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Photo Credit: Marilyn Indahl-USA TODAY Sports

Dare to Dream…

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…

Sep 18, 2018; Vancouver, British Columbia, CAN; Edmonton Oilers forward Jesse Puljujarvi (98) celebrates his goal against the Vancouver Canucks during the first half at Rogers Arena. Mandatory Credit: Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

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.

PARTING SHOTS…

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.

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  • ubermiguel

    The pre-season looks like three right wingers fighting for jobs which is a refreshing change. Teams on average have three 20-goal scorers, good teams have 5+. McDavid, RNH, Draisaitl are very likely to get 20+, add a couple of right wingers and we are in very good shape. Just an improvement in PP should lift a couple more players (e.g.: Lucic) nearer the 20 goal mark too.

  • positivebrontefan

    Jason, if any of the vets have had a slow start, who do you think it is, and even though it is preseason, there’s only a few games left to get going, who are you most concerned with if anyone?

    • Jason Gregor

      I haven’t seen one who looks out of shape or incapable of contributing. He wasn’t on team last year and doesn’t have a lot of NHL experience, but Jerabek has impressed me the least.

    • Dallas Eakins Hair

      Caffuila and Kassian would head that list for me, Cagguila’s camp has been meh and last year he was one of this players that Chia I think hoped would step up his game , now Cagguila was hurt so I iant going to give him grief for the whole season, but this season I was hoping he would step it up a bit so far IMHO he hasnt, time will tell though.

      Kassian was almost invisable last year and this camp so far, I have only seen Kassian really stand out twice once for a bad penalty and the other for sticking up for whoever it was that got creamed the other night , other than that Kassian has been quiet. JJ is way ahead of Kassian on the depth chart IMHO and he is filling the role Kassian used to have, if Kassian doesnt step up I think he is trade bait.

  • toprightcorner

    I think they will keep JP on the 3rd line. He has the ability to drive the 3rd line, none of Strome, Khaira or Yamamoto have shown that. Having a skilled player drive each of the top 3 lines is very advantageous and most teams can’t do that from the 3rd line.

    Having Yamamoto with Lucic and Draisaitl should give him more space and he will not be the focus of opponents, allowing him to zip into open spots and get great scoring chances. On the 3rd line, Yamamoto could be the focus and that would not be good for a rookie of his stature.

    I could see JP getting a couple minutes in the top 6 each night when a goal is needed or Yamamoto is having an off night. JP and JJ could do a lot of damage together and there is a possibility they could have 55-60 goals as the 3rd line. That likely makes them the best 3rd line in the NHL while having one of the best 1-2 centers in the league.

    I can’t remember the last time the Oilers had the chance to have 3-4 players on the verge of career breakout years and this is looking like it could happen.

      • wiseguy

        I agree that the 2nd line has not been productive and looks suspect. Keeping PJ on the 3rd line is good in preseason when each of the lines are getting 13-15 minutes each as he can produce with that ice time. However, as TM said in his post-game interview last night, he expects 1st line to play 22 min or more. I’m sure this will apply to the 2nd line as well so the minutes for the 3rd and 4th will be cut significantly. Based on this alone, we need to move PJ up the line with Drai. Leaving him on the 3rd line will mean he will play less minutes and likely against the other teams 2nd line and 2nd pairing D anyway as the other teams will also ratchet up the minutes for the top 2 lines.

    • Spoils

      the thing nobody is talking about, save maybe Lowetide, is that the second line hasn’t been impressive. With the 1st and 3rd lines pushing the river it hasn’t mattered, but I think getting some chemistry for the Draisaitl line is top priority.

      McDavid will McDavid, so I would even consider using some of these last preseason games to run experiments that include RNH or Rattie… maybe (that 1 line has been pure blazing fire, so maybe we just keep all hands off. don’t even pencil something on to a napkin)

      #rattricks

  • OilerForLife

    The hope for the Oilers this year, was to improve their PP, improvement from within,and get off to a good start. It’s very hard for Oilers fans to believe, I get that. The Oilers are one season removed from a very successful season. It’s not a huge streak we could do it again.

  • Odanada

    I am pumped about Rattie and wish him lots of success, but he needs to watch out: he is not a big guy and as you get on a roll, the desire to score even more gives you a type of tunnel vision. This is when the big boys on the other team catch you with your head down.
    Fill the net and keep your head up Ty.

  • The Future Never Comes

    The second line is a little perplexing, Yamo did not knock it out of the park but maybe next game they may gel a little more. I get Pulju driving the third line verse easier competition, but we also need Drai to become more dangerous too. If Yamo or Reiser dont grab ahold of that second spot, you may need to put 98 there to let Drai generate more offense.

