The Edmonton Oilers take the ice today with a new general manager and mostly new coaching staff making the decisions on the opening-night lineup.
Training camp will commence with a crowded depth chart — particularly at the bottom end of the roster — and competition will be fierce throughout the preseason to determine the 23 players staying in Edmonton to start the regular season on Oct. 2, at home to Vancouver.
Here are 10 of the storylines to watch between now and then as the Oilers attempt to piece together a playoff contender after missing the postseason for the past two campaigns:
Let’s get this one out of the way right off the hop. There is more optimism than concern surrounding the captain’s recovery from a knee injury sustained in the final game of last season, but Connor McDavid’s health is paramount to Edmonton’s success and any hope of the playoffs.
Therefore, it is the biggest storyline of training camp but, as of today, all signs point to McDavid being in the opening-night lineup even if he doesn’t suit up for any preseason games. So, yes, he should still be the first pick in every fantasy draft this month.
Second Line LW
As camp battles go, there are a few big ones and this might be the most important. Well, that’s debatable, but the Oilers have to find the right fits for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins on the second line. They absolutely need that second wave of offence — and, ideally, a third wave too — so the goal will be to develop some chemistry with new wingers during the preseason.
The plan is to pair Nugent-Hopkins with James Neal, who was acquired from Calgary for Milan Lucic after scoring only seven goals for the Flames last season. Neal is typically good for 20-plus and Edmonton is banking on him bouncing back as the right-winger for Nugent-Hopkins.
As for the left-winger on that line? There are a handful of candidates, with team insider Bob Stauffer trotting out Sam Gagner in the coveted spot upon revealing his projected roster prior to camp. That came as something of a surprise to the fan base, but it makes sense considering Neal and Gagner are the two forwards that are familiar to new head coach Dave Tippett. He had Neal as a rookie in Dallas and later had Gagner in Arizona. Tippett got 24 goals out of Neal in 2008-09 and 41 points out of Gagner in 2014-15 during their lone seasons together. That was some time ago — especially for Neal — but Tippett may want to go with who he knows, at least to start.
Gagner has always had good offensive instincts and even if he’s lost a step since then, he has the awareness to make plays and read plays in a support role. Tippett likes Gagner, so he’ll likely be in the starting 12 — and it wouldn’t be shocking to see Gagner get a chance on right wing with McDavid and Leon Draisaitl should Zack Kassian get off to a slow start. Gagner can play all three forward positions, up and down the lineup, and Tippett could favour him in the top six for the early stages.
Before Stauffer suggested Gagner yesterday, the betting favourite among fans and media members might have been Joakim Nygard. The masses may have given Nygard the best odds of flanking Nugent-Hopkins and Neal despite being new to the NHL at 26 years old. Nygard netted 21 goals in Sweden’s top league last season — second most behind Columbus prospect Emil Bemstrom’s 23 — so expectations are fairly high for him to hit the ground running in North America. For those unfamiliar, Nygard’s calling card is speed and he’s drawn favourable comparisons to Carl Hagelin. That Triple N line — Nygard-Nuge-Neal — is still intriguing, if not enticing for Tippett.
The advanced polls had Tyler Benson as Nygard’s closest competitor, having produced 66 points as a rookie pro last season. Benson led all AHL rookies in assists, with 51, and his playmaking ability could complement Nugent-Hopkins and Neal, who are both strong shooters. Nugent-Hopkins is a quality set-up man but developed more of a shoot-first mentality during his time as McDavid’s wingman, so having another talented passer — another distributor — like Benson on that second line could be key to getting the desired results in terms of secondary scoring.
The hometown hopeful — Benson hails from Edmonton — is only 21 years old and could benefit from more seasoning as a go-to guy in Bakersfield. On the other hand, Benson is a couple months older than Jesse Puljujarvi and probably would have been a mid-first-round pick in 2016 if not for an injury-plagued junior career and draft year that dropped him to the second round (32nd overall). Many of his draft peers will be making the jump to the NHL this fall, so Benson could certainly prove ready in camp.
If not, and if neither Gagner nor Nygard click with Nugent-Hopkins and Neal, then Markus Granlund and Tomas Jurco could potentially get spins on the second line. Jurco has a history with new GM Ken Holland and should be confident coming into camp after finishing last season on a high with the hot hand for AHL champion Charlotte. Granlund is perceived as more of a bottom-six forward, but he possesses enough skill to stay afloat in the top six if all else fails. Jurco could be the dark-horse to steal that spot if Gagner, Nygard and Benson don’t seize the opportunity.
