EDMONTON — It was, in this quirky era of Zoom calls, a straight-to-the-point question that summed up the Edmonton Oilers perfectly.
The Oilers have overcome a 3-6 start, and they’re now 12-8 and second in the North. So Darnell Nurse was asked, is this simply a hot streak that is due to come to an end? Or, is this who the Oilers really are? “Is that something that has to be proven? Or are you guys already there mentally?”
“I don’t think we need to prove it to ourselves in this room,” replied Nurse. “I think we all believe — in this room — that this is the team that we can be. And that’s all that really matters.”
If there is something new in that answer coming from an Edmonton player, it is that this organization has for so long been about justifying itself. Justifying its current state against its history of hockey royalty, defending its progress against a backdrop of No. 1-overall picks. Justifying how one rebuild could bleed into the next like this.
In Nurse’s response we hear a confident player who couldn’t care less about what the outside world thinks about his team. A leader whose priorities are where they should be: on the people inside the walls. Not on the outside.
You may have forgotten that Edmonton was the best Canadian team in both points and winning percentage when everything stopped in March. They haven’t, so the fact that Edmonton is nearer the top of the North this season may be a surprise to many, but not Nurse and his teammates.
“There are going to be ups and downs, turmoil, over the course of the season, but you’ve got to stay even keel,” Nurse said. “We started off the season not great, and we could easily have just buried our heads. But we stayed even keel, and kept working. Now, after this last little stretch, we can’t get too high on ourselves.
“We’ve got to stay on the right side of this.”
They’ve won nine of their past 11, have moved into a tie for eighth in the league in goals differential (plus-10), and have the seventh-best five-on-five PDO in the NHL. Yet, Edmonton still sits 13th in the NHL in winning percentage.
How do they make this latest run the norm, and not just a good few weeks?
“Ultimately to get that consistency, you’ve got to have a lot of players playing well throughout your lineup,” head coach Dave Tippett said. “We’ve had that the last little while here. We know we have some offensive capabilities, but for us to become the team we want to be — become a playoff team — we have to be a good defending team.”
So as the Oilers fly West for a pair against the Vancouver Canucks this week — after allowing only two goals-against total in back-to-back wins over Calgary — we ask the unfamiliar question: What’s going RIGHT for the Edmonton Oilers?
This position was supposed to be Edmonton’s glaring weakness, and when Smith was injured before the season began, the critics (me) were loud. But, since he has returned on Feb. 8 (seven games), the tandem has put up a save percentage of .944.
Smith is still a pretty strong goalie, as long as he is sharing the load. Koskinen, we know, can produce if he is playing half the time, not all the time. Koskinen did his best to keep his team alive until Smith returned, and since then they have gone 6-1.
Nurse and Barrie Delivering
Pick a team and take away their No. 1 defenceman for the entire season.
Quinn Hughes. Thomas Chabot. Morgan Rielly. Shea Weber. Josh Morrissey. Mark Giordano.
We’re not saying that Oscar Klefbom is as good at all elements of the game as everyone in that group, but he IS the Oilers best guy and played 25 minutes a game last season. He also ran the best power play in the NHL and killed penalties on a PK that finished second last season.
Klefbom’s season-long absence could have crippled this team. But Nurse’s game has risen to the challenge — he just played two 30-plus minute games on the weekend, and he sits tied for second among NHL defencemen with 16 points and T-4th at plus-13.
Meanwhile, picking up the UFA Tyson Barrie was a gamble made by GM Ken Holland that is beginning to pay off handsomely. Barrie has found his footing quarterbacking a power play that, after a slow start, has climbed back to ninth in the league, and his 16 points have given the Oilers defence the top scoring blue-line in the league.
And don’t forget Adam Larsson. The nasty Swede has rediscovered his game, and is back to being uber-effective.
People Other Than 29 and 97
Yeah, I know. I saw Saturday’s game too.
But what has quietly happened this season is Edmonton has figured how to win some games where neither Connor McDavid nor Leon Draisaitl are among the Three Stars. Take a bow, Jujhar Khaira, Josh Archibald, Tyler Ennis and Jesse Puljujarvi.
After three seasons of fits and starts, could it be that Khaira has found a way to bring it every night? Even being effective most nights would be a huge improvement over his good-week, bad-week career thus far.
Khaira has supplanted Kyle Turris as Edmonton’s third-line centre, and with speedy Gaetan Haas as the 4C the Oilers have a bottom six that is chipping in. Meanwhile, Puljujarvi — who was a complete wild card when the season began — has turned into a legit threat as a top-six winger, and has barely scraped the surface of what he could become.
Then, on the nights when the bottom six needs a break, Nos. 97 or 29 can always go on a tear.
It’s working in Edmonton these days. And the guys in the uniforms? They don’t care what you think.