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Photo Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Countdown to the season: Question 4 and Surprises

A year ago at this time, no one, including Matt Benning himself, expected Benning to be a regular in the Oilers lineup. He ended up being a pleasant surprise for the Oilers. Patrick Maroon’s 27 goals were also a bit unexpected, but not as much as Benning’s emergence, considering Maroon had scored eight goals in the final 16 games of the 2015/2016 season after being acquired from Anaheim.

I spoke to Benning at the Oil Country Championship about golf and then we discussed his rookie season. “After I signed I was expecting to start the season in the American Hockey League,” he began, “But then my father (former NHLer Brian Benning) said, ‘Why can’t you make the team?’ That changed my focus because I didn’t really have a good answer,” laughed Benning.

Believing we can do something is often the first step to achieving it, and this year Benning will come to camp expecting to build on his rookie season. He knows he’ll get an opportunity to start the season on the second power play unit in place of the injured Andrej Sekera. If he excels with more responsibility, it won’t be a surprise.

Who will be the surprise player this season?

I see a few candidates.

Ryan Strome

Feb 9, 2017; Philadelphia, PA, USA; New York Islanders right wing Ryan Strome (18) celebrates a goal by center John Tavares (91) (not pictured) against the Philadelphia Flyers during the first period at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

He scored 17 goals and 50 points in his first full NHL season in 2014/2015, but in the past two seasons, he’s only scored 21 goals and 58 points combined. Is he a 50-point player, or is he a 30-point player? I see him closer to the former. In his final three years in junior, he scored 97-171-268 in 164 games. He averaged 1.63 points per game and .59 goals per game — excellent numbers that show he has offensive ability. Of course, OHL ability is different than NHL ability, but Strome should be highly motivated coming to camp.

He will want to make a good first impression with his teammates. He is also coming to a competitive team, which is often easier than going to a bottom-feeder. The biggest bonus is there is a very good chance he will skate on Connor McDavid’s right-wing when training camp opens.

Anton Slepyshev

Mar 14, 2017; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers left winger Anton Slepyshev (42) takes a shot against Dallas Stars goalie Antti Niemi (not pictured) during the second period at Rogers Place. The Oilers won the game 7-1. Mandatory Credit: Walter Tychnowicz-USA TODAY Sports

He’s played two years in North America and is comfortable on the smaller ice surface. He’s played 52 NHL games and 58 AHL games. He has scored 4-7-11 in the NHL and 16-15-31 in the AHL. He hasn’t put up huge offensive numbers, or even average thus far, so a breakout season would be a big surprise. He played well in the playoffs and used his size and speed more effectively. He has an excellent opportunity to start the season where he finished last year, on a line with Leon Draisaitl and Milan Lucic.

Can he be consistent enough to remain there? I honestly don’t know, and I’m not sure anyone does. Being productive in the NHL is one thing, but doing it consistently is a much tougher task. Just ask Strome. Slepyshev skates well, has a quick, hard release and he isn’t afraid to go to the tough areas. However, last season he would go long stretches without getting noticed or making plays. If he can find consistency, he could have the biggest breakout season of any Oilers forward.

Drake Caggiula

Apr 18, 2017; San Jose, CA, USA; Edmonton Oilers center Drake Caggiula (36) shoots as San Jose Sharks defenseman Brenden Dillon (4) defends during the first period in game four of the first round of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs at SAP Center at San Jose. Mandatory Credit: John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

The Drake had an unlucky start to his pro career. He was hurt early and missed the first 18 games of the season. When he made his NHL debut November 19th in Dallas, he did so playing centre. He’d played left wing at North Dakota and wasn’t used to playing centre. I thought he played quite well considering Todd McLellan asked him to play a more difficult position, one he wasn’t naturally comfortable with.

He skates well, has a good shot and we saw his feistiness emerge more as the season progressed. He is versatile. He played centre, left wing and even some right wing.

I think he is better suited as a winger, and what makes him such a wildcard, and potential surprise, is right now he could slot in just as easily on the left or right side.

If I was in charge of lines, I’d start him on Ryan Nugent-Hopkins’ left side to start training camp and see where it goes. I like his skillset, but the challenge is trying to project his points because he could play on the first or the third line depending on how he and the other wingers play.

Jussi Jokinen

Mar 11, 2017; Tampa, FL, USA; Florida Panthers left wing Jussi Jokinen (36) during the first period at Amalie Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Jokinen has played more NHL games, 891, than the other four players in this category combined. The 34 year-old Finn was signed as an unrestricted free agent for one season at $1 million. He has nine 42+ point seasons on his resume. Last season’s 28 points was the second lowest of his 12-year career. In the previous three seasons he scored 60, 44 and 57 points with Florida and Pittsburgh.

