This wasn’t part of the plan. There wasn’t supposed to be a battle for the #6 spot on the Oilers’ blueline, but when Andrej Sekera tore his Achilles tendon on August 13th, a spot in the Oilers top-six opened up. Sekera had surgery the next day, and on August 20th GM Peter Chiarelli signed Jakub Jerabek to a one-year deal. On August 28th, Jason Garrison signed a Professional Try Out (PTO).
And now, with two preseason games remaining, before the Oilers have to declare their final roster, there is a legitimate battle for two, possibly three, blueline positions on the 23-man roster.
Jerabek, Garrison, Ethan Bear and Evan Bouchard are competing for a spot on the opening night roster. But whoever gets on the flight to Germany Saturday evening is not guaranteed to stick long-term.
Jerabek had a slow start in preseason, but played better on Tuesday v. Vancouver. He hasn’t looked very comfortable handling the puck, and his foot speed has been noticeably weak. Right now I have him ninth on their depth chart.
Garrison has been steady throughout. He isn’t flashy, but he knows how to defend and where to go. The question surrounding him is how he will look when the speed increases in the regular season. Todd McLellan said this when I asked about Garrison’s speed: “When someone like Connor (McDavid) is coming down on him, then skating could be an issue, but you can say that for most defencemen. He hasn’t been on the ice for many scoring chances against, which tells me he is positioning himself well, he is managing his gaps well. If he understands his liability, he can make up for it with good positioning and he has done that thus far.” The Oilers really struggled defensively last season, and if Garrison continues to play well in his own zone in the final two games, I believe he will sign a contract.
Bear has scored twice, both on the power play, has moved the puck well and has looked better defensively than he did last season. Right now he is better defensively than Bouchard, and he is equally dangerous on the PP.
Bouchard has lived up to the hype of a 10th overall pick. He is very good with the puck. He can make simple passes, but can also thread the needle in tight spaces. He has looked like a rookie in the defensive zone, which is to be expected. They could give him a few games, but the theme of this training camp has been the importance of a good start. Are they willing to risk that he might make a defensive error that costs them a goal in a critical game? They need to win games more than they need to give a young player a taste of the NHL. It will be interesting to see who makes the cut. I could see him getting a few games to start the season, but ultimately I expect he will be in junior. The other factor that can’t be overlooked with Bouchard is the impending Seattle expansion team.
On Tuesday Seattle city council unanimously approved a privately funded $700 million renovation of Key arena, clearing one of the final major hurdles in Seattle’s bid for an expansion team. The main question is: when will they begin play, in 2020/2021 or in 2021/2022? If they begin in 2020, then Bouchard staying in the NHL this season isn’t a factor, but if they wait until 2021, then keeping him this year will have significant implications. Any player who has played three years of NHL or AHL hockey would need to be protected. If the draft is in 2021, then sending Bouchard back to junior this season means he wouldn’t need to be protected in 2021.
McLellan wants his team ready for opening night next Saturday. All of their top players are going except Cam Talbot, who will play Saturday v. Calgary. The top line has been outstanding thus far, and ideally McLellan would like to see some more production from Draisaitl. It is only two games, so no one should freak out, but offensive guys want to produce in preseason. You want to feel good about your game before the season starts.
At the time posting, we hadn’t found any up to date lineup information for the Coyotes but we did find the combinations they used a couple of nights ago which should be somewhat similar. When news comes out, we’ll be sure to update the line combinations.
1. Mikko Koskinen will play the entire game. Al Montoya has played 20 minutes in the preseason, and while he is used to not playing for a month and then getting a start, it would be very odd if he is the backup to start the season. The wrinkle is the final preseason game in Germany. It will be played on International-sized ice, so the angles are different for goalies, but they will also be practicing on the same ice for three days so the goalies will have time to adjust. The season opener in Sweden will be played on regulation NHL ice. It is an odd situation, but unless Koskinen completely soils the sheets tonight, I expect he will be the backup in Sweden.
