EDMONTON — It was partway through the 2022 playoffs that the Edmonton Oilers were declared a one-man team.
It wasn’t true then. It’s become evident it’s not true now, either.
Twenty months ago, several members of the Calgary Flames foolishly stated they were being beaten by one guy, Connor McDavid. Those comments came while Leon Draisaitl outscored the Oilers captain, Zach Hyman and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins chipped in big goals and Evander Kane irritated them to no end over the five-game series.
It was the ultimate example of an attempt at head games backfiring.
Well, the Oilers are an even better and deeper team these days. Tuesday’s 4-2 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs — the team’s 11th straight victory — showed exactly why.
Sure, Draisaitl got the Oilers on the board, Hyman scored a beautiful goal that wound up getting negated by an offside after a coach’s challenge, and McDavid chipped in with an assist in a game where he was flying.
But the Oilers don’t beat the Leafs without key contributions from players that don’t get much national attention.
“That’s our team right now,” Draisaitl said. “You can send out any line against any matchup and be OK with it and all know what we’re doing and commit to that.”
Let’s start with Ryan McLeod, a depth piece with a knack for doing a little bit of almost everything, who was the catalyst in a comeback effort. He set up the tying goal and scored the winner in the third period.
McLeod returned to the lineup after a one-game absence due to illness and was slotted back at centre. That’s his natural position and where he spent almost all his NHL career before being placed with Draisaitl and Warren Foegele during a 6-3 win in New Jersey — the beginning of the winning streak.
Kane was with Draisaitl and Foegele after being bumped up there for Saturday’s 2-1 overtime win in Montreal. McLeod centred Derek Ryan and Mattias Janmark.
“As a coach, it’s nice to have versatility,” Kris Knoblauch said. “It’s nice having him back.”
The Oilers, who had trailed 2-0 and surrendered the opening goal 27 seconds into the game, were behind by a goal entering the final frame. It was that third line that got them back on equal footing.
McLeod set up the tying goal by Ryan, the team’s elder statesman, early in the third period and then scored the winner with 3:05 left in regulation.
Ryan’s fourth goal of the season preceded McLeod’s eighth before Evan Bouchard sealed the win with an empty net marker.
Ryan’s goal was not only massive in the game, but it also underscored how successful the Oilers have been without their big guns on the ice. Per Natural Stat Trick, that goal gave them a 17-15 edge on the scoreboard at five-on-five with McDavid and Draisaitl on the bench since Knoblauch replaced Jay Woodcroft on Nov. 12.
“We’re building something great,” McLeod said of the depth forwards. “We’re contributing in a lot of ways other than the scoresheet. We’re shutting down a lot of guys. We’re doing amazing on the penalty kill. We’re creating a lot of energy.
“The more we can do that, the more success we’ll have in the top six and as a team.”
The Oilers are outscoring the opposition 35-20 at five-on-five with McDavid on the ice during that span. The advantage is 23-18 in the same situation when Draisaitl’s skating over the same period. Throw in their special teams’ success and the Oilers are going to win a lot of games — especially in the spring — if the depth players can continue having the upper hand.
“We’ve got four solid lines that have been working,” goaltender Stuart Skinner said. “Obviously, we’ve got some top dogs, but so much credit should be going to the guys on the third and fourth line.
“They keep the puck out of the net. They defend hard. They get the puck in deep. They’re rolling — and you can tell that they’re feeling it, too. That’s massive for any team.”
As for McLeod’s goal, it came bizarrely while he was on a line with McDavid and Draisaitl.
Knoblauch subbed off McDavid’s regular linemates, Hyman and Nugent-Hopkins, after an icing by the Maple Leafs in favour of Draisaitl and McLeod. He felt McDavid had enough energy to carry on and used his top three centres, opting for McLeod because he liked the way McLeod was going and fresh.
The move paid off as McLeod nabbed the puck behind the net from a Cody Ceci point shot, meandered his way in front, stalled and beat Leafs goalie Martin Jones with a wrister.
“I was looking pass the whole way,” McLeod said, laughing. “I drifted a little bit out. The last second, I looked at the net and saw a little lane and took it and it went in.”
If McLeod was the Oilers’ best skater — or at least the most productive — Skinner gave him a run for his money in terms of best player.
It looked like Skinner and the Oilers were going to be in for a long night when Auston Matthews scored on the first shift and Tyler Bertuzzi hit the post before the game was two minutes old.
But the goaltender was rock solid from there making a half dozen or so huge saves. His best stops were making a cross-ice save on Pontus Holmberg late in the first period and getting a piece of a William Nylander breakaway in the opening minute of the second.
“That game really doesn’t happen without him,” McLeod said.
“He was amazing — especially early on,” Draisaitl said. “Throughout the entire game, he made some big stops at the right time.
“He’s been great for a long time now.”
Much like Skinner settled in against the Maple Leafs, he’s settled in and found his groove this season.
It was a disastrous start for him and his teammates as Skinner posted an .861 save percentage over his first nine appearances before the coaching change. That was the fifth-worst mark in the league to that point for a goalie who’d played in more than one game.
Skinner has been a .920 goalie while starting 21 of 27 games since, upping his save percentage to .903.
“He’s been solid right from Day 1 since I’ve been here,” Knoblauch said. “That’s all I’ve seen. Right now, he’s been spectacular.”
Knoblauch said Skinner, the 2023 Calder Trophy runner-up, will continue to have a heavy workload in January because the Oilers don’t play on back-to-back nights and never play more than three games a week in the month.
Tuesday’s win represented the seventh time in the 11-game streak that the Oilers overcame a deficit.
They’ve trailed in the third period in each of their last three games and won.
“When you win 10 in a row, it’s a pretty confident group going into the third period,” McLeod said. “You think you’re going to win many games.”
Added Draisaitl: “If you do it a couple times, and you win a couple games late a certain way, you build trust in that and you build a level of comfort in knowing that there’s no rush to open it up and score in the first minute of the third period to tie it up.”
The team’s composure is on another level, Draisaitl said. The high quality of play from almost everyone on the roster is certainly another factor.
McDavid, Draisaitl and perhaps a few others typically get the bulk of the attention. But make no mistake, the Oilers are more than one, two or just a handful of guys.
They’re showing it over and over again.
“We’re just feeling really good,” Skinner said. “It’s been fun being able to play like this together.”
(Top photo of Edmonton goalie Stuart Skinner making a stop against Toronto: Perry Nelson / USA Today)