When you strip away the excitement that fans are getting closer to having some actual on-ice action to talk about, the 2014 edition of the Edmonton Oilers rookie camp in Penticton is about Leon Draisaitl and Darnell Nurse. Everything and everyone else is a sidebar.
Sure, it’ll be interesting to see if tiny and talented invitee Vladimir Tkachev can exploit more defenseman playing the puck instead of the man, as we saw in a video in an item Jonathan Willis posted this week. Fans want the latest on Greg Chase, who might be a late-round steal. Can Bogdan Yakimov skate well enough to do something with that tantalizing size?
History tells us the vast majority of players who’ll strut their stuff at the Okanagan Events Centre for Oiler coaches and brass starting this weekend will never pull on Edmonton silks for a regular season NHL game. Some are destined for a career in the minors. Others will have real jobs five years from now. A few will get a sniff with the Oilers down the road if talent and hard work and luck intersects with opportunity. Sidebars.
Like it or not, the first step in that intersection in the hockey road is here and now for Nurse and Draisaitl, who will be given every opportunity to play for the Oilers this season. First Penticton. Then, main camp. After that, pre-season. Given their draft pedigree as seventh and third overall picks, it won’t be their only chance, but how they handle it – or don’t – is the story.
“Anytime you get the opportunity to get on the ice, whether it’s a workout or whatever, you just go out there and give everything you have,” Nurse said in an interview with Oilers Now. “It’s going to be my mindset. It’s always been that way. I’m just looking forward to it, getting the opportunity.”
Nurse, 19, taken seventh by the Oilers in 2013, attended the Penticton camp last year. He was returned to the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the OHL before seeing action in four games with the Oklahoma City Barons. A string bean when drafted, listed at six-foot-four and 185 pounds, Nurse returns for his encore bigger and stronger.
“It was a lot of fun,” Nurse said of the 2013 camp. “Obviously, it was a bit of an eye-opener for me just seeing the speed and the strength those guys have — even in that tournament. I thought it was a good way to gauge yourself, where you are at that point in the summer and just really try to build on everything from there.”
Nurse, as you’d expect, feels he’ll be able to make a bigger impact at this camp. Anything less, of course, would have to be considered a step back in a bid that’ll see him competing for a roster spot with Martin Marincin and Oscar Klefbom.
“A big thing for me is always size and strength,” Nurse said when asked about improvements he’s tried to make in the last year. “I’m a fairly good skater, so, really, to go back and put on some size the right way . . . and then the minor details in my game, whether it’s positioning in the D-zone or reading rushes. You can always be better no matter who you are.
“I went back this summer straight to the gym. I put in a lot of work there. I had a great strength coach. I watched a lot more film this summer than I ever have before. Just, you know, trying to clean up those small details . . .”
THE BOTTOM LINE
There’s a reasonable argument to be made, as we’ve discussed here many times, that neither Draisaitl nor Nurse should even be in the conversation for an NHL roster spot at this early point in their development. Jason Gregor wrote a first-rate piece about developing defensemen here.
The reality, though, given Edmonton’s duly documented lack of depth at centre and a blue line that’s far from set, is Draisaitl and Nurse will step on the ice in Penticton with a gold-plated opportunity to land a job in the next few weeks. The first step in proving they might actually be ready to grab it is to dominate amid the hopefuls, longshots and sidebars.
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TSN 1260.