Hands up everybody who said prior to the start of pre-season that Ty Rattie, Jesse Puljujarvi and Kailer Yamamoto were going to fill the net and that these three unproven right wingers would be the strength of the Edmonton Oilers five games into the schedule, not the biggest question mark. Sure you did.
I didn’t. You didn’t. Yet here we are in the wake of the Oilers rolling over the Vancouver Canucks 6-0 Tuesday to improve to 4-1 and Rattie, Puljujarvi and Yamamoto haven’t just been good, they’ve been great. Rattie’s hat-trick against the Canucks gives him 7-3-10 in the three games he’s played. Puljujarvi potted a pair against Vancouver and has 4-0-4 in four games. Yamamoto has 4-3-7 in the four games he’s played.
Those questions about the right side before the pre-season schedule were legit concerns, of course, but having scored 15 of the Oilers’ 27 goals through five games, Rattie, Puljujarvi and Yamamoto have not only had all the answers, they’ve made a mockery of the question. While this guarantees absolutely nothing when the puck drops with points in the standings on the line, it’s damn sure better than the alternative – the gaping offensive hole many feared.
While it’s not uncommon for a player with a question mark beside his name – somebody who has kicked around a bit like Rattie has or raw, unproven prospects with draft pedigree like Puljujarvi and Yamamoto – to exceed expectations and grab eyeballs and a roster spot at camp, having three players do it, at the same position, is. I don’t recall this happening with the Oilers. With three pre-season games to go, it’s a great story.
I had a coach when I was playing lacrosse who, when I appeared to be denser than usual getting his drift, had a habit of asking, “Do I need to draw you a picture?” Often, the answer was yes. That appears to be exactly what coach Todd McLellan did during a meeting with his right wingers a couple of weeks ago when he spelled things out in no uncertain terms.
“He showed us the depth chart and said ‘There are openings here, it’s going to be a battle, but the ball is in your court, whoever wants it go out and get it,’” said Rattie, who has played his way into a spot on right wing alongside Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Connor McDavid. “You have to take that to heart and in the next practice, next game prove how bad you want to be there.”
Rattie, 25, clearly got McLellan’s message. He’s a lock to start the season on the first line. Yamamoto got a look against the Canucks with Milan Lucic and Leon Draisaitl. I’d like to see more of him there because he was only OK last night. That said, my sense is that Yamamoto, barring a total el-foldo the rest of the pre-season, already has a spot on the roster, if not on that line.
Puljujarvi, 20, who mugged for fans in the penalty box for a photo-bomb last night, has been everything anybody could have hoped for while playing third-line minutes. He’s flying. He’s shooting the puck. “The goal he scored on the power play, I zipped it in there on his backhand, and sometimes that’s a tough play when you’re going full speed. He handled it perfectly and got off an amazing shot,” McDavid said of the big Finn. “He has another gear. He’s just got another step. He must have had a good summer.”
THE BOTTOM LINE
We can’t say for certain the Oilers are set on the right side just because Rattie, Puljujarvi and Yamamoto have started this well. History tells us that much. We know they aren’t going to continue to produce at the pace we’ve seen so far, and that’s OK. What we can say is we’ve got three players making terrific bids at what was supposed to be a position of weakness. McLellan and the majority of fans out there would have been more than satisfied with one or two of them doing that before camp opened.
Like a lot of you, I was of the mind not so long ago that the prospect of starting the 2018-19 season with Rattie, Puljujarvi and Yamamoto occupying spots the right wing was a hope-for-the-best gamble that had little or no chance of paying off. It’s pre-season, so that hasn’t happened yet, of course, but the odds have changed.