Oilers’ Nurse Adds Pressure to Team Leaders’ During Fragile State

The Edmonton Oilers gave up a 3-1 lead to Ottawa Senators last Saturday by surrendering five goals in the third period, resulting in a heartbreaking 6-4 loss to the 30th placed team. Completely distraught, they had five days to physically and mentally prepare for the juggernauts that are the Florida Panthers. They raised the intensity level in practice and came out with their strongest first-period performance that we’ve seen all year, outshooting Florida 17-7. Yet, they still lost the game 6-0 last Thursday night.

In only game 36 of the season, everyone that was still watching the closing minutes of the third period witnessed the second installment this season of “fan throws Oilers jersey onto the ice” at Rogers Place. The team is frustrated, the fans are frustrated, and questions about leadership arose in the post-game press conference.

If you look at the Oilers’ roster, there’s no questioning who the undisputed leaders of the team are. It starts with Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and Darnell Nurse. All three wear a letter on their chest, they can have the biggest impact on the game on any given night, and the trio will soon be the highest-paid players on the team by next season.

Nurse Says Now is a True Test of Leadership

In the first period on Thursday night, the Oilers did everything right against the Panthers— except put the puck in the net. All four lines were rolling and getting their chances, and by the 10-minute mark of the first period, the home team was outshooting the opposition 14-2. However, Edmonton learned what exceptional goaltending can do for a team. Panther’s goaltender, Sergei Bobrovsky, weathered the storm and kept his team in early. Their offense took over, and they left Edmonton with the win, while the Florida netminder earned his 35th career shutout.

Darnell Nurse OIlers-Oilers' Nurse Adds Pressure to Team Leaders' During Fragile State
Darnell Nurse, Edmonton Oilers, Oct. 21, 2017 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

In the post-game conference, Nurse spoke to the media and there was a theme of questions in regard to leadership. The Oilers’ defenseman responded boldly:

“This is a true test of leadership. It’s easy to be a leader when you’re 9-1 or 16-5, it’s easy to lead a team and be the rah-rah guy. Getting out of this is a test for all leaders on our team. Getting out of this is what’s going to make our team better. You have to show up every day with your hard hat on and that’s the only way to get of this. There are no tricks, you have to show up every day and put in the same amount of work. That’s our job and what we have to do to dig ourselves out of this. Like I said, this is when you really have to lead.”

This is a brave statement because Nurse directly puts added pressure on himself. I previously wrote in an article on Jan. 9, in order to get out of their funk, the Oilers’ leaders — especially Nurse — have to step it up and be more assertive in their play. He knows he’s a leader on the Oilers. With the $9.25 million he’s set to make next year, I’m glad he’s letting it be known publicly that despite the issues beyond his control (such as goaltending), in order to right the ship, it begins with him. Not only that, but in a subtle way, he’s challenging his comrades McDavid and Draisaitl.

Oilers’ Leaders Need to Elevate Their Game

Leadership in hockey can mean different things. It can be the “rah-rah” guy that gives inspirational pregame speeches. It can be someone that battles every shift, or someone that challenges the other team’s tough guy to change the momentum of a game. In the case of Draisaitl, McDavid, and Nurse, their leadership is defined by their elite play and leading by example.

The trio isn’t spring chickens anymore that are trying to find their way around the NHL. They’re 25- and 26-years-old, with 1359 NHL points between them and a combined cap hit of over $30 million starting next season. Their last win came against the Seattle Kraken on Dec. 18, and since then, Draisaitl has only produced five points in seven games, the captain has tallied four points in six games — which is far from their two-point-per-game average earlier in the season and even less than their 1.09 and 1.42 career average points-per-game. In that span, Nurse has only registered two points in six games.

One of the team’s biggest needs is a reliable goaltender who can keep them in the battle. Draisaitl, McDavid, and Nurse aren’t paid to stop pucks, but at the same time, they haven’t been lighting the lamp often either, so the accountability falls on them as well. Leadership could also be defined as being clutch in big moments. Against the Panthers last Thursday night, Draisaitl had two golden opportunities in the first period on the power play to score the go-ahead goal. Had he been able to convert early, the scoreboard would’ve been a better reflection of their efforts, and it would’ve been a huge momentum boost for the Oilers.

Draisaitl, McDavid & Nurse Want to Right the Ship Together

Whenever the Oilers reach a low in the organization, there always seems to be a crowd that starts the narrative of “when are McDavid and Draisaitl going to ask for a trade” talk. Last May, when the Oilers’ captain was asked that question after the disappointing sweep by the Winnipeg Jets, he stated in a press conference, “that’s not the case at all. We have a great core here. We want to see this thing through together. We want to do this thing right as a group” (from “McDavid Wants Out? No Chance. Edmonton Oilers Core Intends to See This Through, “ Edmonton Sun, 05/26/21).

I doubt his stance has changed from eight months ago, considering at one point on the season, the team was 9-1. Despite how wildly frustrating things are right now — especially having seen three jerseys thrown onto the ice at Rogers Place last Thursday night — Draisaitl, McDavid, and Nurse have not made any indication that they’d like to leave town. The trio entered the league together, they’ve grown together, but like Nurse said, right now more than ever, is a true test of their leadership abilities.

Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl-Oilers' Nurse Adds Pressure to Team Leaders' During Fragile State
Edmonton Oilers Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl take part in training camp. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson)

You also have to give credit where credit is due. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result— and this past week they’ve at least tried to switch up the demeanor of the team. Last Monday, it was reported that the Oilers had an intense practice. There were fierce 1-on-1 battles that took place, most notably between the two leaders — Nurse and Connor McDavid — which resulted in cheers and stick taps from the team.

Again, some of the best leaders lead by example, and these are positive signs they’re trying to find new ways to claw their way out of their slump. They’ve raised their battle level in practice, and despite the disappointing outcome against the Panthers, they came out hard and started strong. The effort was there. Unfortunately, the early bounces didn’t go their way.

Related: Oilers’ Lack of Toughness Showing During Losing Skid

What will it take for the Oilers to start winning again? General manager Ken Holland said in last week’s media avail, “I don’t know if there’s a big trade to turn things around. Right now, the solution has to be in our locker-room or in Bakersfield.”

If Holland truly believes the answer is in the locker room, the leaders have to take their game to new heights. Draisaitl, McDavid, and Nurse have to be able to give something extra and inspire their teammates to become better and get back to their winning ways.

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