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opinion

Edmonton Oilers forward Leon Draisaitl (29) and forward Ryan McLeod (71) react after an empty net goal by the Toronto Maple Leafs during the third period at Scotiabank Arena on Jan 5.John E. Sokolowski/USA TODAY Sports via Reuters

Two sentences into his answer, Edmonton Oilers star Leon Draisaitl decides he’s going to pick a fight.

His NHL team is in a standings free fall. It has just had its doors blown off by Canada’s best Junior A team, the Ottawa Senators. This is an emergency situation requiring that team leaders such as Draisaitl inject some aggressive energy into the situation.

Okay, fine, he’s picking the fight with a reporter. In a best-case scenario he’d be picking it with whatever passes for an enforcer these days. But baby steps.

The impetus is a double-barrelled question the other day from veteran Oilers beat guy Jim Matheson: “What do you think is the No. 1 reason for the losses now?”

It’s a fair question that Draisaitl could have turned in a bunch of shiny, happy ways – “All I can do is be better myself” or “We’re failing as a team and we’re going to win as one, too” or some other crystal-rubbing line of positivity.

Instead, Draisaitl decides to play bored: “We have to get better at everything.”

Matheson: “Would you like to expand on that?”

Draisaitl: “Nope …” – and had he left it there it would have been fine. But this is the moment Draisaitl starts floating backward, drops his rhetorical gloves and stares a hole in Matheson – “ … you can do that. You know everything.”

Okay, fine. It’s a fight now. Good. Except Matheson starts swinging back.

“Why are you so pissy, Leon?”

Draisaitl has been quivering with nervous energy, but stills when he registers the shot. Now he’s confused. Is he actually getting it taken to him by a newspaper guy?

“Hmm?” Draisaitl says. As one-line retorts go, it’s a distant second place to “Sorry?”

“Why are you so pissy?”

“I’m not,” Draisaitl says, his voice climbing, “I’m just answering your …”

Matheson has got Draisaitl off his feet and is deciding if he wants to start whaling on him. He does.

“Yeah, you are. Whenever I ask you a question.”

Draisaitl, starting to visibly shrink: “I gave you an answer.”

Matheson: “Not a very good one.” Draisaitl: “Okay.”

Cut. Aaaaaand print. That’s the Oilers season in one short, sad film.

The internet had the usual predictable takes on who was responsible for the set-to, who won, and who was in the right, but only one thing actually matters. The rule that applies on the ice is just as applicable off it. If you, a card-carrying member of the NHLPA, plan to pick a fight then you had better be prepared to finish it.

Draisaitl started this thing channelling Dirty Harry. By the end, he looked like a kid who’d just got pantsed in gym class. He looked lost out there (presumably, not an unfamiliar feeling at the moment).

Draisaitl’s inbred civility prevented him from going low or flipping the podium. But in the pro-sports context, either of those things would have been a better outcome.

It raises the question – what if the Edmonton Oilers problem isn’t talent, goaltending, defence or depth? What if it’s as simple as joy in the fight? What if, collectively, they just don’t like the conflict inherent in playing pro hockey?

This doesn’t mean flying fists. It means going from 0-to-60 whenever it’s required. Good teams shrug off self-doubt and external criticism. Great teams don’t absorb it in the first place. They are too busy winning, even when they’re losing. That Zen mindset cannot be taught.

Though he’s had cause to do so about a thousand times in his career, when do you remember Sidney Crosby dropping the just-happy-to-be-here mask he wears to all media interactions? Conversely, do you doubt that if someone went at Alex Ovechkin the same way Matheson went at Draisaitl, that it would have turned out differently? I’m guessing not.

Not all great players deal with heat the same way, but they all deal with it in a way that usually ends in their favour. The Oilers don’t have that sort of guy.

That impression starts with the team’s primary Alpha, Connor McDavid. When things are going well, you’d call McDavid’s off-ice presentation sanguine or measured.

When the Oilers start collapsing around him, McDavid’s availabilities become leaden and miserable. You can feel his appetite for this part of stardom – never great to begin with – disappear entirely. He looks like a man in need of a long vacation.

Where McDavid goes, so does the rest of the team. That is both the strength and weakness of the company-man culture that pervades the NHL. No one would ever think of stepping into the boss’s role, even when the boss isn’t feeling it.

Draisaitl’s failed attempt at throwing a proper temper tantrum may have started from a useful place. Maybe in that split second he thought that creating a viral moment was going to give the boys a boost. Or maybe he was just too frustrated to think clearly.

Whatever his rationale, he didn’t have it in him to follow the impulse to its logical end. That’s telling.

The only people who can truly understand what’s turning the Oilers from a pretty good team into a really bad one are the guys in the room. Unfortunately, they are also part of the systemic problem.

Is firing another coach and/or GM going to turn the Oilers’ lambs into lions? No. But that won’t stop anyone. Will putting NHL pariah Evander Kane on the roster improve things? No. It gives you more aggro, but creates a whole new set of issues. This is how desperation works.

Nobody wants to begin confronting the big, obvious question – is the Oilers’ core ill-conceived? Is it time to start from scratch again?

If this is another lost season for Edmonton, that means it is heading into Year 8 of the McDavid experiment.

How many more years will the Oilers flush away before deciding that, through no fault of anyone in particular, they have assembled a group who don’t have the level of fight a contending NHL team needs. There’s no shame in admitting it. But it’s probably easier to keep pretending.