20

Here We Go

As a general rule of thumb, the shorter the summer has been the greater the anticipation of a new season is when the puck drops at training camps around the NHL. 

That holds true for fans around here as the Edmonton Oilers open their 2022 training camp with physicals today before hitting the ice tomorrow. While playing one more series after the Western Conference final and having a summer three weeks shorter wasn’t in the cards after a sweep at the hands of the Colorado Avalanche, expectation are high for the Oilers in the wake of a 104-point season, the team’s highest total since 1986-87.

Throw in the primer of Ryan Smyth and Lee Fogolin being named as the first two additions to the team’s just-created ring of honor on Tuesday, and everybody is pumped for puck drop and seeing what Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and the rest of the next edition of the Oilers will be able to accomplish in a full season under coach Jay Woodcroft.

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Questions? Sure. Like you, I’ve got a few when it comes to the roster GM Ken Holland and Woodcroft will take into camp and pre-season, which starts Sunday afternoon against the Winnipeg Jets. Once things start, everything happens pretty fast. Chance are, your questions are much the same as mine. Here’s who and what I’m looking at . . . 

JACK CAMPBELL

Like former Toronto Maple Leafs’ teammate Zach Hyman, Jack Campbell seems like a terrific guy who is easy to like. What’s more important, given the Oilers inked him to a five-year contract for $25 million, is that Campbell represents a clear upgrade over the departed tandem of Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen. That’s going to require quality and quantity.

Campbell got into a career-high 49 games with Toronto last season and the Oilers will need at least that many out of him or they’ll be leaning on Stuart Skinner too heavily. Campbell will have to bump up the .914 he put up last season for the Oilers to be markedly better in the blue paint – he was .921 in 22 games two seasons ago. If the Oilers aren’t better in goal, then all that talent up front won’t be enough to take another step.

ZACH AND EVANDER

It’s been said more than once the Oilers had plenty of scoring last season. It was the goals-against that was the problem. True on both counts. But while McDavid and Draisaitl drive the attack, Hyman and Evander Kane provided a depth of offensive pop the Oilers haven’t had. Kane, especially, gave the Oilers a game-breaker and difference-maker behind McDavid and Draisaitl. Hyman had a career-high 27 goals. Kane scored 22 times in just 43 games and added 13 more goals in 16 post-season games.

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I didn’t think the the Oilers could re-sign Kane as a UFA, but he’s back on a four-year deal worth $20.5 million. Simply put, Kane is a rare mixture of skill, speed, and nasty, competitive edge. If he can produce a reasonable encore over 82 games, it’ll make a huge difference in taking the next step. Kane put it this way today: “High expectations are a good thing and none are higher than in our room. We’re looking forward to building on last season.”

Hyman is slightly more subtle in getting the job done, but he’s competitive and has a motor that never stops. He takes the rubber to the net, competes every shift and he’s versatile. Wind Hyman up and turn him loose. He’s plug-and-play.

EVAN BOUCHARD

The Oilers’ defensive play has to improve in front of Campbell and Skinner. Everybody, notably veterans Darnell Nurse and Cody Ceci, has to take a chunk of that. That said, I’m looking at Evan Bouchard after the big step up he made last season and wondering how much more there is to come. Bouchard, who turns 23 October 20, had a coming out party with 12-31-43 in 81 games, averaging 19:48 of ice time.

With just 102 NHL games in the books since his draft day in 2018, Bouchard hasn’t been rushed along and there’s still room to grow. With Nurse, Ceci (injured to start camp), Tyson Barrie and Brett Kulak in the blueline mix, there is sufficient cover in place to allow Bouchard to come along as his performance dictates. What’s his top-end for offensive production? Is he ready for more ice time this season? What say you, Dad?

THE WILDCARDS

Dylan Holloway is an intriguing player at forward after drawing rave reviews in Penticton and even if he’s not ready to stay and stick to begin the season, he’s upped his stock and looks, according to those who watched him first-hand, like a player . . . I’d like to see Jesse Puljujarvi make the transition from analytics darling to a forward who can be counted on to play a full season and produce goals more consistently. If he does, the Oilers will be considerably better for it on their right side . . . Ryan Nugent-Hopkins gets lost in the shuffle sometimes, but his versatility provides Woodcroft with some options up and down the line-up at wing and centre. Where does RNH play the bulk of his time this season? 

THE WAY I SEE IT

May 31, 2022; Denver, Colorado, USA; Edmonton Oilers head coach Jay Woodcroft talks with his players in the second period against the Colorado Avalanche in game one of the Western Conference Final of the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Ball Arena. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

There’s more to consider of course. After making a big splash behind the bench when he took over from Dave Tippett, Woodcroft has a tough act to follow with the 26-9-3 record he put together in the second half. What does his encore look like after having a full off-season and a training camp to prepare? And what answers will Holland, who met with media today, provide? I see a move or two coming before the regular season begins.

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I had the Oilers winning the Pacific Division last season, as many people did. I was wrong in that. I see them taking another run at it this season and finishing ahead of Calgary this time around. It’s what comes after – another step in the playoffs – that matters more. Finding out how (and if) the Oilers manage that begins to unfold tomorrow. Here we go.

#NATIONVACATION TO LAS VEGAS

  • When: On Thursday, January 12th, we’re jumping on a flight at the Edmonton International Airport and making our way to Vegas. On Sunday evening, we’ll fly back from Vegas to Edmonton. So the dates that you need to block off for this trip are January 12th to 15th.
  • Where we’re staying: After landing in LV, we’ll jump on the free shuttle and make our way to the Park MGM before settling in for a good night’s sleep. 😉
  • What you get: Your roundtrip flight, hotel, shuttle, viewing party (Friday night), game entry — we got seats this time (Saturday night), and exclusive entry into our pre-trip ‘get to know everyone’ event.
  • How Much: The total cost for the trip, flight, hotel, and entry to the game is $1499 per person (based on double occupancy) 
  • Tickets: Ready to dive in? Click this link.

Previously by Robin Brownlee