Oilers Need Their Leaders to Step It Up

Sometimes body language can say everything. In the days and weeks leading up to the firing of Edmonton Oilers head coach Dave Tippett on Feb. 10, you could see signs of struggles on and off the ice with their leaders. Whether it was Connor McDavid chewing out a teammate on the bench or Leon Draisaitl accused of being “pissy” at a press briefing, the leaders have clearly been frustrated at the twists and turns this season has taken.

Connor McDavid Edmonton Oilers
Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Now that the Oilers have enjoyed a positive reboot under new head coach Jay Woodcroft and assistant coach Dave Manson in their win against the New York Islanders on Feb. 11, it might be time for the leadership group to step up and inspire the team – all the way to the playoffs and hopefully beyond that.

McDavid, Draisaitl & Nurse Are Keys to Leadership Group

Many consider the leadership group of the Oilers to be made up of McDavid, Draisaitl, defenceman Darnell Nurse and veteran goalie Mike Smith. There’s a possibility that three-time Stanley Cup champion Duncan Keith could be part of it as well. Based on the history of the team, including the excessive coaching and management hirings and firings in the past few seasons, they might need to come of age between now and the end of the 2021-22 season.

In a recent Sportsnet article, veteran scribe Mark Spector wrote a piece that questioned the leadership group led by McDavid, Draisaitl and Nurse. That led to a much-publicized private meeting between McDavid and Spector on Feb. 11.

Related: McDavid Has Chat with Writer After Scathing Review: Time to Step Up

Spector, who is sometimes unnecessarily critical of individuals and the team, does have a point and also alluded on Twitter that it might be time to examine the leadership of the players. Respected Edmonton Sun writer, Robert Tychkowski, also wrote a piece on Feb. 10 where he reminded readers of the issues that have plagued the Oilers organization for over a decade.

If you’re scoring at home, incoming Jay Woodcroft is the 11th head coach since owner Daryl Katz took over the team in 2008. Eleven! That’s embarrassing.

(from ‘TYCHKOWSKI: Oilers parked at intersection of Frustration and Despair’, Edmonton Sun, 2/10/22)

You can’t always blame the general manager and coach, the players have to take some share of the responsibility too. I believe, based on the character of McDavid, Draisaitl and Nurse, they all want to do whatever it takes to win. The hard part might be is that this group needs to step up right now in order to save the season. The challenge could also result in two of the best players in the world taking their games even higher because they learned to win by kicking down the doors of adversity.

Great NHL Leaders All Learned How To Win The Hard Way

When you think about great leaders in NHL history, you can start with former Detroit Red Wings’ captain Steve Yzerman, who learned to play a more complete game to eventually win three Stanley Cup championships. Like McDavid, Yzerman was given the captaincy early in his career and grew into one of the best leaders of all time.

Steve Yzerman Red Wings
Steve Yzerman (Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty Images)

McDavid, who seems more like Bobby Orr in terms of being uncomfortable in front of the media, is getting there. As he enters the prime of his career, you can see his leadership emerge. However, he might have to take a cue from Orr and leave the difficult conversations with teammates for the dressing room rather than the bench. It’s good to show emotion because it means you care. How you channel that emotion is the key to winning. Just ask leaders like Mark Messier, Bobby Clarke and the great Mario Lemieux.

The Oilers Just Need To Win

This article isn’t meant to pile on individuals and a team that has seen more ups and downs in one season than an elevator repairman. McDavid and Draisaitl are doing more than their fair share to carry the Oilers. It’s more of a reminder that good character when mixed with world-class talent often results in greatness that becomes immortal.

Leon Draisaitl Edmonton Oilers
Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The Oilers under general manager Ken Holland are not a perfect team, almost everyone and their dog knows they need to solidify their goaltending and tighten up defensively. BUT, if this current edition of the team were to somehow find a way to work through the adversity and get into the playoffs, they’ll be more battle-hardened than they’ve been in the last few seasons. That could take them farther in the postseason than they’ve been in 16 years. Great leadership on the ice can help make that possible, but all of the best leaders have to face adversity first. This just might be the time for McDavid and Draisaitl. In fact, it could end up being their finest hour.

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