Second Pair RD
Oscar Klefbom needs a new partner and that is the other camp battle of utmost importance. Jim Playfair, the new assistant coach in charge of the defence, is planning to deploy Darnell Nurse and Adam Larsson as a shutdown pairing. That should be considered the top pairing.
Klefbom, who had partnered with Larsson for much of the last three seasons, could be breaking camp with another Swede in Joel Persson. The 25-year-old late-bloomer was never drafted but signed with Edmonton prior to last season, opting to spend another campaign at home before trying his hand in the NHL. He’s here now, fully recovered from a knee injury that prevented him from representing Sweden at the worlds in April, but it’s a different game on this side of the pond and, as with Nygard, there is no guarantee that Persson will pan out. He’s billed as being offensive-minded, more of a passer than a shooter but capable of quarterbacking a power play. That sounds a lot like former Oilers project Philip Larsen, but Edmonton needs Persson to be defensively sound in order to stick around. His decision-making with the puck and his positioning without it will be closely monitored in the preseason.
That might be Persson’s spot to lose, but there will be plenty of challengers. Ethan Bear has been knocking on the door for a couple years — getting into 18 games two seasons ago — and his chances of making the team out of camp improved when it became clear that Playfair and Tippett prefer defenders on their proper side, with plans for three left-right pairings. Prior to that revelation, many were pencilling Kris Russell into a top-four role on his off side and some even had Caleb Jones pegged for this spot after playing significant minutes on the right side in Bakersfield last season despite being a left shot. If Russell and Jones are ruled out as right-side options, Bear becomes Persson’s main opposition. At 22 years old, this isn’t now-or-never territory yet for Bear, but it’s his best opportunity to date.
Evan Bouchard made the Oilers out of camp last fall before getting returned to junior — after a seven-game stint — but he’s turning pro this season and the 10th overall pick from 2018 will be trying to repeat that feat ahead of his 20th birthday in October. Like Persson and Bear, Bouchard boasts impressive offensive tools and his upside is on another level from those two. Bouchard jumped into the AHL playoffs as a point-per-game player — with three goals and five assists over eight games this spring — but some additional development time at that level could be in his best interests. Especially with Edmonton’s reputation for rushing prospects and with how difficult it is to defend in the top four for an NHL team as a teenager, which Bouchard will still be as of opening night.
Matt Benning is slotted as Russell’s partner on the third pairing, but if those three candidates — Persson, Bear and Bouchard — aren’t fitting with Klefbom for whatever reasons, Benning could get bumped up at some point in the preseason.
As a last resort, a lefty could slide over to the right side — be it Russell, who has plenty of experience there, or Jones, who appeared NHL-ready during his 17-game call-up last season but seemingly remains outside of the top six entering camp.
The dark-horse on defence is William Lagesson, another Swede and another lefty but more of a physical presence who could bring a different dimension to the back end. There is some Larsson in Lagesson’s game. Playfair wants his defenders to be assertive and aggressive, which plays into Lagesson’s strengths, but it’s unlikely anybody will bump Russell to the press box for opening night.
Third Line Centre
The late signing of Riley Sheahan likely fills this hole, even if he’s better suited to fourth-line duty. If the Oilers want a third scoring line instead of a checking line followed by a bang-and-crash fourth line, Sheahan probably isn’t the answer. He hasn’t produced much offence in recent years despite being a first-round pick back in 2010. Sheahan managed nine goals last season and 11 the year before, so set the over-under at 10. His career high is 14, topping out at 36 points in 2014-15. He totalled 19 points last season — split between Pittsburgh and Florida — but should be able to deliver 20-some in a third-line role. However, that’s not the reason Edmonton added Sheahan. Holland has a history with him too and the Oilers will be relying on his size, penalty-killing, faceoff-winning and shutdown ability. Any offence above and beyond 20 points will be a welcome bonus.
Prior to the Sheahan signing, this was shaping up to be a battle between Gaetan Haas and Cooper Marody, with Granlund, Jujhar Khaira and Gagner also coming up in those summer conversations.
Tippett has since declared Gagner a winger — stating he sees him more as a winger than a centre — so he can be crossed off this list of candidates. As mentioned, there is a pretty good chance he’ll be playing higher in the lineup.
Khaira has struggled in the faceoff circle and has generally performed better on the wing, so they will try to put him in a position to succeed — especially coming off a down year with just three goals after netting 11 the year before.
Granlund is versatile and could still be an option in the middle if the goal is to get a decent amount of offence from this unit, though most are envisioning him as the left-winger on the third line. Playing Granlund at centre could create an opening for another more offensive left-winger like Jurco.