He is a very smart player who can play multiple positions and on both special teams. McLellan will love his versatility and we could see him slide up and down the lineup with ease. He has the skill and hockey sense to play with elite forwards, and is responsible enough to play more of a safe game.

Considering his history 40 points shouldn’t be a surprise, and he will push the young players for icetime. They might get the first opportunity, but if they aren’t consistent I suspect McLellan won’t hesitate to play Jokinen in his top-six.

Jesse Puljujarvi

Dec 6, 2016; Buffalo, NY, USA; Edmonton Oilers right wing Jesse Puljujarvi (98) takes the puck past Buffalo Sabres defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen (55) during the second period at KeyBank Center. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

Honestly I don’t know what to expect from Puljujarvi. He learned a lot last season, and he is only 19 so we could see a massive improvement. He is a very large young man, standing 6’4″, and he’ll likely come to camp over 210 pounds. It usually takes bigger bodies more time to fully develop and know how to balance their strength accordingly.

Leon Draisaitl had a massive improvement in many areas, mainly his leg strength, from his rookie season to his second year. Puljujarvi isn’t as skilled as Draisaitl, but he’s bigger, and he is the biggest wildcard of the bunch for me.

He could look great or still need more time to develop. He is only 19. Draisaitl was a rookie at 19 and didn’t score 51 points until he was 20. The Oilers have no need to rush him. If he looks comfortable and can play a regular shift in the top-nine then keep him here, but if Jokinen, Caggiula, Strome and Slepyshev are playing better then the Oilers can send him to the AHL and play him a lot. He doesn’t need to dominate this season. There should be no discussion about “draft bust” if he isn’t tearing it up this year. Draft success is not a sprint, and the Oilers have the luxury of not needing to force him into the lineup.

Who will be the biggest surprise?

I’ll go with Strome. I think he has a career year.

Who is your choice? It doesn’t have to be one of these five, it can be another player.

Recently by Jason Gregor:

  • Dr. Merkwurdigliebe

    Strome, definitely. He’s a young, high-end draft pick with something to prove. If he plays with McDavid, I think he easily gets 50 pts or more.

  • freelancer

    If Strome plays with McDavid and gets 50 points I don’t know if I would view it as a surprise. I think I would be more surprised if he didn’t.

    Ill go with Slepyshev. Especially if he sees regular top 6 ice time he could have 40 points.

  • madjam

    There is a lot of Oiler youth on team likely to take good progression in their use and game . A re emergence and banner year for Hopkins might also develop this year . Biggest push forward/breakthrough may come from a relatively young defensive group , even perhaps a new addition . Jesse may see the biggest jump of entire group . New adds of veterans will add to overall depth .

  • TKB2677

    I would also pick Strome. In his interview after the trade, he was clearly excited and sound extremely motivated to do well. He goes from an organization that like Gregor has been primarily a bottom feeder in the league. Then you factor in a bit of a gong show owner, at times gong show GM. There was building problems, the old one was falling a part, they move to a new one that sucks for hockey, then kicked out of the new one so I think they are back to the old one. The fans haven’t exactly been packing the place.

    He comes to a young, exciting team that is on the rise. New flashy building, huge fan base, stable ownership and management group. Plus you have the best player in the world on your team who you happen to have a pretty good relationship with. If that isn’t a shot in the arm, then I don’t know what would be.

    So I could totally see him having a season where he is pushing 20 goals and 50 pts. I could also see Eberle having another season similar to what he did this past year. I just have a feeling that Eberle much like Hall is going to have a hard time adjusting to the new team and not have a massive year like some people predicted Hall too last year.

  • Spydyr

    Strome heart,desire and a will to win will go a long ways. He will score fewer points than the person he was traded for but he will prevent far more goals then the one he was traded for. Resulting in a net increase in wins.

    • TKB2677

      I tend to agree with you. Eberle may get the edge in overall goals and points scored when you look at the stats page but I believe that if you add up all the goals Eberle scores then subtract the goals against that Eberle causes due to direct mistakes on his part, lazy plays or not covering his man and letting them walk in an score. The goal differential will be much better with Strome than with Eberle. How many times have we all seen Eberle throwing his head back after he let his man walk in for an easy goal? 10-15 times a year. All he has to do is type up a stick but he couldn’t be bothered.

      I also think that the difference in physical points scored by Eberle and Strome won’t be as far apart as some of the trade haters think.

      • Spydyr

        The Eberle stick twirl after another ineffective play on his behalf resulting in a goal against drove me bonkers. It just screamed I don’t really care all that much.

  • tileguy

    Jujhar Khaira Is my pick, after RNH is traded for a bushel full of picks and prospects, other players will comment its is like playing against 80 grit sandpaper.