    • pfuetz

      I think the most encouraging thing about that is we’re in a position where we CAN do that. This isn’t “Drai either produces or McD gets 47 points this game” mentality. We don’t need to have that mentality anymore. I think the reason Strome was a “disappointment” was that he was our plan B for Drai not producing. Strome just needs to be consistent and make smart decisions this year and let The Puj get creative if this continues.

    • Big Nuggets

      I think a number of players will look different when the regular season starts. Drai will zone it in once they hit Europe and the 2nd line will be alright.

  • Hearing Todd McLellan speak last night really gives me confidence. When he said “Rattie has gotten permission from us and himself to use all his tools available” it was an absolutely huge relief. A few months back he said he had a hard conversation with Gulutzan and Yawney and they gave him some eye-openers that were tough to hear, something tells me his handling of young/unproven players was one of those things. McLellan is finally trusting his young guys, he’s put guys like Bouchard, Bear, Yamamoto, Puljujarvi, McLeod, and Rattie in positions to succeed and it has worked out soo far.

  • Abagofpucks

    Soon the oil will have to decide where Kass Cags and Aberg fit …. or do they?
    Right now i think chaisson fits better than Kass, Kailer fits better than Cags and Aberg has skills but dosent seem to be able to fit in.
    Jerabek is very slow like garrison but i like garrison’s grit, Bear and bouchard have played better than both those two, so now what?
    I still believe Bear will start in the AHL, Bouchard will stay up and get protected minutes and for sure get his 9 games over a period of time then be sent down. I still think there’s another deal out there for a dman after the 1st regular season game when sekara gets put on Ltir i just hope its not Falk.

  • scott5017

    After last season the message sounded the same from almost everyone ” we need to be better”. A lot of players took that to heart and really put in the extra effort in the off-season, you can see it on the ice, not gonna lie, its got me excited.

  • Just facts

    Obviously it’s still early but I think we often forget that development does not occur in a straight line for individuals, nor do teams that build internally do so in a regimented way. The history of teams that have gone from lack of success to sustained success usually involves some gains and then some slippage before finally becoming playoff regulars. Those teams also typically did not add players in some theoretical “best practice” fashion i.e. 1 more year of junior, then a full season in the AHL followed by starting a second and maybe a late season call up before finally making it the 3rd year. Differing rates of development, team needs and opportunities and the variability of draft success season to season mean that there will be good years and lean years in terms of the number of new(er) players that will and should make it. Here’s hoping this is one of those years where there are an abundance of good, quality and ready internal candidates for jobs and the team moves into the phase of solidifying success.

  • Abagofpucks

    Hey you know whats funny, since the revelation’s of Jesse and Ty, and the top line looking like it’s set, we now have a what to do problem on the left side from the 2nd on down.

  • BlueHairedApe

    Give JP the key to the city. I like everything about this kid. It’s obvious that he enjoys living in the city playing for the team and he’s shown it on numerous occasions. Minus 30 and he goes and plays shinny on an outdoor rink with some lucky kid, hitches rides with some fans, photobombs other fans in the middle of a game when he’s in the penalty box. And now we’re starting to see how the right attitude can translate into results on the ice. It’s still early but the entire team seems to have a different vibe. Leadership and vengeance is going to go a long ways

  • Kneedroptalbot

    Rattie, Puljujarvi, and Yamamoto have all played really well this pre-season. But once the season starts the Oilers will suit up and roll out a couple of veterans who have been invisible. The gift of Ice.

  • GK1980

    Pre season is pre season. Team looks good playing against other teams “B” teams. Arrows moving up though. Hopefully they keep scoring when it matters starting Oct.6.

  • Arfguy

    I honestly am not trying to bash Lucic again, but I honestly think that Draisaitl needs more help on the second line. I know it’s probably not a good idea, but if McDavid and Rattie start clicking, maybe consider dropping RNH to the second line LW to replace Lucic?

    I would like to see:
    Rieder-McDavid-Rattie
    RNH-Draisaitl-Puljujarvi
    Caggiula-Strome-Khaira
    Lucic-Brodziak-Kassian
    Chiasson

    Draisaitl is a good player, but needs someone to develop chemistry with. Despite what may have happened in the playoffs 2 years ago, I am not seeing much chemistry developing between Lucic and Draisaitl. I didn’t even want to take Lucic off the 3rd line, but Strome and Khaira aren’t all that fast, so maybe Caggiula’s speed will help there.