More so than those three — Granlund, Khaira and Gagner — Haas is going to get a long look as a potential third-line centre. He may not be as fast as fellow European signing Nygard, but Haas is also known for his speed and tenacious style. His offensive upside is the big question mark. He’ll need to put up some points in the preseason — or at least be generating his share of chances — to win a spot in Edmonton. Otherwise, Haas will likely be heading home to Switzerland with a mutually terminated contract since it’s unlikely he’d report to Bakersfield at 27 years old.
Marody didn’t stand out in the recent rookie games against Calgary but was perhaps pacing himself for main camp and preseason action. Unlike Haas, Marody isn’t a burner and his foot speed continues to be a concern, but he’s a heady player that excelled in the AHL — exceeding all expectations with 64 points in 58 games as a 22-year-old rookie pro, warranting a six-game call-up to the Oilers. He was pointless in limited minutes with Edmonton but believes he can earn a bigger role this season while overcoming those skating issues — and silencing his critics in the process. The third-line centre role could still be there for the taking for Marody, but he’ll have to beat out Sheahan and Haas, among others.
Bottom Six Forwards
The Oilers have no shortage of bottom-six forwards, rather an abundance — among the most in the league. So those battles for third- and fourth-line roles — with at least a dozen candidates competing — should be captivating, and predicting the opening-night combinations is practically impossible heading into camp. The possibilities are almost endless.
Alex Chiasson and Josh Archibald are expected to be the two right-wingers — unless Kassian and Gagner end up down there — but the centres and left-wingers will be determined during the preseason. Also in the mix — among the many names already mentioned — are Colby Cave, Brad Malone, Joe Gambardella, Patrick Russell and Josh Currie. Kyle Brodziak would have been in that group too, but a chronic back injury has forced him into retirement at 35 years old. Malone is 30 and those other four are in their mid-20s, so they won’t want to linger in the minors any longer. But the numbers’ game in Edmonton has them all on the outside looking into the top 12. They can be labelled the long-shots.
Holland is hoping for power in numbers through his efforts to upgrade the forward depth, but time will tell whether it is better depth or more quantity than quality. Part of the problem is Edmonton will have two bottom-six forwards playing in the top six. That number rises to three if Neal doesn’t return to form. Reality is, based on last season, the Oilers only have three true top-six forwards in McDavid, Draisaitl and Nugent-Hopkins. Neal’s track record gives him the benefit of the doubt as a fourth, but the rest of that forward group — the other eight spots — will be comprised of replacement-level players. The whole could prove greater than the sum of its parts — thanks to that constant internal competition — but this position is still a weakness on paper beyond the big three.
Opening Night Starter
These last five are lesser storylines — and can be covered in lesser detail — but are noteworthy nonetheless.
Goaltending is going to be a big story for the Oilers as this season plays out — and a big factor in any success or failure for Edmonton — so it’ll be compelling, if not telling, to see who Tippett tabs as his opening-night starter.
Mike Smith is new to Edmonton but not to Tippett as his longtime netminder in Arizona. Mikko Koskinen is the returnee with the much bigger contract — gifted to him as the last baffling act by former GM Peter Chiarelli — but he’ll need to prove his worth as much as anybody in camp.
Smart money is on Smith to be manning the crease on Oct. 2 against the Canucks despite Koskinen earning the starter’s salary. Smith has earned Tippett’s trust over the years and he’ll presumably ride the 37-year-old as long as he’s hot and healthy, but there has been talk of a platoon-type rotation with both goalies getting their share of starts while staying fresh. So don’t put too much stock in opening night, one way or the other.
In saying that, Smith is a fiery competitor and he’ll want to be between the pipes every night, so the onus will be on Koskinen to match that intensity and rise to the occasion whenever it’s his turn.
Top Line Auditions
McDavid isn’t expected to play more than one preseason game — if any — so expect to see Draisaitl playing more centre than wing throughout camp and the exhibition schedule. Assuming McDavid is good to go for opening night, Draisaitl would revert back to left wing.
In the meantime, it’ll be interesting to see who skates on Draisaitl’s wings. Conventional wisdom would keep Kassian on his right to get their chemistry going if that’s the plan for the regular season. The left options have already been discussed at length: Gagner, Nygard, Benson, Jurco, Granlund and Khaira in no particular order. Whoever lines up there is a placeholder for Draisaitl and thus likely an odd-man out on opening night.
With the top line out of whack because of McDavid’s absence, Tippett will probably try to get his other three lines intact as soon as possible. Opening day of camp tends to be a good indicator of what the coach has in mind. We shall see, but getting assigned to Draisaitl’s left isn’t necessarily a good thing. However, as with any coaching change, there could be a fair bit of tinkering and experimentation in the preseason, so those starting spots won’t be set in stone.
