At some point in the Edmonton Oilers’ next few games, maybe as soon as they visit the Winnipeg Jets on Monday and Wednesday, Ryan McLeod will make his NHL debut.
There is ample reason for fans to be excited about the 21-year-old centre, who was recalled from the Bakersfield Condors of the AHL last week, and where he has notched 14 goals and 14 assists in 28 games this season. The Oilers would be thrilled to see McLeod’s name in the scoresheet in his debut, but they won’t be counting on it. After all, Wayne Gretzky didn’t score in his first NHL game. Neither did Connor McDavid.
There are just over 20 players who recorded a goal in their NHL debut with the Oilers, so on the occasion of McLeod’s pending inaugural game, here’s a look back at five of the top NHL debuts in franchise history.
October 10, 1979 – Oilers at Chicago Black Hawks
It is rare to score a franchise’s first goal, even more rare to score a franchise’s first goal while playing your first game.
Kevin Lowe, Edmonton’s first-ever NHL draft choice (21st overall in 1979), did just that when he backhanded the puck past fellow future Hall-of-Famer Tony Esposito for a power-play goal midway through the opening period of the Oilers’ first NHL contest, against the Black Hawks at the iconic Chicago Stadium.
The 20-year-old defenseman wasn’t done making history: Late in the third period, he dropped the gloves with veteran scrapper Grant Mulvey and was assessed Edmonton’s first fighting major to end his night early with one goal, two shots, a plus-one rating, and seven minutes in penalties.
October 6, 1993 – Oilers vs. San Jose Sharks
As Edmonton’s highest draft selection in a dozen years (7th overall in 1993), the hype surrounding Jason Arnott reached a fever pitch before he’d even skated a shift in the 1993-94 season, as the Oilers embarked on a rebuild based on the remnants of their dynasty era.
On opening night at Northlands Coliseum, with every seat in the 300-level priced at $7 (Arnott’s uniform number), the rookie centre lived up to all of it, scoring the game-winning goal on the power play, a five-hole shot on San Jose Sharks goalie Arturs Irbe to break a 2-2 tie with just 7:17 remaining.
Never one to be accused of shyness, Arnott was also penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct after saying something that didn’t go over well with the officials (from “Weighta Go!; Arnott nets winner in 3rd; Doug leads Oilers over Sharks” The Edmonton Journal, 10/7/83).
November 6, 1993 – Oilers at St. Louis Blues
Byakin had one of the most standout offensive outings by an Edmonton player in his NHL debut, scoring and assisting twice against the Blues at St. Louis Arena.
The Russian defenseman racked up his team-leading three points in just 15:42 between the second and third periods; he assisted on goals by Shayne Corson and Zdeno Ciger before beating Blues goaltender Curtis Joseph for a power-play marker at 8:51 of the third, momentarily giving the Oilers a 5-4 lead.
It bears mentioning that Byakin was no greenhorn; he made his NHL debut at age 30, after playing several seasons in the Soviet Championship League before he was drafted by Edmonton (267th in 1993). He didn’t meet the NHL criteria to be considered a rookie.
October 7, 2010 – Oilers vs. Calgary Flames
Jordan Eberle suited up for more than 500 games with the Oilers, but if there’s an indelible image from his time in Edmonton, it’s from his first.
In the opening moments of the third period, with Edmonton holding on to a 1-0 lead and the Calgary Flames on the power play, Oilers defenseman Jim Vandermeer fed the puck to Eberle, who broke out of his zone on a two-on-one with captain Shawn Horcoff. Showing savvy well beyond his 20 years, Eberle waited for Calgary’s Ian While to commit, dragged the puck around the sliding Flames defender, then went top-shelf backhand to beat goalie Mikka Kiprusoff, sending the sold-out Rexall Place crowd into a frenzy.
Eberle’s shorthanded goal was probably the most spectacular play of the Oilers’ 2010-11 season, overshadowing what was a terrific all-around debut performance by the right-winger, who also added an assist, drew a penalty, and was named the game’s first star.
October 9, 2011 – Oilers vs. Pittsburgh Penguins
A few months after being selected first overall at the 2011 Draft in St. Paul, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins formally introduced himself to the NHL, coming up clutch at Rexall Place against the visiting Pittsburgh Penguins. Nugent-Hopkins was the only Oiler to put the puck past netminder Brent Johnson before the shootout, tying the game 1-1 on a backhander from in tight with just under five minutes remaining in the third period.
The 18-year-old forward finished the game with 3 shots and 2 penalty minutes. He skated 19 shifts, logging 17:04 ice time, and led the Oilers with a Relative Corsi of 28.7.
Nugent-Hopkins is one of two current Oilers who scored in his NHL debut. The other is winger Jesse Puljujarvi, who is the most recent Oiler to achieve that feat, scoring in a 7-4 win over Calgary in the inaugural regular-season game at Rogers Place, Oct. 12, 2016.
McLeod would be the first, and likely only, skater to make his NHL debut with the Oilers this season. On Jan. 31, goaltender Stuart Skinner started his first NHL game, backstopping Edmonton to an 8-5 win over the visiting Ottawa Senators.
Brian is an Edmonton-based sports writer and broadcaster. His experience includes working as a sports reporter for the Edmonton Sun, where he covered the Edmonton Oil Kings 2013-14 Memorial Cup championship season.