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Exhale

In an off-season that’s seen the Edmonton Oilers turned upside down from the general manager’s chair through the front office, the coaching staff and a roster that wasn’t good enough last season, fans around here understand all of it is secondary to the status of Connor McDavid’s left knee.

Obvious? Sure. How can it not be? The Oilers weren’t good enough to even push for a playoff spot last season with McDavid, so no matter what kind of roster new GM Ken Holland has put together or how new coach Dave Tippett deploys it, they aren’t going to contend for anything without a fully healthy McDavid roaring up and down the ice.

We’ll get our first look at McDavid and the posterior cruciate ligament he tore against the Calgary Flames in the final game of last season in game action tonight when the Arizona Coyotes come calling. After months of rehab and seeing McDavid fly around the ice in Kelowna last weekend, he’s got the green light.

It goes without saying that’s welcome news in a city where the hopes of an entire season hinge this heavily on the status of one knee ligament. Where when and if and how McDavid has skated has been the subject of so much speculation and angst. That’s just the way it is in Edmonton when it comes to the best player on the planet. Tonight, he’s in. Exhale.

READY TO GO

Before getting the go-ahead from team doctors today after the morning skate at Rogers Place, McDavid talked about the road he’s travelled to get back in the line-up since Mark Giordano rode him into the goalpost beside Mike Smith last April with Mark Spector of Sportsnet and assembled media.

“There’s lots of uncertainty with injuries,” McDavid said. “There was lots of different stuff going on in the summer. To feel good on the ice is something I’m really happy about. The fact that we’re talking about games is something I’m really proud of. It’s been a long summer. Lots of hard work. Lots of good docs. Lots of smart people. I really appreciate all that they’ve done for me.”

That was Monday. We’ll hear more from McDavid later today, but it became clear to those who watched the Oilers’ captain skate in Kelowna that he’d get into at least one pre-season game — against Arizona tonight, Winnipeg Thursday or Calgary Saturday — before the season-opener against the Vancouver Canucks Oct. 2.

With his return date out of the way, what remains now is to see how quickly McDavid shakes off any rust and how quickly he can get back up to full speed. That didn’t look like an issue in the Okanagan, but there’s practice pace and there’s game pace. Then, of course, we’ll have to see how the knee holds up. I’m guessing there will be much puckering among the fan base the first time McDavid takes a big hit or falls awkwardly.

THE BOTTOM LINE

The reality in Edmonton is that all the off-season buzz and debate about who should play centre on the third and fourth lines, whether the team’s goaltending is good enough or who should get the right-side spot alongside Oscar Klefbom takes a backseat to McDavid. If his summer rehab didn’t go as it has and McDavid wasn’t ready to play tonight and was out, say, the first month of the season, all that other stuff doesn’t matter nearly as much.

Now, fingers crossed, it does. Here’s hoping the Oilers can lean on McDavid and that knee of his a little less than in the past with the team Holland has assembled on a beer budget. That Tippett has enough other guys who can play a least a little and push the Oilers into playoff contention. With McDavid, that’s a reasonable debate. Without him, not so much.

Previously by Robin Brownlee