Dave Tippett was fired last Thursday. His era with the Edmonton Oilers was filled with highs and lows. In the 2019-2020 season, the Oilers had momentum heading until the playoffs, but then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. They lost traction and weren’t able to get in sync quickly enough to avoid a loss to the Chicago Blackhawks in the play-in round. They finished second in the North Division last season, yet they were swept in four games at the hands of the Winnipeg Jets.
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However, throughout Tippett’s tenure, the Oilers established an identity as a juggernaut on the special teams. Two seasons ago, they led the league with one of the highest power-play percentages in the modern-day era and followed it up with a 27.6 percent conversation rate last season.
When they were 9-1 to start this season, they once again had the number one power-play in the league and were top three in the NHL for penalty killing. Their special teams have dropped in the last 20 games, and they’ve slid down the league standings. During their 2-12-2 stretch, they weren’t receiving or converting enough on their power plays. Their penalty-killing has dropped to 24th in the league. Their special teams can win them games, but when the units aren’t clicking, who/what exactly are the Oilers?
Kane Has Been Physical in His Short Time With the Oilers
The Oilers have a chance to reinvent their identity in the Jay Woodcroft era. The new head coach said in the post-game interview after his first NHL win, “we thought we could improve our physicality in the offensive zone. We want to be hard and physical on offense.” One player who’s helping to establish that identity is Evander Kane. In the six games that he’s played for the Oilers this season, he’s provided the physicality and compete that’s been lacking on the team.
In his short stint with the Oilers, he’s been all over the blue paint and battling hard in front of the net. He’s made life difficult for goalies as a net-front presence, as both of his goals scored on re-directions. In six games, he’s thrown 27 hits, seven of them in one game against the Washington Capitals.
On Jan. 9 I wrote an article about the Oilers lacking toughness. I wrote that defenceman Darnell Nurse needed to step up his play and assert himself physically. I also mentioned a specific game on Jan. 1 when New York Islanders forward Ross Johnston mixed it up with Leon Draisaitl. He threw crosschecks and exchanged words with the former Hart Trophy winner, with no one coming to his aid. I mentioned something, anything, needed to change.
It was a different story when the Oilers met the Islanders once again last Friday night. No pugilists attempted to intimidate or get in the faces of the Oilers’ star players. However, at the beginning of the third period, Islanders forward Jean-Gabriel Pageau skated by the crease and took down Mike Smith with his leg. Draisaitl went in to defend his goaltender and a scrum ensued. The first person who jumped in to back him up was none other than Kane. He jousted with Islander forward Oliver Walhstrom and motioned for him to drop the gloves. In the end, both were sent to the penalty box for coincidental minors. Quite the difference from a month ago, when no Oiler came in to help out the big German.
In the dying seconds of the game, Wahlstrom knocked down Nurse at center ice. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins came to the defenseman’s aid and returned a hit. In came Kane once again, speeding into the melee to back up both of his teammates. It was a sense of unity and emotion that we haven’t seen from this team in a very long time.
Kane Showing Emotion That’s Been Lacking on the Oilers
The Oilers were embarrassed by a beatable Blackhawks team club last Wednesday, which was ultimately the final straw for Tippett. With 20 seconds left in a 4-1 game, Kane was battling with former Oiler Caleb Jones. His stick hit goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and in return, the Blackhawks’ goaltender shoved Kane.
You can see the wheels turning for a split second. Kane realized that retaliating on a goalie would be a bad move. In the end, he continued to battle with Jones as the dying seconds of the game ticked away. Depending on your perception of the situation, it might seem like a needless altercation with seconds remaining in a losing cause. At the same time, up until that moment, it was the most emotion an Oiler player showed in their two losses after the All-Star break. It was a statement to the team to battle until the final buzzer even in a blowout loss.
Kane hasn’t fought, and he doesn’t need to because he’s best utilized on the ice instead of the penalty box. However, his fearless protection of his teammates during his short stint has been appreciated. In Edmonton’s win against the Capitals on Feb. 2, he was upended on the bench by Garnet Hathaway. Later in the game, the Capitals’ forward threw a heavy hit on McDavid. Credit linemate Kailer Yamamoto for responding with crosschecks, but it was Kane who followed up and challenged Hathaway to a fight. Having someone on your team that will have your back at all costs is comforting and contagious. It can have a trickle-down effect on the entire team to stick up for each other with a pack mentality, as we saw in the dying seconds of the game against the Islanders.
With all the controversy of his signing, he’s come as advertised. With a new bench boss midway through the season, the Oilers have a chance to re-establish a new identity as a physical team that is hard to play against. With rugged forward Zack Kassian anticipated to be out the next two months, Kane’s edge and physicality are leading the team in the right direction.
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