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NHL Heritage Classic

Oilers on upswing entering Heritage Classic

Connor McDavid not only reason for bright future in Edmonton

by Arpon Basu @ArponBasu / Senior Managing Editor

WINNIPEG -- The Edmonton Oilers finished 29th in the NHL last season, and yet here they are, preparing to play in the 2016 Tim Hortons NHL Heritage Classic on Sunday (3 p.m. ET; NHLN, SN, TVA Sports 2, NHL.TV).

It's not often a team that finished so low in the NHL standings finds itself in a marquee event like this a season later. But the Oilers are not playing in the Heritage Classic for what they've done.

They are here for what they will do.

The future is bright in Edmonton for the first time in years, and while he plays a huge part in it, that bright future is not solely tied to the arrival of a franchise player like Connor McDavid.

There is a bigger transformation going on with the Oilers, and they will have a great opportunity to showcase that on this big stage Sunday.

The Oilers are off to a 4-1-0 start, scoring a League-high 20 goals in the process, but coach Todd McLellan says he only recently saw his team approaching his expectations in a 3-1 win against the St. Louis Blues at Rogers Place on Thursday.

"Prior to that, it was evident in my reaction to a couple of games we weren't very satisfied with the way we were playing," McLellan said after practice Friday at Investors Group Field. "We were giving up way too much; chances against, chances against early [in the game]. We thought we were going to outscore our mistakes on a nightly basis, and that doesn't happen in this League.

"So we're still getting there, but we're five games into an 82-game season. We've got a lot of work to do."

That may be true, but it is still remarkable to see how much of that work has already been done since the start of last season, when McDavid, McLellan and general manager Peter Chiarelli arrived in Edmonton.

At practice Friday, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was centering Edmonton's third line with Benoit Pouliot and Zack Kassian on his wings. At age 23, Nugent-Hopkins, the top pick in the 2011 NHL Draft, is the second-longest tenured player on the Oilers; he joined them one year after right wing Jordan Eberle.

The fact that McLellan can play Nugent-Hopkins as a No. 3 center behind McDavid and Leon Draisaitl shows how far the Oilers have come in terms of building depth.

"It's tough for teams to match up against us now," Nugent-Hopkins said. "Obviously, you're going to watch Connor's line and be aware of them. But then Leon's and my own line, I think we can both be dangerous as well at times. When you have some lines like that when teams are kind of confused about matchups, it definitely makes a difference."

McLellan credited Chiarelli with creating the depth that allows him to play Nugent-Hopkins on a third line, but also pointed out the makeup of the Oilers has changed drastically since he arrived. Chiarelli has made no secret of his affinity for building heavy teams. He did it with the Boston Bruins, and he has done the same thing in Edmonton.

McLellan said that has made the Oilers a more versatile team.

"It's not just freewheeling hockey," he said. "We still have that skating element, but we have tools that now allow us to play in different types of games and have a chance at success."

Case in point, the Heritage Classic against the Jets.

"Winnipeg tries to play physical, and that's their brand of game, and we're expecting that," McDavid said. "Whether they play physical or not, we'll have to adjust. But we're a big, strong team too, and we like to play physical as well. I think there could be some of that."

It wasn't very long ago the Oilers couldn't say that. But Chiarelli has added players like Milan Lucic, Patrick Maroon and Kassian to play on the wings, and that has allowed the Oilers to play in physical games and not get pushed around.

But it's only one element of the transformation.

The first one McLellan mentioned had nothing to do with rosters or systems or strategy. It is mental; replacing a culture that was so influenced by years of losing with one preparing them for years of winning.

That process is an ongoing one, but the Oilers will be able to show off how far they have come in a marquee NHL event on Sunday because, for the first time in a long time, there is little doubt they will eventually get there.

"I think there's a few areas we've made strides in over 87 games. One is the mental aspect," McLellan said. "Last year I kept using the term 'hold your hand a little longer.' Hold it, don't fold. That has grown, we've gotten stronger in that area. So mentally, we're stronger.

"Our belief system's gone up a little bit more."

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