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Three battles to watch during training camp

Training camp is officially underway and as usual at this time of year, there are plenty of storylines surrounding the Edmonton Oilers. Will Connor McDavid be healthy on October 1st? How will James Neal gel with one of the skilled centres? What about the rookies? And the goalies?

There are plenty of things to watch as we head through the preseason schedule but today, I want to focus on the jobs that are up for grabs in training camp.

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The spot next to McDavid and Draisaitl has Zack Kassian pencilled into it and the third line centre role will likely go to Riley Sheahan but there are a few spots that are completely wide open.

SECOND PAIR – RIGHT SIDE

Earlier in the summer, we heard Jim Playfair say that he likes the idea of playing Darnell Nurse and Adam Larsson together. That leaves Oscar Klefbom without a clear partner on the Oiler’s second pairing. This battle will be interesting simply because there are so many candidates.

Joel Persson will start the preseason on a pairing with Oscar Klefbom but he’s an absolute wild card. Nobody really knows how he’s going to adapt to the NHL game and to expect a player who hasn’t played a second of NHL hockey to step into the league and be an immediate 20 minute per night defenseman is a little bit foolish. Could he do it? Possibly. Is he more suited for a lesser role? Absolutely. So even though he might start the preseason next to Klefbom, I don’t think we should say that he’s pencilled into that spot.

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Evan Bouchard is the other name that has been brought up on a consistent basis. Last year we saw him almost make the team out of camp but if we’re being honest, that was more a result of Peter Chiarelli generally not having a plan. This year, I would be a little bit more okay with Bouchard being on the team in October. If he comes in and proves that he’s their fourth-best defenseman, then having him on a pair with Klefbom and sheltering them with lots of offensive zone starts isn’t a horrible idea. The biggest thing working against Bouchard is Ken Holland. The Oilers GM has said that he’d rather call a player up after 20 games than send them down after 20 games. Bouchard will likely have to be head and shoulders above the competition if he wants to be an Oiler on opening night.

Matt Benning is a right-shot defenseman with over 200 games of NHL experience and yet, he’s often the third player brought up when debating who could win this job. Last year, he had some stretches where he hardly looked like an NHL calibre d-man but there have also been plenty of times where he’s shown a genuine potential of being a top-four defenseman. On most nights, the Larson/Nurse pairing will handle the heavy lifting, which would allow a pairing of Klefbom/Benning to get some easier matchups and likely get more time in the offensive zone. I don’t mind that idea and heading into camp, Benning is my favourite to snag the job.

Ethan Bear is another option. After showing some serious potential in 2017/18, he battled injuries and inconsistency in 2018/19 and didn’t play in a single NHL game. He shoots right and considering where he’s at in his career, we’re getting to the point where it’s make or break time for Bear. Reports out of camp are that he looks much quicker and is in tremendous shape (shoutout to Bob Stauffer for the note). I wouldn’t be stunned if he really pushes for a spot on the NHL roster but like the other three candidates, I wonder if he can handle close to 20 minutes a night, which is what someone paired with Klefbom will likely have to play.

Outside of those four, the team could also look at sliding one of Kris Russell or Caleb Jones over to the right side. The sense I’m getting is that the team doesn’t want to move Russell away from the left side but there has been some chatter about Jones on his off-side. That might be something to keep an eye on as well.

While I consider Benning to be the favourite, it’s by a very narrow margin. I want to see how Bouchard and Persson play against some NHL competition before making a firm guess. At this point, you could really see anyone of those three players playing next to Klefbom in October.

SECOND LINE WINGER

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As I said off the top, I have Zack Kassian pencilled in to be the top-line right-winger. I’m also assuming that Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and James Neal are slotted in to start the year on the second line. That leaves one spot open in the Oilers top six and depending on which side James Neal plays, there are plenty of options.

The top option right now appears to be Alex Chiasson, who rode a crazy high shooting percentage last season and scored a career-high 22 goals. He spent some time with Nugent-Hopkins and I would assume that he’s the favourite to take the job out of camp.

Then, the wildcards start coming in. I’m not as big of a believer in Sam Gagner as others are, but he’s a veteran guy so you don’t want to completely count him out. JOAKIM NYGARD and Tyler Benson are two rookies that I expect will get extended looks there as well. It would be very appetizing to have Nygard’s speed in the top six, but we just don’t know how he will look playing on the smaller North American ice. Benson has some great vision and has proven he can be a high-end playmaker at the AHL level. If those translate to the NHL, he would look great on a line with a natural shooter like James Neal.

I view Markus Granlund and Josh Archibald as bottom-six options, but they’re worth a mention. Particularly Granlund, who had a small run of success playing with the Sedin twins in Vancouver a few years ago. 

The final name that I’ll mention is Jujhar Khaira. He played close to 200 even-strength minutes with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins last season and produced a goal and four assists in that time. Those aren’t exactly eye-popping numbers, but I think there’s still some untapped potential in Khaira. He’s just a year removed from scoring 11 goals in 69 games and at times he’s shown some flashes of skill. That combined with his size has me wondering if he can find a more permanent spot in the top six out of camp. Again though, the side that they play James Neal is a massive factor when going considering all the different options.

STARTING GOALTENDER

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On one hand, who gets the start on opening night doesn’t matter too much because this battle will be fought throughout the entire season but during the preseason, Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen will be duking it out to see who gets to stand in the crease on October 2nd when the Oilers host the Canucks.

The significance of that will be that it’ll give us a glimpse of who the coaching staff feels most confident with. As I said, that will likely change multiple times throughout the season but whoever gets the start for the opener will clearly have a leg up on the other.

Just looking at their contracts, you might assume that the job is Mikko Koskinen’s to lose and if the Oilers would have hired anyone other than Dave Tippett to be their Head Coach, I likely would have agreed with that. But that’s not the case. Given Tippetts history and presumed comfort with Smith, you have to think that the two goaltenders are coming into camp on a fairly even level.

The way they perform during the preseason will determine who gets the start on night one and it’s a battle that everyone will be watching very closely during camp. Has Koskinen figured out his glove hand? Can Smith defeat father time and take the starters’ job? Both would be a little bit surprising honestly, which is what makes this so intriguing and also worrisome for Oilers fans.

What say you? Which battle will you be keeping a close eye on as we head into the preseason? Drop a comment and let me know!

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