NHL teams have to draft and develop the majority of their core if they want to be successful. Then they need to make a good trade or two and the odd, smart free agent signing.
For years the Oilers have struggled to develop their own talent. Some were rushed, others weren’t developed properly and in some cases, they simply didn’t draft very well. Under Peter Chiarelli and Keith Gretzky, the Oilers drafting record has improved immensely, and the Oilers organization finally seems to be on the path where they will be able to fill out their NHL roster from within.
After many years of having very few right-shot skilled players, suddenly it looks like the Oilers have some. Is it a mirage, or could the Oilers have some breakout players this season?
You never want to get too excited, or frustrated, with a player’s performance in the preseason, but that doesn’t mean you have to ignore every positive sign you see. Through five preseason games, the Oilers have had many positives, and most of them are coming from the right side.
The Oilers have scored 27 goals in the preseason. Ty Rattie has seven while Jesse Puljujarvi and Kailer Yamamoto have four each. Ethan Bear has two. Even Bouchard has one. The Oilers drafted four of those players, and Chiarelli signed Rattie as a free agent in the summer of 2017. He then re-signed him for one-year at $800,000 this past April. They have 18 goals, and if you include Patrick Russell’s two goals and Pontus Aberg’s one, then right-shot players have scored 21 of the Oilers 27 goals.
Last season the Oilers scored 229 goals, but only 66 of them came off the stick of right-handed shooters. Ryan Strome had 13 and Puljujarvi had 12.
In 2017 the Oilers scored 243 goals with only 63 being scored by righties. Jordan Eberle had 20 and Mark Letestu had 16.
The main question entering training camp was the lack of experience, and production, from the right wingers. Zack Kassian has 52 goals in 387 games. Puljujarvi has scored 13 in 93 games. Rattie has nine tallies in 49 games. Aberg has five in 68 games and Yamamoto has zero in nine career games. Kassian wasn’t going to play in the top-nine so those four wingers had a whopping 27 career goals between them in 219 games.
They had potential, but none of it was proven, and it was fair to wonder how they would fair this season. I felt Rattie had a good chance to be a decent option on the first line, but last week I wrote about realistic expectations for him. I felt if he could produce 30 5×5 points playing with McDavid, that would be good, based on what other players had done playing with McDavid and Sidney Crosby at 5×5. Maybe he could score 40.
Rattie is making the most of his opportunity. He has a ridiculous seven goals and ten points in three preseason games. Four of his goals have come without McDavid. He isn’t going to produce this much all season, but maybe 25 goals isn’t that unrealistic.
YOUTH IS SERVED…
Puljujarvi and Yamamoto are only 20, and both have a lot of room to grow. Puljujarvi has a massive size and strength advantage and he still hasn’t filled out or reached his physical peak.
You can see it in his play. He was a threat on almost every shift last night. He is using his reach to get to pucks, but now when he has the puck he is making more plays, and is shooting much more. His goal last night was a rocket. He told me he lost ten pounds, but gained strength. He is adamant his improved first step is allowing him to make more plays. One of his teammates joked, “Last year it looked like he had a toothpick for a stick, but this year he has a real stick and he is much more dangerous.”
Puljujarvi just looks more comfortable and confident in every aspect. He worked on his English and feels more comfortable speaking. He still struggles to find the right word at times, but last night after the game he spent five minutes talking with me. He was smiling the entire time. “I worked really hard this summer. Every day. Lots of work in the gym. I feel great,” he beamed.
We talked about his new blade on his stick. “It is thicker, with a bit more of, how you say, up curve,” he said. He also is using a bit stiffer of a stick. But he kept coming back to his skating. He feels quicker and that has given him much more confidence. “I see the ice better now too,” he added.
I’ve preached patience with Puljujarvi for the past two seasons. I felt we wouldn’t see his best until when he was 21, even 22, but from the looks of this preseason, I might have underestimated how quickly he could become a force.
Yamamoto is a smart player. He knows when to go to the net to get to pucks. His size and strength will be a challenge at times, but as he matures and gains strength it will be less of an issue. It is hard to teach smarts or instincts, and his are very good. The Oilers have the luxury of not needing to rush him, but if he keeps playing well he will stay with the big club.
The interesting factor for all three will be what happens when the regular season begins. We know their production will drop, but could Rattie and Puljujarvi both score 20 goals?
In the last 25 years, the Oilers have only had two right shooting wingers score 20+ goals in the same season three times.
In 1999 Bill Guerin produced 30-34-64 and Mike Grier potted 20-24-44.
In 2003 Anson Carter scored 25-30-55 and Mike York tallied 22-29-51.
In 2014 Jordan Eberle scored 28-37-65 and David Perron had 28-29-57.
Production from the right side has not been a strength of the Oilers for a long time, and the good news is that neither Rattie nor Puljujarvi will be looked to carry the team. McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins will be the main producers, but if these two wingers can carry their hot starts into the regular season the Oilers offence might not be tilted as much to the left as it has been in recent years.
Puljujarvi is only going to get better. I don’t see this as a few hot games. I don’t expect him to produce at this rate, but he will create many more chances this season. The question will be: does Todd McLellan move him up to start the season with Leon Draisaitl, or will he look to get some mismatches for his third line? Puljujarvi on the third line could give the Oilers a big advantage when they match up against opposing teams’ third lines. If Puljujarvi does dominate early in the regular season, then it is only a matter of time before he is playing with Draisaitl, but I do wonder if McLellan sticks to his plan of having Strome and Puljujarvi together to start. I think he will.
It isn’t just the young right wings forwards who are having good preseasons. Cam Talbot has the lowest GAA, 1.50, of any goalie who has played two games. And his .952sv% is second best among goalies who have faced 60 shots. “I feel I have a lot to prove. I need a better start than last year, our entire team does, and I was thinking about that every day when training. I’d stay on the ice just a big longer, or do an extra set in the gym. I feel great because of it,” said Talbot.
Bear and Bouchard have been good as well. Bear has three points and has improved his defensive play. Bouchard has scored, and he’s made some excellent passes. His defensive coverage needs work, but that’s expected from a rookie. I could see Bouchard starting the season with the Oilers, while Bear goes to the minors, but after a few games, when Bouchard eventually goes back to junior, we could see Bear recalled. The final 23-man roster, which will be known to the players when they fly to Germany on Saturday, doesn’t mean the evaluation is over. It is just step one, and don’t be surprised to see a few changes to the roster in October.
McDavid leads in preseason assists with six in two games. Rattie leads in goals with seven. In fact the Oilers have the top-three preseason scorers with Rattie’s ten points and McDavid and Yamamoto sitting with seven.
Bear, Puljujarvi and Rattie each have two powerplay goals. Only Shane Gostisbehere in Philly has more with three. But that doesn’t mean I expect the Oilers to change their top PP formation right away. The first unit has only played two games together, and last night we saw Bouchard get some time on the first unit instead of Klefbom.
The Oilers practiced earlier this morning as they start to get the players adjusted to the time change when they leave for Germany on Saturday evening.
And lastly, while Oilersnation should be excited about the play of the young right wingers, I wouldn’t get too concerned about the play of some veterans. “We don’t play our veterans as much as they are used to, but we will start to play those guys more in the next few games. All my years in the league and my experience tells me it can be hard for star players to play these games. They are trying to find their game. They are trying to feel good. They are trying to stay healthy and they know what is ahead of them. We are trying to fix things, but we have to watch how hard we push those guys,” said McLellan.