You can almost taste the irony in those words, can’t you?
For years in Edmonton, it has always been about furnishing their superstars with the requisite wingers so they can be, well, superstars. It’s not an insult, simply the truth in most hockey cities: you supply your best centreman with your best wingers. And when you have both Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl down the middle, well, the result becomes a top-heavy team that lacks the necessary depth to be a true contender.
“The perception of our team is,” began head coach Dave Tippett Saturday morning, “you’ve got the McDavid line, the Draisaitl line, and after that it’s just kind of pick 'em. We want to get to be a team where teams look at us and say, ‘They can throw four lines at you, with real good depth on all four lines.”
And so, with the signing of a legit top-six left winger in Kane, Tippett made his move in Montreal, shifting Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to the third-line centre spot and sending Zach Hyman along as his left winger.
Those two have been top-six players here all season long. Now, alongside right winger Zack Kassian, that duo provides a third line that should be able to defend and produce a bit as well.
Here are Edmonton’s expected lines Saturday night in Montreal:
With two players of that pedigree on Line 3, we wonder if we’ll see McDavid and Draisaitl’s league-leading (among forwards) ice time come down Saturday night?
“Our depth is as good as it’s ever been since I have been here,” Draisaitl said after the morning skate at the Bell Centre. “We all like to get our ice time, but Tipp is an experienced coach and we have a lot of good players on our team. We all have to accept our roles, and play as a team.”
For me, this is a culture shift. A realization that, maybe Draisaitl and McDavid are good enough that they can get by with a third-line scorer such as Warren Foegele on their side. Or a guy such as Kailer Yamamoto, who is playing above his pay grade next to McDavid.
Sort of the way Sidney Crosby has worked alongside Chris Kunitz, Bryan Rust, Connor Sheary, Pascal Dupuis or Max Talbot over the years in Pittsburgh.
Here’s a couple of stats to chew on:
In 14 combined NHL seasons before this one, McDavid (three) and Draisaitl have combined for four Art Ross Trophies and three Hart Trophies. In 31 combined seasons, Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have also combined for four Art Ross Trophies and three Harts.
But Pittsburgh has won three Stanley Cups.
So the Edmonton duo, in less than 50 per cent of the games, have equalled the Penguins stars when it comes to individual awards. But seven seasons in, have the Oilers even once been considered a legit Stanley Cup contender, the way the Penguins have annually been?
Let’s be clear: That is not the fault of McDavid and Draisaitl, but instead an organization that has not built a contender around them. However, the Pittsburgh model left Crosby to make players out of guys such as Rust, Sheary, and of late, Jake Guentzel.
Today, with the Oilers stars one-two atop all NHL forwards in both time on ice (per game) and shift length, Kane’s arrival has allowed Tippett to embark on a bit of a culture change. It starts with Nugent-Hopkins at 3C, and Hyman on his wing to help with faceoffs. Tippett is giving RNH — not one of the big boys — a top winger to play with.
“They’re going to be effective because they’re three really good hockey players,” said Draisaitl. “I’m looking forward to watching them. I like what this line looks like.”
But he admits it’s a bit different. And clearly, if it makes the Oilers a better, deeper, playoff ready team, Draisaitl is on board.
“There are roles that need to be accepted, and we have a lot of really good forwards who need their ice time. Who need to play,” he said. “It’s going to take us a little bit of time to find the perfect role for everybody, but looking at the lineup, it looks good.”
Look, when you have $21 million spent on your top two centres — and Nugent-Hopkins on a new eight-year, $41-million deal — you’re not going to be able to afford a Phillip Danault or Patrice Bergeron. Perhaps that elusive 3C has been in Edmonton all this time, though Nugent-Hopkins doesn’t necessarily fit the classic job description the way Danault, Guy Carbonneau, John Madden or Adam Lowry do.
“The one key aspect of all those players you mention is they’re all smart players,” said Tippett. “They read plays well, and Nuge is in that category.”
This is what had to happen in Edmonton, if the Oilers are ever going to win anything other than individual awards. And perhaps as a result, McDavid and Draisaitl don’t lead the league in points every year, or vie for every MVP award.
But maybe, just maybe, increased depth (and a goalie somewhere down the road) means they challenge for the trophy that truly matters.
And if that happens you can thank Evander Kane, who made it all possible.