While nobody will mistake the road line-up the Winnipeg Jets ice against the Edmonton Oilers at Rogers Place tonight as anything resembling what their actual NHL roster will look like, we are going to get our first pre-season look at the top six forwards that Oilers’ coach Todd McLellan will likely start the season with.
Even against a watered-down Winnipeg line-up, that’s worth something — as long as we take it in context, given the questions that remain within a group that will see Connor McDavid in the middle between Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Ty Rattie and Leon Draisaitl at the pivot between Milan Lucic and Tobias Rieder.
The questions are obvious. Can Nugent-Hopkins excel on the left wing alongside McDavid as he did in limited time last season after spending the majority of his NHL career at centre? Is Rattie, who finished last season with McDavid, ready to take the first crack at the job granted him again and run with it? What about Lucic, who is trying to put the second half of last season in the rear-view mirror, and the sooner the better?
There are many other questions of course. Does Rieder have the offensive chops to hang with Draisaitl? Is Jesse Puljujarvi ready to launch from a more protected spot on the third line? What about the blueline, specifically where Evan Bouchard and/or Ethan Bear might fit? On and on. Tonight, Nugent-Hopkins, Rattie and Lucic are who I’ll be focusing on against the NHL-AHL hybrids wearing the Jets’ uniforms.
If Nugent-Hopkins, 25, is the answer on left-wing with McDavid, that solves a lot of problems for McLellan right there. RNH has the offensive instincts to be able to play with and off McDavid and he made the move to left wing last season look relatively seamless. If RNH stays healthy and McDavid is McDavid, that’s two-thirds of a pretty good first line right there.
“Nuge is a smart player,” McLellan said this morning. “He’s a cerebral guy that has a very competitive nature when the puck is dropped. The forward positions, in my opinion, are largely interchangeable. There were times where he played centre because Connor was caught up ice, or whatever it might be, so he did a real good job there.
“I was more impressed with the fact the two of them found each other and jelled quickly. Now, can that continue? That’s up to them. They’re going to have to get that done. Smart players, skilled players, competitive guys can adjust fairly quick to that type of change. I think it’s easier to go from the centre ice position to the wing positon. Much easier than going the other way.”
There’s been lots written about Rattie already, but after scoring two goals in a 4-2 win over the Vancouver Canucks without the benefit of McDavid in the line-up, we see him with No. 97 again. It’s a bit of a preview of the regular season, really, as McLellan has already said he’ll get the first shot at the job. Rattie will never get a better chance to prove he’s an NHL player.
“The offensive instincts, I believe, are there. They’ll come out,” McLellan said of Rattie. “It’s everything that leads up to it. I think if he gets a chance to make a play or finish a play, he can do that. He has those tools. It’s everything else. It’s the board work. It’s the fore-check. It’s working hard coming back to your own zone.
“He looks like a more desperate, hungrier player here this year than he was last year. To me, that’s telling me that he believes he belongs here. He wants his spot and he’s going to play that way. We saw that in Vancouver. Let’s keep seeing it night after night after night and good things will happen for him and for us.”
Everything we’ve heard from Lucic so far during training camp suggests he’s in a far better place mentally and is ready to show that the last 46 games of last season — he scored just one goal — were a frustrating, confidence-sapping one-off that won’t be repeated. Talking the talk is one thing. Lucic takes the first steps in walking the walk tonight.
Again, what Lucic does tonight has to be framed in context with the level of opposition he’ll be facing without the Jets’ best in the line-up. That said, let’s see if he plays quicker and smarter, if he’s engaged and how he fits with Draisaitl and Rieder. In terms of left wingers, Lucic remains the best option for the second line, no?
THE BOTTOM LINE
Obviously, one game against the watered-down Jets isn’t going to tell us everything we need to know about these three players and how they might fare for the rest of the season. It’s a first glimpse, but it goes without saying a good first step is better than a doing a face-plant out of the gate – I’d suggest that’s especially true in Lucic’s case.
If the top six beyond McDavid and Draisaitl isn’t a constant question mark and a carousel of players looking to fit into roles they aren’t really cut out for, if there’s some consistency and chemistry to be found there, then McLellan will have a lot less to worry about as the pre-season plays out than he did at times last season.
The Oilers sent eight players to Bakersfield of the AHL this afternoon, trimming the roster to 35. Tyler Benson, Josh Currie, Joseph Gambardella, Caleb Jones, William Lagesson, Patrick Russell, Ryan Stanton and Dylan Wells got tickets to the minors.