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Photo Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Who Will Make the 23-Man Roster?

With two preseason games in the books, and only five remaining, the battle for roster spots is narrowing. Of course, one game (or two games for the four players who played both), is not enough to decide who starts the season in Edmonton and who will be sent to Bakersfield. But when you consider the roles Dave Tippett is looking to fill, it is easy to see which players are in direct competition for spots.

The top line has yet to play, but we know they will be on the roster. Zack Kassian’s position in the top line will depend how he plays when the season begins, but I don’t see why on October 2nd he wouldn’t be there with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.

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Sam Gagner, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and James Neal accounted for both goals in Monday’s opener. Gagner, like Kassian, will need to play well to remain there, but Dave Tippett knows his game very well and he is the most proven offensive player among those pushing for that spot. I do think we will see players move in and out of the top-six during the season, but not necessarily by opening night.

The bottom six is where it gets most interesting.

Last week Dave Tippett outlined very specifically what he is looking for in his bottom six. “I don’t see it as a third or fourth line, instead a bottom six,” he said. “I see one big, heavy line who can maintain offensive zone time and the other line will be smaller, quicker with potentially more offence.”

That doesn’t guarantee there will be all small players on one line, and all bigger forwards on the other. Josh Archibald has played with Jujhar Khaira and Riley Sheahan for much of training camp and in the preseason, while last night Patrick Russell skated with Cooper Marody and Tomas Jurco. Josh Archibald is a solid checker, so he could fill that role with Sheahan.

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The job I see most up for grabs is the smaller centre spot in the bottom six. Sheahan will be the heavy centre, who takes faceoffs, has a fair amount of defensive zone starts and can play some tougher competition. But the other bottom six centre spot is wide open.

Cooper Marody came into camp confident he was ready to grab that job.

“Many are going to say that there is an issue (with my game), and for my whole life I’ve never been a height guy,” said Marody. “I’ve never been a guy that people said, ‘This guy is going to be a top-six player’, and that’s something I think that I can do.

“I don’t just want to just make the team as a thirteenth forward. I want to be a top-six, top-nine player and I know that I can do that. It’s just about proving that to the world. So, it was a big summer for me not only in the weight room, but on ice as well. I’m just looking forward to proving myself.”

Last night he picked up two assists and played the third most minutes of any forward at 16:11, behind only Markus Granlund (16:48) and Tyler Benson (16:42). It was his best game of camp, including the rookie games. Marody averaged more than a point-per-game in the AHL last year, and has proven he has good offensive instincts. He is battling with Gaetan Haas, Brad Malone and Colby Cave for the centre spot, and I think he is more offensive than both of them. Haas can really skate, but he might need some time adjusting to the smaller ice. Haas struggled to receive passes in his first game, but that might just have been some jitters. Cave is more of a checker than scorer at the NHL level. Same with Malone, but Malone might be the best defensively of the four.

Today I give Marody a slight advantage in that battle. It also helps he is a right shot, as McDavid, RNH and Sheahan all shoot left. It would be nice to have one right-shot centre.

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If we assume Khaira, Archibald, Chiasson and Granlund are on the team, that leaves Nygard, Jurco, Benson and Russell to push one of them to the pressbox on opening night and battle for the two extra forward positions.

Russell played well in both his games and Tippett really likes what he brings. The fact he scored a goal and an assist last night will only help his cause, but Tippett appreciates him for the small things he does away from the puck.

Jurco has the most NHL experience of these four. He played 201 games with Detroit Red and Chicago over five seasons between 2014-2018. He spent last year in the AHL, scoring 27 points in 33 games. Injuries and healthy scratches have been his biggest challenge. He played 49 games in 2016 (44 in NHL, five in AHL), 31 games in 2017 (29 in NHL and two AHL) and only 33 last season. He was very good last night in Vancouver. He didn’t look out of place against a roster with 66% NHL players.

He turns 27 in December, so unlike Benson or Marody he could start the season as an extra forward. Benson and Marody are either in the opening night lineup or in the AHL. Ken Holland has made that very clear. His young players won’t be sitting in the pressbox.

