EDMONTON — It used to be a running joke among the Edmonton media.
The good teams — San Jose, Anaheim, Detroit, Los Angeles, Vancouver — would roll into Edmonton and talk about that night’s opponent.
“They’re a team that plays quick, they have good skill, they work hard,” they would say. “For the struggles they’ve had early, they’ve continued to improve. They’ll be a handful here — they’ve played much better lately.”
Henrik Sedin would praise the young, eternally rebuilding Oilers as a true threat. Eight hours later, the young Oilers would spit out of Daniel and Henrik’s spin cycle like a cat caught napping in the dryer.
The next day Patrick Marleau, Nick Lidstrom, Joe Sakic or Drew Doughty would arrive, and when us scribes would compare their quotes, they would be almost identical to what the Sedins had said.
Edmonton? Meet Ottawa, the former you.
“They’re a good, young team,” said the Oilers’ James Neal, when asked Tuesday to characterize Wednesday’s (and Friday’s) opponent. “They’re young, full of energy, they’re scrappy. They’re looking to outwork you and they have some high-end skill to go with that.”
Tyler Ennis spoke of his old team, a Senators club that employed him for the 2019-20 campaign.
“They were in a rebuild, and they are currently in a rebuild. But they have some great young players,” said Ennis. “They’re young but they’re growing, and you can see them get better every day.”
Wednesday the Oilers will host the Senators in the sixth meeting of the season between the two teams. Edmonton has won each of the first five meetings in regulation, most recently a come-from-behind, 3-2 victory Monday night in Edmonton, the first of three games for the Senators in the Alberta capital.
Heading into Game 2, the Oilers went full Sedin, warning about how the team they’ve been beating for fun this season could jump up and bite them at any moment. And really, what else are they supposed to say?
Reporters ask players questions, players and coaches have to respond with answers. And as much as the game may have changed since 2010, respecting one’s opponent is a heritage attribute in the NHL.
It’s not like the Oilers are a finished product — they are most certainly not. They have, however, managed to escape the rebuilding vortex that gripped this franchise for more than a decade. Today, they have some homegrown leaders, rather than some imports brought in to help teach the draft picks how to become NHLers.
Now it is Ottawa who is acquiring the Erik Gudbransons, the Cedric Paquettes and the Derek Stepans — older players brought in to show the young stars how to become successful, functioning professionals.
It’s not like when Neal broke in with the Dallas Stars, a veteran club with a roster full players who remained from some successful years.
“We had guys like Brad Richards, Mike Modano, Brenden Morrow, Marty Turco, Sergei Zubov, Stephan Robidas,” listed Neal. “One guy after another who takes you under their wing and shows you how to be a pro. How to go about your days. How to be a winner. How to prepare for games, and how to go through games.
“Then I went on to Pittsburgh and played with guys like Sid (Crosby) and Geno (Evgeni Malkin). Into Nashville with Mike Fisher and (Shea) Weber… I’ve been around a lot of great leaders. You learn day in day out what it takes to win and what it takes to be able to bring that mindset every day.
“Sometimes,” concluded Neal, “I think it’s different for young guys coming in (today) because there really aren’t that many older guys on the team. They’ve kind of got to fend for themselves a little bit.”
It was exactly that way in Edmonton for the players who now form the core of the team. As high draft picks like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Darnell Nurse arrived, management tried to buffer them with veterans from winning programs, names like Andrew Ference, Milan Lucic, Eric Belanger, Nick Schultz and Boyd Gordon.
Today, the letter-wearers in Edmonton are all homegrown, except for Adam Larsson (who was traded for one). And when they look down the hall at a team like Ottawa, they know exactly what they’re looking at.
They’re looking at themselves. And they know that it doesn’t matter how much they butter up the Senators, because those guys have one thing in mind.
“You want to win,” began Nurse. “It doesn’t matter what situation or state your team is in. What position you are in the standings. You want to show up each and every night and they want to win. They have good weapons, young talent with a lot of grit. Guys who just want to play the right way and be in the lineup every night.
“I know, when we were in that situation, you didn’t come to the rink saying, ‘We’re in a rebuild.’ Or, ‘We’re a younger team.’ Your only thought was that you … wanted to be on the right side of that win column every night.”
They just haven’t managed to find a way against Edmonton, through five games.
No. 6 goes tonight.
And the Oilers?
They’d better give it 110 per cent.