Holland likes to slow play his prospects in favour of the long game — coining the term ‘overripening’ during his decades in Detroit. Even his first-rounders with the Red Wings traditionally spent a season or more in the minors, including Filip Zadina last season.
That’s why everyone is hesitant to pencil Benson and Bouchard into Edmonton’s opening-night lineup. Ditto for Kailer Yamamoto, who surprisingly hadn’t been mentioned yet among the forward options. It’s difficult to see where he’d fit in, even if he’s arguably the most talented right-winger in camp — or second most behind Neal, providing he’s ready to rebound.
Marody and Lagesson only have one AHL season under their belts, so Holland won’t be hastily making room for them either. Even Bear and Jones — both two years into their pro careers — haven’t reached ‘overripe’ status by Holland’s standards.
Besides Bouchard, the other rookie pros don’t stand much chance. Ryan McLeod, Kirill Maksimov and Dmitri Samorukov could go gangbusters in the preseason and they would still be ticketed for Bakersfield. Philip Broberg can expect the same treatment — the same fate — next season when he comes over from Sweden. Likewise for Raphael Lavoie when he turns pro next fall.
The future is looking bright for Edmonton — finally, with a top-10 prospect pool according to most pundits — but don’t expect to see that future on display on opening night.
Again, the camp combinations will be interesting and telling on that front. How much opportunity will those top prospects truly get? Will there be an Edmonton group and a Bakersfield group right from Day 1? Do Benson-Marody-Yamamoto and Samorukov-Bouchard stay together from rookie camp, or do any — or all — of them get chances to shine alongside veterans from the outset? Those answers are imminent.
Waiver Wire Options
The Oilers are content with their camp depth — as evidenced by the lack of PTOs (professional tryouts) this year, there are none — but as the preseason progresses and other teams start trimming their rosters, Holland will be keeping a close eye on the waiver wire.
Without naming names — it’s far too early for that — there appears to be a ton of tweeners requiring waivers all across the league. More so than most years, it seems. And the majority of teams have more one-way contracts than roster spots nowadays, so there will be cuts of interest. Potential targets will come to light.
Edmonton is close to the 50-contract limit but a waiver claim could be a serious consideration between now and opening night. Holland probably has a couple players in mind that he’d like to take a chance on if they become available through that avenue. Especially if he’s not thrilled with what he’s seeing from the current roster in a couple weeks’ time. Heck, he could even circle back to sign a free agent like Thomas Vanek or Patrick Marleau if the preseason results aren’t overly encouraging.
Alas, the Puljujarvi watch will be ongoing throughout camp — both in terms of watching for trade rumours and watching for his results from Finland.
By now, everyone knows Pulujarvi is playing for Karpat — his hometown team managed by Sebastian Aho’s father. He was held off the scoresheet in yesterday’s Liiga opener — getting denied on a breakaway chance during a 3-2 victory — but he did score a couple goals in the Champions League tournament earlier this month. One on a one-timer from a set play following a faceoff win and the other on a breakaway with a highlight-reel deke.
Some are tracking his every move — follow @BeerLeagueHeroe on Twitter for the hourly updates — but everyone in Edmonton should be rooting for Puljujarvi to be successful. The more he lights it up over there, the better his trade value becomes here.
Holland is in no hurry to make that move, but if the offers keep improving, he’ll eventually get something to Edmonton’s liking and Puljujarvi will get his fresh start elsewhere. It’s probably past the point of no return with the Oilers — at least for this season.
Projected Opening Night Lineup
For the record, I quite like Stauffer’s forward group. I would tweak the bottom six slightly, just because I’m not confident in Haas stepping into the NHL and I have a feeling Jurco is going to force his way into the opening-night lineup.
I’m going with a 13-8-2 roster. Nygard is my extra forward, with Haas heading back to Europe and Cave among those waived to Bakersfield. Jones and Bear both get to stay up to start, taking turns with Persson to figure out who fits best with Klefbom. Smith is my starter in goal.
What’s your opening-night lineup look like for the Oilers? Are there any other Edmonton storylines that you’ll be watching in the preseason?
Larry Fisher is a senior writer and head scout for The Hockey Writers, having been an at-large contributor for THW since August 2014. Fisher covers both the NHL and the WHL, specializing in prospects and NHL draft content, including his annual mock drafts that date back to 2012. Fisher has also been a beat writer for the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets since 2008, formerly working as a sports reporter/editor for The Daily Courier in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada from 2008-2019. Follow him on Twitter: @LarryFisher_KDC.