Nygard was okay his first game. Adjusting to the speed and pace as well as the smaller rink where everything happens quicker will take some time. Unfortunately for him, he won’t have the luxury of a lot of games to prove he is NHL ready. Maybe he and Haas would agree to a stint in the AHL, as neither require waivers, instead of going back to Europe, but I’d guess they only do that if they feel they are really close to being NHL players. Haas said earlier this month he wouldn’t stay the entire season in the AHL, but maybe he’d stay for a month to show he can adapt to the smaller ice. Nygard will get a chance to play in a top six role and on the powerplay tomorrow, Tippett said this morning. He’d like to see how he reacts in that role.

Benson was much more noticeable last night, but I thought he was solid on Monday as well. He is very good along the boards, and he makes smart plays. If he shows he can produce he could win a job on the more offence-oriented bottom six line, but if he doesn’t stand out he will be the first line left winger in Bakersfield. We know Holland would rather recall a player from the minors during the season, than have him start in Edmonton and send him down after a tough start.

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The wildcard in the mix will be Anton Burdasov. The 28-year-old left winger from Russia signed a PTO with the Oilers today. He is a big body at 6’3″, 200 pounds and he scored 19 goals in 50 games in the KHL last year. According to Ken Holland, Burdasov has a dream to play in the NHL and that’s why he agreed to a PTO. He arrived late due to a delay in paperwork. Coming in late will make it difficult for him to catch up, but he could remain with the team when the season begins and practice with them.

If you recall Chris Kelly did that with the Oilers a few seasons ago. He came to camp on a PTO and skated with them for over a month and then was named captain for Canada at the 2018 Olympics. So having an extra skater around wouldn’t be that abnormal.

Ranking players to make the team today, I have Marody leading for the open centre spot and Russell and Jurco ahead for the extra forwards. But will Tippett want Cave as an extra forward because he is a centre, or will he consider Khaira as an option in case of injuries?

Who do you have?

DEFENCE JOBS…

Sep 16, 2019; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers defensemen Joel Persson (36) skates during warmup before a game against the Winnipeg Jets at Rogers Place. Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

I see two openings. The second pair right defence and the #7 spot. I think Matt Benning will be the third pairing RD. Once Kris Russell is cleared he will be the third pairing LD. Darnell Nurse and Oscar Klefbom are the top-two LD and Adam Larsson will begin the season alongside Nurse.

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So Joel Persson, Evan Bouchard, Ethan Bear, Caleb Jones and William Lagesson are battling for the second pair RD. Persson, Bouchard and Bear have the advantage because they shoot right and Tippett has expressed he likes lefty-right combos. Jones can play the right side, so he is in the mix, but he’ll need to play exceptionally well to beat out those other three. Lagesson is mainly a left side guy, and Tippett really liked the calmness in his game against Winnipeg.

I see him in a battle with Brandon Manning, and Persson, if he doesn’t grab the 2RD slot, for the #7 job. Bouchard, Bear and Jones will either be in the opening night lineup or sent to Bakersfield. Lagesson isn’t much older than those two, but he is a tweaner when it comes to having him stay as a #7 or keep developing in the minors. If he plays better than Manning I think he can win the #7 job, whereas the other young D, even if they play better than Manning, won’t get the #7 spot.

KOSKINEN and CUTS…

It sounds like Mikko Koskinen will play at least half the game tomorrow. Tippett had a plan on when goalies would start, but Mike Smith’s battle with the flu has altered that a bit. Smith did skate with goalie coach Dustin Schwartz early this morning, and he is getting closer to joining the main group. I have to think Smith will play at least half a game on Friday. Because next week the Oilers only have three games and if Smith wants to make two appearances he’ll likely have to play Friday.

I presume Koskinen will start twice next week and Smith will get the other start. But that is just a guess.

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The Oilers reassigned six players to Bakersfield today. Vincent Desharnais, Luke Esposito, Jake Kulevich, Ostap Safin, Beau Starrett and Nolan Vesey. Safin is the interesting one for me. The Oilers will have a lot of young forwards in Bakersfield and he might not play much. Why not send him back to junior, or even to Europe where he will play more? He only played 15 regular season games in the QMJHL last year due to injury. In fact he’s only played 76 games the past two seasons. He could use more time to develop, and more importantly gain some offensive confidence. He did play 23 playoff games for Halifax last year, but scored no goals. Having him barely play minutes in the AHL will not be ideal.

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