2. But don’t rule out a paper transaction by the Oilers where Koskinen is assigned to Bakersfield before the final roster deadline on Tuesday. Both Koskinen and Montoya will be on the flight, and the Oilers cap hit is the same regardless of who is on the roster, but by sending Koskinen down before the deadline, it prevents them from losing Montoya to waivers while they are in Germany. Then the Oilers could put Montoya on waivers Friday, have him clear, and then recall Koskinen and dress him as the backup on opening night in Sweden. I’m not saying it will happen, but it would protect the Oilers from potentially losing Montoya before the season opener.
3. Drake Caggiula has been battling a sinus infection. “I flew in to Edmonton on August 31st, and I got a cold two days later”, explained Caggiula. “Then it became a sinus infection. It has been hard to breathe. It is really annoying, and it is a bit better now, but I’m still have a lot of gross yellow phlegm. We tried to get in to see a throat, nose and ear specialist, but I won’t be able to see one until we get back from Europe. I’m hoping it improves before then.”
4. Right now Caggiula is in a battle for the fourth left wing spot. Earlier this week, McLellan said he has liked Tobias Rieder better on the left side and he’ll play there tonight. That means Caggiula and Khaira are battling for a fourth line LW spot, for now. Caggiula is aware of the situation. “I have only played in two games and in the early part of camp I was sick and wasn’t around much. You see some patterns (lineup) arise, but things can always change. I want to find ways to contribute more, but regardless of where you play you have to earn your spot and you have to produce if you are on the second line or the fourth line,” Caggiula said.
5. I don’t put too much stock into the opening night roster. Things change quickly. Kailer Yamamoto played very well early in preseason, but didn’t do much on Tuesday. I don’t see him as a lock on the second line RW, especially with Jesse Puljujarvi playing so well. I still think McLellan will keep Puljujarvi with Strome to start the season, but eventually Puljujarvi will be moved up the lineup, especially if Yamamoto struggles. Yamamoto might be better served down the lineup, against easier competition. And I could see Caggiula or Rieder moved to the RW on the third line at some point in October. Yamamoto is not a lock to be here all season. He is only 20 and if he needs time to develop in the AHL then they can send him down. The physical toll of playing against men will be taxing, so there is zero reason to rush him. Skill and smarts are not the issue with Yamamoto. His biggest challenges will be fatigue and having the strength to compete against men every night.
6. Is McLellan is leaning towards 7D/14F or 8D/13F to start the season? “That will come down to injuries, some bumps and bruises and that will depend if we are looking at kids on the backend…we’ll see what happens, let me put it that way. I don’t want to tip my hat, it is not fair to the players,” McLellan said. He stopped himself from answering, which tells me he has a plan, but doesn’t want to share it just yet, which is understandable.
7. With Jerabek struggling as bad as he has, I could see the Oilers going with 14F and 7D. When camp started I thought it would be 13-8, but Jerabek has not looked good enough.
8. I think Garrison will earn a contract, maybe even a two-way deal, as some extra cash protection for the Oilers in case his play slips in the regular season. So that means Pontus Aberg or Alex Chiasson will be the 14th forward. If they sign Garrison it puts them at 47 contracts, assuming Bouchard is sent to junior. Will they use a contract on Chiasson, or would they wait and see how Scottie Upshall looks in a few weeks? The Oilers have more forward depth in the AHL and if they get a few injuries they could call up Cooper Marody or Brad Malone. Kevin Gravel is the only defender who could contribute right now. I wouldn’t sign Chiasson, would you?
9. If Ty Rattie keeps scoring it will only be a matter of time before he gets some looks on the first PP unit. I believe the coaches are giving Milan Lucic an opportunity, but if he struggles early in the season they won’t hesitate to move Rattie in. You give veterans the benefit of the doubt at the start of the season, but if they don’t respond, and others are producing, changes will be made.
10. Ryan McLeod was sent back to junior today. He had an outstanding camp. He opened a lot of eyes, and now he has to follow it up with a dominant season in Mississauga.
GAME DAY PREDICTION: Todd McLellan said his backups need to win some games this season. Koskinen is solid and Oilers win 4-2.
OBVIOUS GAME DAY PREDICTION: Ty Rattie scores a goal.
NOT-SO-OBVIOUS GAME DAY PREDICTION: I am giving away a pair of tickets to the game during my radio show today. A listener who really wants the tickets will show up to our Live on Location show (you need to listen to find out where we are) with two Big Turks and two Twix. This will earn them a pair of tickets.