A week into training camp, here are some thoughts on what has stood out to me.
Connor McDavid is better. He has filled out, will be even stronger on the puck and, according to his teammates, he is quicker — a frightening thought for the opposition.
Ryan McLeod has been a big surprise. He has NHL speed already, and has made some really smart plays with the puck. He reads the ice well, but his speed has been very noticeable. I will be watching him a bit closer in the OHL this season. If he has a great start to his OHL season he might get a look for the WJC team.
The Oilers have a new aggressive forecheck. It will take time for all the players to get in sync, but having players be more aggressive will create more turnovers.
Trent Yawney is preaching more up ice passes and fewer D to D. I am interested to see how Oscar Klefbom and Adam Larsson adapt. Both can pass, but last year I felt they went to the safety outlet (partner) too often rather than move it up. Kris Russell was also guilty of this. Russell is very quick, and Yawney has been encouraging him to use his speed to get in position to make passes up the ice. In theory, this should also eliminate the large gaps between the D-men and forwards that we saw far too often last season. The two groups were frequently on the wrong page. Too often the extra pass would cause a forward who was circling back and heading up ice to be too far ahead of the play, and the D would have no outlet. They would force it and it would lead to a turnover, or they would just dump it out and lose possession.
The forwards will be looked upon close that gap, read the play better and give better outlet options for the defenders. Also, the D-men have been encouraged to step up in the neutral zone or at the blueline, and the only way this works is if the back pressure for the forwards is there in case the attacking team makes a play. Far too often the Oilers weren’t in unison as a group, especially in the neutral zone.
Leon Draisaitl, albeit only in scrimmages and practices, is quicker. Admittedly, I’m a big fan of his skill. I don’t think he was nearly as bad as some suggested last year. He is very excited about playing in Germany on October 3rd, and that enthusiasm will likely get him off to a good start. Easiest bet of the year is that Draisaitl won’t go pointless on the PP in the first 20 games.
It is very early, but the right wingers are producing as they battle for a spot on the roster. Ty Rattie scoring twice is great for his confidence, but he knows when he plays with McDavid he won’t have the puck a lot. He needs to go get it, and last night he was more aggressive and assertive on the forecheck. He did so last night. The goals are of course important, especially away from McDavid, but Rattie must be willing to do the dirty work on that line, and he worked on that this summer. He spent way more time on the ice and he was working on getting pucks out of corners, stripping pucks and trying to knock down pucks.
Rattie will need to produce to stay on the top line, no question, but Patrick Maroon had 42 points playing with McDavid in 2017. If Rattie can do well in the greasy areas, get to loose pucks and create some turnovers for McDavid and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, his value on the line will be significant.
Yamamoto is producing, which he needs to do. His test will come in the final few preseason games to see how he handles the size, strength and speed of NHL defenders. I fully expect the Oilers to be patient and cautious with Yamamoto. Giving him time to gain strength and adapt to playing against men will be the key.
I thought Ryan Strome looked very good last night. He looked quicker. He also tweaked his stick, so he can make more plays on his backhand. He seems more comfortable in his role, and that is massive for any player. He also understands the pressure of being a top pick (he was fifth overall) and can relate to Jesse Puljujarvi. Strome said this about Puljujarvi: “You can tell he is much more comfortable. I think people don’t realize how difficult it is to move to a new country, where you don’t speak the language very well, and play in the best league in the world. He is stronger now and he is quicker. He is handling the puck with confidence. It will be fun playing with him and developing some chemistry.”
Puljujarvi’s decision and reaction when he tried the wrap around last night illustrated to me how much more confident he is, but more so how much better he is handling the puck now that his new stick. I still believe we won’t see Puljujarvi at his best for another year or two, which is fine, because he is so young. But as he fills out and gains the strength to handle his large frame, he is going to be a load to play against. Playing him with Strome and Khaira is the right move in my eyes. He won’t have the pressure of always looking for McDavid, and he will play against “easier” competition. I think we will see him start to do more. I also loved that he got his stick up on Sautner last night. With his size and strength he can bully guys around (not fighting), and manhandle them. When he gives a guy a shot or a cross check they will feel it more than they would in the past. You create more room for yourself when you show the opposition you aren’t backing down.
It is only a preseason game, but Cam Talbot’s save last night should get him in a good frame of mind. The fact it happened in Vancouver, the same rink he was pulled in the second game of the season, and where things started to unravel for the entire team, could be an extra bonus. The Oilers need a good start, and Talbot will need to be one of their best players early.
Cam Talbot ladies and gentlemen.
— OilersNation.com (@OilersNation) September 19, 2018
I want to see the first unit PP in a game. I’ve seen them working on it practice, and the differences are noticeable. McDavid will operate off the left side much more than he has in the past. He will still be on the right side as well, but expect to see him more set up on the left side. And when Draisaitl or RNH have it on the right wall, look for McDavid to be circling near the left point or top of the left circle. There has been much more motion and movement compared to last season. The PP was very predictable and stationary in their set up last year, but it hasn’t been that way in practice.
Can Evan Bouchard and Ethan Bear play their way into the 23-man roster? Or will Kevin Gravel hold onto a spot? I think we will see Bouchard and Bear go to Winnipeg on Saturday and get a good test against some of the Jets’ best forwards. That is a tough trip. The players fly two and a half hours, usually have a 45-minute bus ride to the rink and then play in a loud building against an NHL-heavy roster. It will a great test for those two and Caleb Jones, who could go as well.
Will Mcdavid or RNH take more faceoffs? In his first 445 faceoffs last season, McDavid was only 40.4%. In the final 39 games, he took 464 draws and was 42.2%. McDavid dominates without dominating faceoffs, but you wonder what he might do if the team has possession more often after draws. He was 41.4% last year while RNH was 48.8%. McDavid is stronger this year, and he’s competitive as hell. He wants to improve and I’m curious to see how they do on faceoffs, and what could happen if his line is winning even 5% more draws. It should lead to more possessions, and the more McDavid has the puck, the more good things happen.