    • Spydyr

      I was going to pick Khaira as well. I have a soft spot for his type of player but he just has not showed enough yet. Perhaps it is a confidence thing. I would also like to see him drop the mitts and see how that goes for him.

  • ed from edmonton

    Another guy who could have been discussed is JJKhaira. However being a LW he has a tougher time cracking the line up. He will also likely be exposed to waivers. To improve over their 103 point someone will need to step up on the RW. Best case would be for JP to be the guy as he had the greatest potential to be a difference maker.

  • Maybe this was just looking at the forwards, but I think injuries are going to leave a hole open for someone on defense to really step up. That is why I think one of Bear, Jones, or even Paigain, are gonna get a cup of coffee, but will break out in their role, prompting a tough choice from management.

    • Jason Gregor

      Bear and Jones are not NHL ready. Not close. Paigan did play in KHL so he’d be the closest, but with Auvitu on a one-way as well…He’d need an unreal camp to jump ahead.

  • Jordan88

    “Puljujarvi isn’t as skilled as Draisaitl”
    I beg to differ, I think this kid has not even scratched his potential yet. 5 years from now it will be interesting coming back to this statement. He put up 24 points at the u20’s That is something, and he has repeated it. Pair this kid with Jokinen and RNH and he is gonna light it up.

    • Jason Gregor

      One tournament he put up big numbers. Look at rest of his numbers in Finland. Compare those with Drai in junior. Not close. Doesn’t mean PJ can’t be a good player, but Draisaitl has high-end elite skill.

      • madjam

        Got the feeling the bottom has already fallen out from Jokinen , and fans may be sadly disappointed if they have high expectations for him . 28 points with 12 on the power play not thrilling . Letestu seems a better option going forward .

        • Oilerchild77

          Jokinen wasn’t brought in for the PP. He was brought here to be a mentor for Puljijarvi and maybe teach him some English. Besides, Letestu and Jokinen have very different roles.

      • madjam

        Those figures should not be close seeing as Jesse played in a superior men’s league in Finland that also played fewer games . A rather weak argument I feel you have put forth .

  • ponokanocker

    With Sekera out for a while, is it maybe going to be Nurse showing why he was such an early round pick? He has all the tools and size, just needs to put it all together.

  • madjam

    Got the feeling the bottom has already fallen out from Jokinen , and fans may be sadly disappointed if they have high expectations for him . 28 points with 12 on the power play not thrilling . Letestu seems a better option going forward .

  • btrain

    Exciting times. Obviously no guarantee with this group but odds are good at least one runs away with it. I will go with Slepy as I think he will be the Pitlick of the upcoming season and put up consistent secondary scoring. I think the others rotate through the top 6 and nobody emerges this year from this group as a 50pt player. If someone does then I get to be pleasantly surprised!

  • Cahoon

    I think Gambardella will surprise people in a similar way as Benning did. You don’t expect him to make the team, and then he does very well in the bottom 6.

  • Mitch92

    I doubt that Strome will stick with McDavid for 82 games. Even with Connor feeding him easy points I think Strome will have trouble sticking on the top line. The right side is where young Oilers see an opportunity and I think Puljujarvi and Slepyshev will both battle for top six minutes and time with Connor.

  • WillyWonka

    Laurent Brossoit
    My feeling is that the team is one minor injury away from finding out what Laurent Brossoit is at the NHL level. Im guessing he will get his 6 week shot due to an injury. especially the way some teams (cough ducks cough) like to run the goalie as a game strategy

    • a lg dubl dubl

      Shush, man!! We don’t need anybody jinxing anything! Do you like watching grown men cry, because that’s what will happen if 33 goes down for 6 weeks.

  • a lg dubl dubl

    I’m going off the board and going to pick CONNOR MCDAVID! 164points, 50 goals in 38 games!!! Yea buddy!!!

    I’m actually picking Caggulia as my surprise of the year. I think he’ll play in the top 6 and score 20 goals and close to 50 points.

    I just want the season to start already.

  • madjam

    There is certainly a lot of room for optimism considering the new players and young talent expected to get better this season . The team as a whole should improve over last season as well , and should not regress . That means team must remain dominant as they were last season against Pacific division rivals . So I am going to say biggest improvement will come from the team as a whole . If the team flourishes then players will inevitably follow suit .

  • Randaman

    I like the following as I want to see Nuge be that player!

    Maroon/McDavid/Nuge, Lucic/Draisaitl/Jagr, Jokinen/Strome/Cagguila, Slepyshev/Letestu/Kassian. If Jagr isn’t a possibility then slot in Jesse but I would like to see him in the AHL for at least another half season or slot him in on the third line and move Drake up to the second? Pakerinen can be the extra forward