The Oilers main training camp doesn’t officially open until Thursday with medicals and then the players will be on the ice Friday, but almost every Oilers veteran was skating at the “informal” skate this morning. The unofficial start to NHL training camp begins tomorrow, when the Calgary Flames and Boston Bruins travel to China and players arrive in the 31 cities across the league. Training camp week is here.
The Flames and Bruins will play the first preseason game this Saturday and games in North America begin on Sunday. Rookie camps have been open for four days and the young players have already played some games. The Oilers lost 7-3 in Calgary last night and will play Tuesday and Wednesday before the fortunate ones get an invite to main camp.
The goal for every young player is to make the NHL roster, but most are aware they will be starting the season in junior or the AHL. There are very few spots up for grabs in Edmonton, but there are a few, and one player who could surprise is planning on making a strong impression in camp.
Caleb Jones has spent the past three summers training with his older brother, NHL All-Star Seth Jones. This summer was different, because the younger Jones was coming off a year in the AHL. He understood the pro game much better after a tough learning curve as a rookie.
“Last year I think I struggled at the start. The first 15 or 20 games were tough, said Jones. “I never really settled in last year. I was chasing my game a lot. If I made a bad play I would get down a bit, but this year I don’t really care. I’m going to play with confidence every shift no matter what happens.
I asked Jones what he meant by, “chasing his game.”
“The jump to the AHL (from WHL) was a slap in the face,” said Jones bluntly. “Early, I wasn’t creating a lot of offence, and then I tried to create some and it hurt my defensive game instead of being a steady two-way D-man, which I consider myself to be. This year I’m more confident. I know what to expect. I knew the jump to pro would be difficult, but it is more challenging than many people realize. I got through it. I learned a lot and I feel I’m much more prepared to not just be a pro, but to play well.”
Jones had the luxury of watching one of the best, young NHL D-men every day. “Just watching him. Being on the ice with him to see the small details is amazing,” said the Oilers fourth round pick from 2015.
“I’m pretty competitive and we did some battle drills and I’m trying to beat him and he is a big guy. It prepares you for playing bigger, stronger guys. And just watching his habits and the way he plays the game. He almost seems to play a perfect game. Even when he makes a mistake, it is not a bad one. He is so consistent. He moves the puck and he gets pucks on net a lot. I think he had 300 shots last year and last season I wasn’t shooting a lot. I’m going to try and almost shoot everything now and just try to make plays,” continued Jones.
His low shot totals as an AHL rookie wasn’t due to a lack of confidence.
“I think I was looking more to try and beat a guy, instead of just seeing a shooting lane and getting it off quickly. I worked a lot this summer on getting the shot off quickly, shooting with my head up, slapshots with your head up and I believe it will really help me this year,” continued Jones.
As a second year pro, and not a first round draft pick, Jones is well aware of the challenge ahead of him, but he feels he is much better prepared to challenge for an NHL job now compared to last September.
“I’m sure they have certain guys slotted in, so I have to go in and take a job. That is my goal; to go to camp and steal a job from someone.”
Jones is a long-shot to make the 23-man roster out of training camp, but speaking with him this morning you could tell he is much more prepared for the challenge now. He learned a lot about himself last year. He’d never really struggled on the ice before and he believes dealing with that adversity has made him stronger mentally.
Jones’ best asset is his skating and how he reads the play. He can really move and as he gets stronger, smarter and gains experience, I think he will make a strong push for an NHL spot in the future. He is hoping it is sooner than people expect.
Tyler Benson played in his first Oilers rookie game last night. Despite being drafted in 2016, Benson has never been healthy enough to play, but for the first time in three years he is 100% and it was impossible to miss how happy he was. He was tired of not being healthy. He battled a sports hernia for years. Originally, they didn’t know exactly what was bothering him, which made it more frustrating for him, but last April and July he had two surgeries to repair it and he has been pain free since.
The surgery in July of 2017 prevented him from being able to participate in rookie camp or main camp. He missed the beginning of the WHL season, but once he returned to the ice on October 27th he hasn’t faced any health issues.
“It is hard to work on your game when you are only 60% healthy,” said Benson. “It was really frustrating at times, but I feel great now. This was the first summer in years I was able to train the entire off-season. I feel so much stronger and I believe wherever I play this year (AHL or NHL), it will be the best development year of my career.”
It must have been extremely disappointing not being able to showcase your skills on a nightly basis, especially for a young player. When you are 18 or 19 years old you have so much energy, yet Benson felt like a caged animal. He felt he had so much to show and to give, but he couldn’t because his body wasn’t healthy.
That is behind him now, and I’m very interested to see how he performs now that he is healthy. We usually analyze and evaluate players for what they do on the ice, but we should always remember that the hundreds of hours when no one is watching, when the players are training or honing their skills, is the most crucial time for their development. Those hours are what make the player we see on the ice.
Benson is finally healthy and even a puck in the mouth during last night’s rookie game, which chipped his two front teeth, couldn’t take away the joy he feels from simply being healthy.
- It looks like Jesse Puljujarvi shortened his stick. I didn’t get a chance to talk to him after the informal skate, but while I watched them skate it clearly looked an inch shorter. I know for a fact the Oilers had encouraged him to shorten it, as well as reduce the whip in his stick. It was discussed at his exit interview. He had an entire summer to adjust to the different stick. I didn’t see him take any one-timers, or partial ones during the skate, so I can’t say with certainty if he changed the flex, but his stick does look a bit shorter. Little tweaks can do wonders for players, and a new stick combined with more strength, confidence and experience could jumpstart Puljujarvi’s offensive numbers.
- Max Pacioretty is now in the Pacific Division as a member of the Vegas Golden Knights. Over the past seven seasons Pacioretty has scored 152 EV goals, tied for third most with Brad Marchand. Patrick Kane has 153 and Alex Ovechkin has 175. His overall total of 206 goals is ninth most behind Kane (209), Jamie Benn (210), Evgeni Malkin (212), Joe Pavelski (214), Tyler Seguin (218), John Tavares (219), Steven Stamkos (229) and Ovechkin (306). Pacioretty gives Vegas two really solid top lines. The Pacific division just got a bit more competitive for the Oilers.
- Give George McPhee credit. He signed UFA Paul Stastny to a three-year deal, and after acquiring Pacioretty he signed him to a four-year extension. He didn’t locked in a six or seven year deal with either player. Very smart. I’d much rather pay Pacioretty $7 million/year over four years than over six or seven. There is much less risk that either play falls off a cliff before his deal expires.
- Jujhar Khaira looked really good when handling the puck today. I know it is just an informal skate, but he told me at the end of last season he wanted to make more plays this year. He planned on working a lot on his puck skills in the off-season. I’m looking forward to speaking with him about his off-season. Last year at this time none of us expected Khaira to be a regular on the roster, but he had a great preseason and earned his spot in the lineup. I know he prefers playing centre, but he had better production as a winger last year. His versatility is an advantage, and if he plays with Strome they can rotate on the defensive responsibilities, depending who is back in the zone first. I expect him to play a larger role on the PK this season.