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Bigger, faster, deeper: Edmonton Oilers team turning heads

Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid, left, congratulates goalie Cam Talbot after the Oilers defeated the Colorado Avalanche in an NHL hockey game in Denver on Nov. 23, 2016. During a Thursday morning conference call, Edmonton Oilers general manager Peter Chiarelli and his scouts broke down the team's progress from last season. "And there was improvement in every area," Chiarelli said. Progress has been unmistakable for the Pacific Division leaders, even during a recent five-game losing streak which saw them win the puck possession battle handily four times.


On a conference call with scouts Thursday morning, Edmonton Oilers general manager Peter Chiarelli broke down the team's progress from last season and found improvement in just about every area.

There has been remarkable growth for the Pacific Division-leading Oilers, who had reeled off three straight wins heading into Friday's game against the Coyotes, including a hearty third-period comeback effort in Colorado on Wednesday night. It was the first time all season that the club has won when trailing after two periods.

"I'm sure I can count on my hand the number of times we did it last year," Chiarelli said in a phone interview from Arizona.

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The Oilers GM sees considerable change from a group that finished dead last in the Western Conference last season. The roster, for one, is quite different. Chiarelli brought in Milan Lucic and Kris Russell through free agency, traded Taylor Hall for defenceman Adam Larsson and drafted Finnish winger Jesse Puljajarvi with the fourth overall pick in the 2016 draft.

Then there's the presence of Connor McDavid, the NHL's leading scorer who missed almost half of last season with injury.

Whether because of McDavid or emerging No. 1 goaltender Cam Talbot or strong special teams, Edmonton is winning in different ways thus far and Chiarelli believes that to be a natural by-product of a deeper roster, one that's not just better, but bigger and faster.

With an altered defence, for example, the Oilers are moving the puck more effectively out of the defensive zone, which means they're spending more time on the attack and less time defending. Shots attempts against have plummeted from the bottom of the league to a top-10 ranking.

The Oilers, to that point, have vaulted from a 20th-ranked puck possession team last year (48 per cent) to a top-10 squad (52 per cent) a quarter of the way through this year.

Larsson and 23-year-old Oscar Klefbom form the team's shutdown pairing on defence, Russell and Andrej Sekera combining for what Chiarelli describes as a more transitional pair, one that can jump-start the team's attack. The additions of Larsson and Russell have also allowed the club to employ 21-year-old Darnell Nurse in less strenuous duties, which coaches believe is better for his long-term development.

Because the forward group is bigger, Chiarelli added, the Oilers typically rush-heavy attack has added an element, now able to pound teams down low in the offensive zone from time to time.

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Lucic makes the most notable impact in that regard, and the 6-foot-4, 233-pound bruiser broke out with a season-high four points against the Avalanche. The 28-year-old, who signed for seven years and $42-million (U.S.), has played primarily alongside McDavid.

McDavid is on pace for 35 goals and more than 100 points in his second season, a very real contender to win both the Art Ross and Hart trophies. The 19-year-old, who became the youngest captain in NHL history before the season, keyed his club's rally over Colorado, setting up two goals and scoring another in the final frame.

It was the fifth three-point game for him this year and eighth multipoint game in 21 outings.

Nothing about this has surprised Chiarelli. He got his first taste of McDavid last season (48 points in 45 games) and then watched McDavid's World Cup of Hockey performance up close, as the general manager for Team North America. He's seeing his young captain grow more comfortable in the spotlight.

"He's growing up as a man and his play is following suit," Chiarelli said.

There was some concern internally during a recent five-game losing streak that teammates were leaning too much on McDavid, a topic Chiarelli recently hashed out with head coach Todd McLellan.

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"I think sometimes, it's not so much waiting for him, but they get a little focused on him because he's such a good player," Chiarelli explained. "And you want to get him the puck and then he wants to get you the puck so I think you just get a little focused on him and that's what I mean 'Waiting on Connor.'"

Until recently, the Oilers hadn't seen much production from Lucic, Jordan Eberle or Leon Draisaitl, all of whom have surged in recent days.

In seeking to end a decade-long playoff drought, the Oilers were determined to avoid prolonged losing streaks. Chiarelli didn't feel the same doom and gloom through it as he might have last year, however. For one, the Oilers were handily winning the nightly puck possession battle (four of five times), a good indicator that the team's process was on track even if the result didn't show it.

The Chiarelli and McLellan both concluded that a similar slide would have lingered a little while longer last season. Edmonton dropped at least three in a row 11 times last year; so far, they've had only two such streaks, the other a three-gamer, which included an overtime defeat in Toronto.

"You just have to grind your way through it," Chiarelli said. "I thought our guys did a good job of it."

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