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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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