A new rink. A new season. New faces. And, of course, a new sense of optimism for long-suffering fans who’ve been counting the days since last season ended. Absolutely no surprise there, and as the Edmonton Oilers take to the ice at Rogers Place for their second day of their 2016 training camp today, that’s the way it should be.
Whether it’s building the kind of new attitude newcomer Milan Lucic talked about with Jason Gregor Friday, figuring out the line combinations and defensive pairings coach Todd McLellan will throw over the boards when the season opens or anticipation about when the official announcement will come that Connor McDavid is the next captain of the Oilers, there’s plenty to contemplate.
That said, I’ll throw my two cents in with three questions, three predictions and three players I’ll be watching through camp and pre-season as the Oilers get ready for their 37th NHL season.
Will Connor McDavid stay healthy?
If McDavid isn’t already one of the top five forwards in the NHL, he’s damn close. No matter what tweaks GM Peter Chiarelli has made to the roster, and will make, the 2016-17 edition of the Oilers hinges on the health of McDavid. Keeping McDavid in the line-up for all, or at least the majority, of the season will be the biggest single factor in whether the Oilers make a push for the playoffs after 10 years out or struggle as also-rans yet again.
Has the defence improved enough?
There’s been deficiencies all over the place during the decade the Oilers have spent out of the playoffs, but the one constant for most of that time has been the team’s inability to defend and keep pucks out of the net. If that doesn’t change drastically, if the Oilers can’t shave 30-35 goals-against off the bottom line, McDavid and the rest of the forwards won’t be able to score enough to make up for it. Is the addition of Adam Larsson, who will play first-pairing minutes, enough? It’s a good start. So is a healthy Oscar Klefbom, who played just 30 games last season.
Is the forward mix right?
The lament here for years was that the Oilers had too much of the same thing up front – small, skilled forwards who could be pushed out of games, who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, stand up for each other. Chiarelli addressed that with the addition of Lucic, Patrick Maroon and Zack Kassian to complement the likes of McDavid, Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. What’s most important is these additions represent grit and toughness who can play top-nine minutes. Still, we’ve yet to see how everybody fits together.
THREE TO WATCH
Duh! The big Finnish winger has done nothing but blow the doors off everybody who has watched him through the rookie tournament in Penticton and the annual showdown with the Alberta Golden Bears (he should shine in games like that) and he’ll have all eyes on him in pre-season. I can’t wait to see him against better competition. Is Puljujarvi as ready as he’s looked? We’ll see soon enough.
Outside of Puljujarvi, I don’t see anybody among the news kids in town, outside Drake Caggiula, grabbing a roster spot. What I want to see is Larsson do what he does in settling down a blueline group that’s been decidedly unsettled. It likely won’t be spectacular stuff in terms of flash and dash, but it’s absolutely critical to the hopes of this team that Larsson get settled in quickly alongside Klefbom and get ready for all the minutes that’ll be thrown at him.
The hulking and skilled Lucic is bigger and badder than anybody the Oilers have had slotted into a top-six spot at forward in forever and I want to see how he performs as the team’s first-line left winger in place of Taylor Hall alongside McDavid. We know Lucic will scare the crap out of anybody who even looks at McDavid the wrong way, but what else? Can Lucic keep up? Is he a match style-wise for McDavid?
- If Puljujarvi makes the roster out of camp – I think he will – then I expect that, along with the addition of Kris Versteeg by way of a PTO, will spell the end of Nail Yakupov here. If Eberle, Versteeg and Puljujarvi occupy the first three spots on right wing, that leaves either Yakupov or Kassian for duty on the fourth line. That’s not a fit for Yakupov or the Oilers. He’s outta here.
- Those who have insisted Yakupov should be on right wing alongside McDavid when the pre-season starts will howl yet again that he’s been screwed over for the umpteenth time when that doesn’t happen. While the charter members of The Yak City Club have thinned, he’ll be serenaded out of town by those insisting right until the bitter end that it just ain’t fair.
- Nugent-Hopkins looked like he’s ready for a bounce-back season during the World Cup of Hockey after missing 27 games to injury last season. If Nugent-Hopkins stays healthy, I expect him to surpass his career high of 56 points this season.
Here’s my best guess at the 23-man roster to start the season.
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TEAM 1260.
RECENTLY BY ROBIN BROWNLEE