EDMONTON — Why did Leon Draisaitl arrive in Edmonton with a new attitude towards his defensive game this season?
“Because we weren’t winning the last couple of years,” he said, typically boiling a long question into a short, concise answer. “Clearly, something needed to change.”
That’s why the reigning Art Ross and Hart Trophy winner is suddenly hearing his name whispered in Selke Award talk for the first time. He’s drilled down on the defensive side of the game. The result: His faceoffs are five per cent better than the past two seasons, at 56.41 per cent through 16 games, he’s a team-high plus-11, and his fancy stats are following suit, as one of the NHL’s top offensive players aims to show he can be just as good on the other side of the puck.
“I kind of took that upon myself as something that is important to me. I take huge pride in defending, taking faceoffs, that kind of stuff,” said Draisaitl, whose Oilers get the Winnipeg Jets at Rogers Place tonight at 7 p.m.. “Our team needs that from every single player, and I think maybe that’s been lacking from my side a little bit the last couple of years.
“I wanted to make sure that’s not going to be the case this year.”
Label it a cliché, or call it whatever you want. Hockey history is littered with great offensive players who realized that just showing up and piling up points isn’t enough. Mike Modano, Sidney Crosby, Steve Yzerman, now Draisaitl and Connor McDavid, who has also posted better defensive stats than any other time in his career.
It’s simply Draisaitl and McDavid’s turn to come to that same realization. Because both have had their fill of losing.
“It’s just maturity, right? Maturity in many forms, from a leadership standpoint and leading by example,” said centre Kyle Turris. “Then there’s also just wanting to win. You have to be a balanced team, a strong defensive team — whether it’s full lockdown … or whether you don’t want to let the other team set up in your zone — you want to get out as fast as possible.
“I think it just comes with maturity. You’re seeing them mature.”
Head coach Dave Tippett says his top two centremen were better defensively in seasons past than we give them credit for. But he sees a renewed focus as well.
“They’ve come back with a real intent on, not just themselves, but our whole team being better defensively,” Tippett said. “They take the lead role offensively, but they also understand you have to play a 200-foot game. They’ve both come back with a mindset to help our team win — whether it’s offensively or defensively.”
Lining ‘em up
Here’s a look at the lines, as the Jets and Oilers find themselves separated by one point in the standings with the Jets having two games in hand.
Jesse Puljujarvi is back in for Edmonton after being on the NHL’s COVID-19 Protocol List, and Mike Smith gets his second straight start in goal.
Nugent-Hopkins, McDavid, Puljujarvi
Kahun, Draisaitl, Yamamoto
Ennis, Khaira, Archibald
Shore, Turris, Chiasson
On the Jets side, Harkins draws in at 4C, Tucker Poolman gets his third straight game in on the blue line, and they’ll go with Connor Hellebuyck in goal against an Oilers team that split a two-game series in Winnipeg in late January.
Copp, Scheifele, Wheeler
Connor, Stastny, Ehlers
Perreault, Lowry, Appleton
Vesalainen, Harkins, Lewis
Jonesing to play
Left-shot Caleb Jones was supposed to be an important part of Edmonton’s blue-line this season, especially with lefty Oscar Klefbom lost to injury. Well, the best laid plans…
Jones played the first three games of the season, sat out for four, got another look in Games 8-11, and has been a healthy scratch for five straight. He’ll watch No. 6 in a suit tonight.
Jones earned just one assist in his seven games, and more importantly did not impress when used on the penalty kill. Now, with the mix of defencemen at Tippett’s disposal, that last spot on the left side has become labelled for a penalty killer. That’s why Slater Koekkoek gets the nod ahead of the 23-year-old Jones again tonight.
“We’re looking for a certain mix of players who play different roles in the game,” began Tippett, “and with (Ethan) Bear out we need an extra penalty killer in there. That’s probably taken away Jones’ opportunity a little bit. We’re trying to balance it.”
Bear is very close to playing, and he’s another guy who steps into the lineup ahead of Jones.
Meanwhile, it must make Tippett wish he was back coaching in Arizona, where every local doesn’t see themselves as a Level 5 coach, the way do in Edmonton.
“Two weeks ago everyone was screaming for (Evan) Bouchard to play. Now Bouchard is playing and everyone is screaming for Jones to play,” Tippett said. “When you nine defencemen… somebody has got to sit out. You’re trying to find the best mix for that certain night.
“Between roles, matchup, how many young players you have in there, how your ‘D’ meshes… There are a lot of factors. The last little while we’ve played pretty well, so we’re sticking close to what we have.”