Sports Hockey

Terry Jones: Edmonton Oilers expect Connor McDavid 'follow the leader' factor will elevate team

By Terry Jones, Edmonton Sun

Connor McDavid isn’t going to score all the goals to lead the Edmonton Oilers to victory every game.

But with his natural hat-trick in the opening game, the question is if the 20-year-old second-year captain will have a ‘Follow The Leader’ factor in play as the returning Hart, Art Ross and Ted Lindsay trophy winner?

Todd McLellan is expecting it.

“I hope it’s real strong,” said the head coach. “He’s our captain. There’s no doubt he’s our leader. He gave us everything he had in our opener. He emptied his tank. That’s a pretty good example to set for your teammates. Our team takes on a lot of his personality, as it should. Moving forward, we want to make sure he can stay at that level.

“It’s hard because we play 82 games and he faces a lot of good checkers. On other nights people have to pick him up as well. Leadership is awful important, the one leader or the 19 followers? You could be the best leader in the world, but if you don’t have good followers, good luck.”

As the Oilers head to Vancouver for a date with the Canucks Saturday, McLellan isn’t worried about the rest of the team turning into spectators to watch McDavid.

“When we went through the chances, there were a number of opportunities created by other players as well," said McLellan. "There were strong cycle shifts, trading off their shots … Mike Smith played a tremendous game in goal,” he said of his gold medal-winning goalie from the IIHF World Championship two years ago in Prague. There were other players on our team not wearing No. 97 that had good scoring chances but the goaltender played really well.

“It was a heck of a night by Connor but more importantly, a good night by everybody around him. The way we won, showing an ability to defend and not give up a lot was important for us. When we started last year, I thought we were outscoring our mistakes. In our first game we didn’t make many mistakes and we didn’t need to do that."

To anybody who wasn’t there, obviously it was going to sound like it was all McDavid. He was the story, the whole story and nothing but the story. But he wasn’t the only one who showed up. He was just the only one who scored.

But you go down the line-up and grade the team for openers, and most everybody had a passing grade.

“It was a complete team game,” said defenceman Eric Gryba. "Our defencemen were able to have really good gaps. That was suffocating to the Flames. But a big part of that was that our forwards were coming back."
“The most promising thing from our perspective is that normally you play in these first 10 or so games you give up a lot of chances trying to figure out systems and miscommunications and in the opener there wasn’t too much of that,” said Zack Kassian.
“Our best players were back-checking hard and leading the way for us. They didn’t get any secondary chances or odd-man rushes,” said shutout goaltender Cam Talbot. "They made my job pretty easy
“We know it’s really important to get a good jump on the season,” said Oscar Klefbom.
Getting out of the gate great is definitely a goal for this 103-point team. They don’t want to be chasing the season.

The Oilers have a pretty good schedule for openers with Calgary, Vancouver and Winnipeg, the Western Canadian teams they went 11-0-1 against last season up first. Also, four of the first five are at home.

But remember, the Oilers got off to a great trip, last year winning seven of their first eight. It’s going to take a total team effort, like the one you watched Wednesday, to replicate that.

Meanwhile, with that start, the spotlight is going to stay on McDavid. In his rookie year, he didn’t score his third goal until his fifth game when he scored twice in Calgary. He would go on to score only three more goals in the following 13.

Last year, he scored two goals in the opener and another in the second game as the Oilers opened with back-to-back games against the Flames. However, he only scored two in the next 16 games.

Imagine how giddy this city would be if he had a string of games like his first to lead the Oilers onward and upward with the rest of the line-up playing ‘Follow The Leader?’

tjones@postmedia.com

On Twitter: @byterryjones