As the Edmonton Oilers gear up for the beginning of training camp in two weeks, the uncertainty surrounding the specifics of Connor McDavid’s PCL injury have players, management, and fans worried that their captain may not be 100% ready to start the pre-season.
Anyone involved in some capacity with the club is aware of how committed McDavid is to his preseason preparation and not seeing him skate at the annual BIOSTEEL Camp he attends every summer certainly gives Oiler fans to have a reason for concern. #CAMP and his intense workout regiment with former NHL player Gary Roberts were both huge reasons why McDavid came out of the gates flying last season, scoring 17 points in his first 10 games, eventually finishing second in regular season scoring.
With only 14 days until training camp and McDavid being absent from his favourite on-ice exercises competing against highly skilled NHL players such as Tyler Seguin and Darnell Nurse, all signs point towards the Richmond Hill native missing part of Oilers camp rehabbing his knee injury.
But with McDavid absent for the beginning of training camp (god forbid the beginning of the regular season too), will this added pressure on prospects and depth players to help carry the load more from the get-go lead to a more equal and balanced performance this season? Will not having McDavid around force his teammates to defer less to him and running-mates Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins?
Less Reliance and More Leadership
Although McDavid is not expected to miss any time in the regular season from his current knee injury, not having the captain around on the ice in the beginning will force other Oilers players to step up and lead the team by example. Time and time again last season, the entire Oilers roster would sit back and watch McDavid and Draisaitl work their magic, marveling at their skill from the bench or inches behind them on the ice. Without McDavid to look up to at the start of camp, players like Zack Kassian, Sam Gagner, and Jujhar Khaira will be called upon to be more independent and prepared to help get the team into the best shape it can be in for the season opener on Oct. 2.
The addition of veteran forward James Neal and the signings of Markus Granlund, Josh Archibald, and Joakim Nygard will definitely inject more self-reliance play into the team, but it is important that they do not play into the trap that is deferring to the the Oilers superstars and letting them carry the team. The absence of McDavid at the beginning of camp will force these players to remain independent and fight their own battles, and it is head coach Dave Tippett and his staff’s job to ensure they do not fall into the same habits of letting the Oilers top players play for the entire team when McDavid returns.
McDavid’s injury may also bring about more accountability to the rest of the roster, particularly the bottom nine forwards, who will be looking to prove that they are more than just “McDavid’s Useless Minions”. Players will automatically start looking internally for more effort or grit as opposed to waiting for the Oilers captain to take over or make a statement. Having this increased need for independence and accountability at the beginning of the year should go a long way in helping the Oilers get off to a more strong and balanced start to the season.
Once again, Tippett will need to hold all of his players responsible for their production and will need to make difficult decisions when players are not performing up to their standards. Something previous Oilers coaches may have lacked was their willingness to bench a player (e.g. Milan Lucic, Zack Kassian) for a stretch of games for them to reset mentally and get into a positive rhythm. This year, I would like to see Tippett be more demanding of his role players and ensure that they are aware of playing and producing consistently.
Balanced Attack and Opportunities
There will be an immense amount of pressure on Kassian, Kyle Brodziak, and the new additions to bounce back and contribute to Edmonton’s depth scoring this year, with high hopes of having at least two players on the bottom lines score 10-plus goals. Outside of the Oilers 20-plus goal scorers (four players), the remaining forwards only made up for 45% of the team’s total offence last year, showing how heavily the club relied on their superstars. If the bottom six bunch can eclipse last season’s mark and reach an achievable goal of at least 50% of the team’s goals, I think the Oilers would be in a much better position to contend for a playoff spot if they minimize goals against.
It may be beneficial especially for the younger players coming into training camp to not have McDavid around as well as it gives the coaching staff more of an opportunity to have a look at who can contribute in the top six. Players like Tyler Benson, Cooper Marody, and Kailer Yamamoto will all have glorious opportunities to flank Draisaitl or Nugent-Hopkins in the absence of McDavid and potentially find a permanent home on either of those wings if they impress Tippett and his staff. It will not be easy for these players to find themselves in the top six, but certainly without McDavid the coaches will get a better glimpse of what the young forwards can bring to the table at the NHL level.
Not having McDavid to start training camp is not a good thing at all, don’t get me wrong. But with less of a shadow cast over the rest of the group, not having the captain around will definitely force the supporting cast to step up and elevate their game, hopefully lasting throughout the entire season to compliment McDavid and Draisaitl’s magnificence.