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Photo Credit: Terrence Lee-USA TODAY Sports

That Top Six

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.

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NUGENT-HOPKINS

Mar 18, 2018; Tampa, FL, USA;Edmonton Oilers center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (93) skates with the puck during the first period at Amalie Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

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.”

RATTIE

Ty Rattie recalled from the AHL Bakersfield Condors

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.”

LUCIC

Mar 31, 2018; Calgary, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers left wing Milan Lucic (27) and Calgary Flames goaltender Mike Smith (41) fight during the third period at Scotiabank Saddledome. Calgary Flames won 3-2. Mandatory Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

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.

ROSTER CUTS

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.

Previously by Robin Brownlee

      • Oilerz4life

        Lucic had an interest level in the second half of last season that showed he would rather take that boat ancor contract elsewhere. He wasn’t contributing to what he was hired for $$$. Preseason againt AHL prospects is hardly the full grind of a full NHL season, so you can hardly blame Oiler fans for being skeptical.

          • Oilerz4life

            It’s called a decade of darkness Doctor. The Oilers and fans paid $3’000’000 for 1 goal, would you invest in that? He has to prove the contract. Even Lucic admits that so we will see. The LTIR thing still needs to be figured out. When it’s big boy time the AHL players won’t be pylons for the NHL roster to practice against.

  • Soccer Steve

    How amazing would it be for Rattie to be our Cheechoo this season? I understand the hockey gods were definitely smiling on us with McDavid but us fans need a positive season. It’s been a rough decade…

    • I don’t think he has to be that and I doubt he will. If Rattie can score 20-25 goals, be somewhere in the 40-50 point range and provide some of the aspects McLellan mentioned, that’ll be a success. As important, if he locks down a spot, it’s unlikely the Oilers try to force Puljujarvi and Yamamoto into the line-up before they’re ready.

      • Redbird62

        Robin – I assume for Jesse you meant “up the line-up” not “into the line-up”. I agree with your assessment of what would be a success for Rattie especially since I don’t sense he is getting a lot of consideration for power play time, at least to start the season, so that would be very good even strength points, assuming he helps the line keep the puck out of our net. Maroon was considered a big success with two seasons at a 43 point pace each. Maroon had a good all around game that brought some of those other elements as well that allowed McDavid and Draisaitl to be successful even if Maroon wasn’t getting the points. Rattie won’t be as distracting force in front of the net, battling in the corners will be a little harder for him and no one will regard Rattie as McDavid’s protector if things get nasty.

        • “Is Jesse Puljujarvi ready to launch from a more protected spot on the third line?”

          I’m asking if Puljujarvi will finally get some traction playing more protected minutes on the third line. If he does, and if Rieder isn’t a fit on the right side with Draisaitl, maybe Puljujarvi gets that look later in the season.

  • Dallas Eakins Hair

    I think we have all seen what Rattir can do so far with the glimpse of the tail end of last season and training camp, I hope he can expand on that. Reider I would like to see how he does and how he gels with Draisaitl, I am hoping they click and have some chemistry. Jesse did great in the preseason so far and last game he was on fire I am looking forward to the next couple games and see if he can continue to roll like that. Aberg is bound to be waived, I think he is so far in the doghouse that he isnt going to get any traction and training camp so far has been meh for him. Kassian better make an appearance soon, because JJ is taking his role, JJ looks to be wanting to expand on what he did last year and I like what I saw out of him last year and training camp he looked pretty good.

    • Khaira is already above Kassian in the line-up as far as I can tell — he’s better than a fourth-liner, which is what Kassian is. I think Jujhar is a third-liner with 15-18 goal potential in a full season. A big part of Kassian’s game is playing with emotion and I expect he will crank that up as games go on.

      • Dallas Eakins Hair

        I sure hope so Kassian was invisible last year and the first year he was here, he was involved and engaged all the time, the game against Calgary other than taking a bad penalty he was invisible on the ice. I sure would like to see Kassian be more of a presence, if he isnt I see him being traded

      • Redbird62

        Look what happened to Domi for bringing the emotion in a pre-season game. Gotta save it for when it matters, though even in the regular season, emotional players have to pick their spots and be a lot smarter than Domi was.

        • Dallas Eakins Hair

          Dont think anyone wants Kassian pulling a Domi, but he needs to hit and be fast on his feet and be engaged, that last game Kassian was invisible, if it wasnt for that dumb penalty I doubt people would have known he was in the game. Kassian can protect the puck well and skate and hit when he does the three he is a force, but when he isnt doing any of the above, he isnt helping himself or the team

  • Enjoy this meaningless win Oilers as the Jets were playing their 4th line with a team of prospects and their young #3 goalie while the Oilers had most of their opening line-up and they still had trouble against them for 3/4 of the game. The 1st time they meet this season and realize they have to play Schiefele and Littles lines with Helly in goal and Buff on D I’m sure reality will hit the Oilers and their fans. Good win though.