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Oilers youth leading by example

by Chris Wescott / Edmonton Oilers
“I think they need to grab the reins and take the team over.”

Those are strong words of endorsement for the Oilers youthful core from a player with plenty of leadership qualities himself. Matt Hendricks came to the Oilers from Nashville via a trade on January 14, 2014. Right away, Hendricks became a leader in the locker room, showing a knack for speaking up when the moment calls for it.

“He’s definitely the number one guy when it comes to that, which is awesome,” Ryan Nugent-Hopkins said. “You need a guy like that or two guys like that and he definitely gives us a lot of energy before every game and no matter what situation he is giving us energy.”
Photo by Andy Devlin/Edmonton Oilers

Hendricks is a part of a group of veteran leaders in the Oilers locker room. Captain Andrew Ference is the face of that group, and his leadership and involvement in the community is at the forefront of what he brings to the table. Boyd Gordon also provides an experienced presence, while Hendricks is more of a rah-rah guy.

“Hendy is a rah-rah guy, but he doesn’t do it just to do it,” Taylor Hall said. “He is a team guy that is one of those real team guys. That’s a credit to him. He’s been a great influence on our team. I think Ference is another one of those guys who likes to talk a lot and everyone has their style.”

Hendricks embraces his leadership role, and says he’s more comfortable with speaking up now that he’s been with the team longer.

“I got to know the guys, know their quirks a little bit and they got to know me a little bit better. I feel like I can be a little bit more vocal, a little bit more free-speaking in the locker room,” Hendricks said.

But Hendricks sees the leadership torch being passed from the veteran group to the youth.

“I think they need to grab the reins and take the team over. Understand that you’re in a position to take the lead over, but it’s a team atmosphere. You don’t want to be just the individual, you want to be the championship player, the championship leader. The team that is winning championships is working and showing that type of leadership. It doesn’t have to be vocal. It has to be the way you present yourself in the room, the way you present yourself in the weight room, on the ice, off the ice and it’s your work ethic that drives the squad.”

Photo by Andy Devlin/Edmonton Oilers

That time may be approaching for the Oilers.

Hall, Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle, Justin Schultz and Nail Yakupov are some of the players that have come into training camp more mature and leading by example.

If you flash back to the Oilers pre-season win over the Winnipeg Jets on September 29, you could see some of that leadership. Oilers Head Coach Dallas Eakins said after the game that General Manager Craig MacTavish paid him a visit and asked who he liked in the game.

“I liked my best players,” Eakins told MacTavish.

Nugent-Hopkins and Hall connected twice for scores in that game, a 3-1 win for the blue and orange.

“You don’t always get that in training camp and especially not yet,” Eakins said. “It’s usually those last couple of games or that last game where some of them decide to turn it up a notch, and that’s right throughout the league. Right from day one of camp here, especially those two young men have showed great leadership, great work ethic, they’ve been driving practice and now they’re driving the game. I thought they were both excellent, both excellent on the bench. You can’t ask anymore out of your top guys.”

Those two, and the rest of the young core, are leading by example and that’s a good thing.

“I try to lead as much as possible,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “I know I am only 21, but I’m going into my fourth year. We have such a young group of guys that I know I have to be a leader out there. I’m not a huge ‘rah rah’ guy. We have a lot of guys like that in here, so I want to try and be out there leading by example on and off the ice. We have some great leadership in here and I just want to be able to contribute to that.”

Photo by Andy Devlin/Edmonton Oilers

Hall sees a presence in Nugent-Hopkins.

“He’s a quiet guy but when he talks, you listen,” Hall said. “He’s a guy that’s really respected in our room and everyone knows that he’s going to go out and play hard and play strong.”

Hall added this about his own leadership qualities, “I think you get more mature as you grow up and you understand the emphasis on training camp and what you have to do to get better. Even though I’m only 22, you can see that young guys and prospects come in and they look up to you. You’ve got to make sure that every drill and in every meeting that you’re paying attention and those types of things.”

The transformation from a young player entering the league, into a leader, takes time.

Matt Hendricks is always going to be a leader and Ference, always. It’s in them now,” Eakins said. “They’ve been around the game for quite a while. Boyd Gordon is the same. We’ve got a number of guys like that. But what’s happening here, and again it just takes time, we all want to thrust these expectations and (the thought that) because you’re a really good player, you’re a leader. But that’s not always the case, it takes a while to grow.

“For our top players like Nuge, Hall and Ebs, those guys are coming along now, also Justin Schultz. They’re showing a different level of leadership than they showed last year. Part of it is that they’re learning from great leaders and guys like Andrew and Hendy. But the other part is that they’re putting their own stamp on it as well and that just comes with it. It takes time, it takes time to become a leader and really understand it.”

Eakins likened the process of becoming a leader to baking a cake.

“This isn’t throwing the cake in there for 40 minutes, and you know how much time it’s going to take. It takes different amounts of time for different players. But I’ve been really, really impressed with the way these guys have come back this year, including Yak. Yakupov has matured greatly over a number of months. With that group that we talk about a lot, we talk about the future, they’re coming along with those aspects.”

The Oilers are hoping their best players become the drivers of the organization. It’s up to them to decide when it’s that time.

“I think with a core group like we have here, it’s by committee,” Hendricks said. “I think those guys work together, they talk together, they go out to dinners every night. They’re the ones that are eventually going to take over this squad and be the driving force behind it, if they aren’t already. We’re hoping they’re going to be, right away this year.”

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