The handling of 2 top draft picks a study in contrasts between the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames: 9 Things

Edmonton Oilers Connor McDavid (97) celebrates his hat trick goal against the Calgary Flames with teammates Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (93), Jesse Puljujarvi (13) and Darnell Nurse (25) during second period NHL action on Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021 in Edmonton. Photo by Greg Southam /Postmedia

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The back-to-back victories in this latest Battle of Alberta has created significant separation in the standings between the Oilers and Flames.

The two, 4-point games (if you will) has left a 7-point bulge. Edmonton is 2nd in the North with 24 points. Calgary is now tied for 5th with Vancouver at 17.

Sure, Calgary has 4 games in hand on the Canucks. But it is the Top 4 teams that really matter. And the Flames are 3 back of 4th place Montreal, the Canadiens with a game in hand on Calgary. The whole situation already looked bad for Vancouver. But suddenly, the Flames aren’t far ahead of that.

Meanwhile, the Oilers are on a major league heater.

That and more in this week’s edition of…

9 Things

9. Just for fun, here are some potential Lake Tahoe-like sites for next outdoor game if held in Canada: Gordie Howe Bowl (Saskatoon), Rideau Canal (Ottawa), The Plains of Abraham (Quebec City), Alberta’s Kananaskis (a Provincial versus a National Park, less red tape), and Whistler, B.C.

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8. Dylan Holloway just keeps on truckin’. The Oilers 2020 1st Round Draft pick picked up 3 assists for Wisconsin in a loss to Notre Dame Saturday. Holloway is now 8-21-29 in just 16 games. I continue to expect the 2-way forward to be in the AHL after the end of the NCAA season. You can see why.

7. After a (very) slow start, the Bakersfield Condors won back-to-back contests on the weekend. Ryan McLeod scored in both. I think McLeod is the next Condors forward poised to make a serious impact with the big club. Goaltender Stuart Skinner earned Saturday’s 3-0 shutout.

6. Going into Saturday’s action the Oilers led the NHL in points by Defencemen. Consider that within this context: The club is accomplishing that without 2 of their 3 top D-men from 2020, Oscar Klefbom and Ethan Bear. That’s quite something. It helps that Evan Bouchard has arrived. And Tyson Barrie (after a slow start) has 16 points in 20 games. But the biggest story for the Oilers D has been the emergence of Darnell Nurse. More on Nurse in a minute…

5. Two weeks ago, there was a goaltending controversy in Edmonton. Mike Smith was hurt. Mikko Koskinen had been run right into the ice. Ken Holland had lost 3rd stringer Anton Forsberg on waivers, and rookie Stuart Skinner had been rushed into his very first NHL start. Fast-forward to Saturday night, and…what controversy? Mike Smith has won 4-of-5 starts and has a .940 SV%. Mikko Koskinen has won his last two starts, both with 40-save performances. What a turn of events.

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4. I suspect Caleb Jones’s time has come. Slater Koekkoek went out early with a collarbone injury Saturday after a check by Sam Bennett (that I didn’t like much at all, by the way). He’s likely gone for the rest of the regular season. Ethan Bear hasn’t been skating with the team the last couple days, after a concussion and I’m told may still be a bit. Same for William Lagesson. The Oilers Top-4 has been very good these last 2 games. The inclination would normally be for the coach to stick with them. But I’m not sure a 3rd pairing of Evan Bouchard and Caleb Jones would be my first choice. It may be better to run Larsson-Jones and Bouchard-Russell.  I’d also watch for Theodor Lennstrom to be called up as a 7D.

3. The very best players in all Sport have a way of rising to the moment, especially when 2 of them are in competition with one another. Think Ali-Frazier, Borg-McEnroe, Palmer-Nicklaus and Magic-Bird. The Connor McDavidAustin Matthews rivalry is showing the early makings of an historic match-up like those. The two drive one another to be greater, even when they’re not lined up in the same game. And the geographical contrast between the 2 doesn’t hurt, either. Here’s hoping they both end up in the North final in the Stanley Cup Playoffs this year. That’s the kind of stage that really builds these things. What a hoot that would be.

2. Darnell Nurse was off-the-charts good over the weekend. He played 30:01 Friday night, then turned around with another 32:54 Saturday in the 2nd of back-to-backs. For the few people who still question Nurse’s ability and his standing as a top-pairing NHL D-man: When exactly do you plan to admit that you are either wrong? There’s a phrase associated with D-men who can handle that kind of TOI. It’s called “being in the rocking chair”. Up until know, I would argue that Nurse has been too much of a high-event defender to fit that discription. But the way Nurse managed his time on ice over the last 2 nights, with a “less-is-more” approach to the game? Well…if the chair fits…

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1.There is an old saying in the executive suits of the more progressive companies in business that goes like this: “Don’t manage mad”. It assumes that most managers are human too and have the mortal emotions everyone else does. But making major decisions when you’re in an emotional state often comes with bad results. You are too often just not looking at the situation impartially enough. The most recent Battle of Alberta gave us two examples of that, one good, the other one? Maybe not so much. Here’s what I mean…

The patience with which Ken Holland approached the Jesse Puljujarvi situation needs to be applauded. I was critical of the Puljujarvi camp for not giving the fresh faces of Holland and Dave Tippett a chance. The club had earned it’s share of responsibility for the mishandling of Puljujarvi. But I thought there was a decided lack of faith exhibited by Jesse’s agent. Holland and Tippett, after all, were not Peter Chiarelli and Ken Hitchcock.

Had Ken Holland managed the decision “mad”; you could easily have imagined the G.M. being right pissed off and just moving on from the player. Take what you could in return, try to cut your losses and consider the whole unfortunate affair a write-off. Instead, Holland slowed things down and gave both sides a chance for reflection and rehabilitation. Puljujarvi now has 5 goals in his last 8 and looks like a 1st line NHL winger. A big win, for both.

Calgary is (so far) not handling the Sam Bennett situation the same way. Things have gone sideways. There’s a demand for a trade. Something is wrong in that room. And the stapling of Bennett to the bench in the 3rd Period of Friday’s game, one where the Flames needed all hands-on deck, certainly looked like someone was just mad at someone else. It smacked of pettiness from a bygone era.

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Some Oilers fans, especially loyal Jesse followers, may bristle at that and dismiss the comparisons between the two. But these players are of nearly identical draft pedigrees. Both 4th over-all picks. It’s easy to argue that Calgary has as much to lose by mishandling Bennett as Holland did with Jesse.

And while the player surely needs to own his share of this situation, too, the Bennett bungle sure seems on the face of it to be a comparable “management problem”. They’re just “mad at it”. And that’s a risky way to run a hockey team.

Find me on Twitter @KurtLeavins

Recently, at The Cult…

McCURDY:  McDavid scores a transcendent grade for an elite performance

LEAVINS: Oilers grit out a win in the first game of a BOA 2-fer

STAPLES: Kyle Turris takes a seat for this edition of the BOA

McCURDY: Keeping the puck out of the net sure helps

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