Brad Marchand and David Krejci, who created an environment where young players simply walked into the dressing room and were immersed in the right way to do things.
As such, Edmonton brought in a GM like Chiarelli, and players like Andrew Ference and Milan Lucic, hoping to import some winning culture into a locker room that had long since run out. But all those ex-Bruins had lost their fastball when they arrived here, and their ability to lead suffered accordingly.
Today the leaders are McDavid, Draisaitl, Nurse, Nugent-Hopkins and Larsson, a five-year Oiler who will be signed to a three- or four-year deal within weeks. They all have chops because they all can play.
They’re also the guys who set the bar here, a bar that is finally being set by players whose standards take something special to live up to.
“It’s not the way we wanted (this season) to end, no question about it,” began Draisaitl. “But we took some big steps internally: the way we want to play, the compete level we have every night. There’s no quit in our game. No pouting. We’re starting to build a real good foundation of what is to come the next few years here with the Oilers.
“We know we’ve had some tough times — we have had some very tough times. There have been a lot of disappointing years. It’s going to feel that much better when we do win, when we are at the top. We want to win as a group, and we want to do it with the guys that are here.”
Do the math. Edmonton became a better team in almost every category this season — particularly defensively. GM Ken Holland, after two years of mopping up after Chiarelli, has some cap space this summer to fill in a couple of crucial holes in his roster.
But whomever he brings in, they’ll walk into a proper dressing room now, with the right culture. Sure, the leaders still need to learn how to win in the playoffs — undoubtedly — but that’s all that remains, and they have paid their dues.
This is that annual playoff team now, with a puncher’s chance that will grow as Holland fills in around the edges of his lineup, and playing next year in a division full of teams that will all but ensure Edmonton hosts a first-round playoff series.
“This is where I want to be,” said Nurse, who played 62 minutes Monday night and became a father Tuesday morning.
“We came up in this league together, me, Leon, Connor, Nuge… We’ve been here when it wasn’t so great, played in seasons where you’re out in January, and it was some pretty dark ends to the season.
"You want to have success and win in this organization. We’ve been through the thick of it."