The Edmonton Oilers on-ice leadership group is, without a doubt, still Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. Clearly one-two (maybe even 1A and 1B), they’ve dominated the NHL-scoring race as a duo, put the team on their backs and carried them to the top of the NHL standings in the Western Conference.
That said, one can argue that the really important leadership is coming from two other more unlikely sources. And, those two sources are making a world of difference.
Mike Smith is Back
There aren’t enough positive adjectives to describe the type of season Mike Smith is having so far in Edmonton. He’s been as good, if not better than an on-fire Mikko Koskinen and Smith’s dominance in the most recent win over the Pittsburgh Penguins was just the latest example of how good he’s been.
Early in the 2018-19 season, Smith struggled in Calgary. A veteran who’s best years might have been behind him, the Oilers took a gamble anyways. Hoping the latter part of his campaign as the Flames made their way into the postseason was the real Smith, GM Ken Holland risked that Smith’s early issues were only a blip on his fairly glowing NHL record. He was right.
You can see the difference in the way the Oilers attack when Smith is in net. Obviously, with a netminder who plays the puck as often as Smith does, there are bound to be mistakes; that has happened this season. That said, the sum total of what Smith offers when he can lead the rush with one laser-beam pass far exceeds any of his miscalculations as a puck-handling goaltender and the Oilers have noticed.
Leon Draisaitl, has described having Smith in net as like having a third defenseman on the ice. You can peel off and wait for a pass and it’s a weapon that provides the Oilers with a completely difference look. Draisaitl said of Smith’s unique abilities:
He’s one of the few guys in the league who can move it up to you as a hard pass.
I think it’s really going to help us in transitioning out of our D zone, trying to break out past their forecheck. You just have to be ready for it because you know as a player he can get you the puck.”source – ‘Oilers Notes: Smith adds new dynamic to Edmonton crease’ – Robert Tychkowski – The Edmonton Sun – 09/24/2019
Even more, Smith has shown his vocal leadership on a daily basis. Calling defense-only huddles in practice, orchestrating his blue line like a maestro and talking all game long, he’s Edmonton’s new on-ice and off-ice veteran voice. He seems comfortable in his role, he’s not afraid to chat with (and give it back to) media, and in the short time he’s been in this organization, he’s not shy about commanding the room. All of that would bring value, even if he weren’t playing great — which he is.
James Neal On and Off the Ice
Another addition that’s been more bang-for-the-buck than the Oilers could have ever hoped is James Neal. Holland took a smart gamble when he acquired Neal but who could have expected what he did in October?
With 11 goals and 13 points in 16 games, Neal has been everything and more than the Oilers could have asked for. And, it’s not just his goal scoring that’s been a breathe of fresh air. You can see how much he talks on the bench, employs his experience, directs traffic and how well-respected he is by the rest of his teammates.
Head coach Dave Tippett has said of Neal, “He finds opportunities and he capitalizes.” This is the kind of stuff that the bottom-six forwards should be paying attention to, especially when you consider Neal’s shooting percentage will have to come back down to earth a little over time and the bottom-six needs to keep things simple.
Joking there was a new team rule early in the season, “If you score 4, you don’t have to pracitce,” Tippett said when Neal busted open his offense early in the season. What Tippett likely really meant was, ‘Here’s a guy who is coming off a terrible season, he had to get his game back, he’s done it and hard work pays off, in more ways than one.’
Neal has been around the NHL. He’s the kind of guy you can watch play and, while skilled, he’s not McDavid or Draisaitl who have tools few other forwards in the NHL have. Neal simply goes to the areas, shoots the puck, rinses and repeats.
Whether you listen to what Neal says, or you take what he does on the ice and as example in your game, if you’re a member of the Oilers, you’re better off for having paid attention. As his nickname indicates, he’s the real deal and a major leader for this group.