EDMONTON, AB -Darnell Nurse and Leon Draisaitl are two completely different players, but on the inside they’re wired the same in that they’re hungry young men looking to stick at the NHL level.
They’re both early first-round picks with a lot of talent, seen as big parts of the club’s future, and they’ve both become “catalysts” for the Oilers in their very brief stint in Edmonton this season. It’s a stint that’s still in its infancy.
Nurse was recalled on Monday and has played two games for the Oilers. The defenceman scored his first NHL goal in his season debut in Minnesota on Tuesday and recorded his first NHL assist on Thursday in a win over Montreal. Draisaitl arrived on Thursday and potted two goals against the Canadiens, helping spark the come-from-behind victory.
The two 20-year-olds have come up from the American Hockey League, inserted themselves into an injury-riddled lineup and haven’t skipped a beat.
“Not so much sure if it was what we were teaching (in training camp) or what we were doing. It’s just that they’re in a good state right now,” said Oilers Head Coach Todd McLellan. “They’ve handled that part of their early career well. They’ve always had the talent and the skill to play here, they’ve worked on their game. Not enough of a sample down there, but you have to give them credit. They’ve come up and been catalysts for our team.”
McLellan says the biggest reason the two have seen early success is that they are hungry. That means the depth of the organization is pushing and it makes the club as a whole better.
“They’re telling us they want to stay here,” said McLellan. “It’s powerful because there’s pressure from below and it puts everybody on notice for the club right now. Guys want to maintain their positions within the team and stay with the team and stay in the National Hockey League but there’s pressure coming from underneath. That, in my opinion, is progress within the organization.”
Photo by Andy Devlin | Edmonton Oilers
Ask either player and they’ll tell you they want to be with the Oilers for good.
“It would be weird if we would (want to go back), right?” Draisaitl said after Thursday’s game. “I think both of us want to stay here. We want to be here and we want to eventually play here and win championships here. I think this is a good time for us to show what we can do to improve.”
When Nurse was called up, McLellan said the Oilers would like him to “arrive and stay and be a long-term player.”
The defenceman said that’s motivation for him to work even harder for a spot. Draisaitl says both he and Nurse want to stay and help the team win.
For the two of them, the length of stay in the NHL will come down to performance. The initial plan may have been for the players to sit in the AHL for a little longer, given McLellan’s history with the Detroit Red Wings model of developing players when he was an assistant there.
“There are some teams in the league that are trying to make sure every young player experiences life in the minors,” said McLellan. “Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, I think everybody has their opinion on that but there are teams that try and get that done.”
Injuries made the recalls a necessity but their play has indicated they’re ready for an opportunity. However, it is important to remember it’s a small sample size and more time is needed for evaluation.
“You see that a lot, and I think that’s why you see players get called up for three or four games because they give you everything you have based on adrenaline. Then they settle in,” said McLellan. “It’s that settling in point where you really begin to see if they’re qualified for full-time. I think both of these individuals are. Is that time now? We’ll see as we move forward.”
When they were down in the AHL, both Draisaitl and Nurse had their own list of things to work on. With Nurse, it was about learning when to jump up in the play, exhibiting patience with the puck and making the right play.
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“He was one of our more consistent defencemen,” said Bakersfield Condors Head Coach Gerry Fleming. “Some of the things he needed to work on, he really focused on working on those things. He was working on just being more patient and more selective, I think, in when to jump, when not to jump. He was more controlled. We don’t want to take the aggression out of his game, and that was one of the things. It’s nice to find a guy that has that type of aggressiveness in his game. It’s tough to put into a guy that doesn’t have it. Just knowing and understanding the pro game I think was a big step for Darnell.
“He’s a smart player, he wants to get better, he’s constantly evolving. He’s a guy that’s competitive. He wants to be a difference in the game in a positive way. He did a lot of good things. He came down here with a great attitude, he worked his butt off in practice, he worked hard in games and it’s nice to see him get an opportunity. Hopefully, he can continue to play as well as he has played so far.”
For Draisaitl, the big forward was looking to hone his defensive skills.
“One of the things we wanted to focus on was his play without the puck, being competitive and understanding how to play without it and working hard without the puck, working smart without the puck,” said Fleming. “With the puck, he’s obviously a dynamic player. He makes plays, he sees the ice extremely well. It’s when he didn’t have the puck, and a lot of guys when they come out of junior make a lot of those mistakes. Things they got away with in junior throughout the years become habits. We’re just trying to correct some of those habits. I think he understood that it’s a different game and he’s got to play a certain way in order to be effective at the pro level. He embraced it, he worked hard at it.”
It was a slow start for Draisaitl after being sent down, but the last few games he came around and produced more.
“I know he was disappointed, but credit to Leon in that he came to the rink everyday with a smile on his face, ready to work, ready to get better. There might have been an initial hangover there the first couple of days but he got over it rather quick and understood those were the things he needed to work on,” said Fleming. “He came down here with the attitude that ‘I’m going to work on these things, I’m going to get better and I’m going to get back to the NHL.’”
The Oilers are allowing all of their recent call-ups to dictate their playing time with their performance and progress. Those evaluations will come with time, which both have for now. They already have the hunger.
“As the young guys, we want to stay here and we want to play here,” said Draisaitl. “We want to help the team win. We want to step in and make an impact.”