The Oilers fell 3-2 to the Flames (ugh) in Calgary to conclude their pre-season schedule Saturday night.
That game was the last chance for players to make their cases for roster spots. The players have done their part. Now, we wait for Ken Holland, Dave Tippett, and the rest of the coaching staff to decide how they want the roster to look when Wednesday’s regular season opener comes.
This was an intriguing training camp because there was a lot of internal competition for spots all over the roster, and there were a lot of new faces to get to know.
Here’s what we know: Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and James Neal are locks to be in the top 6. Coach Tippett wants to start the year with McDavid and Draisaitl together on one line, and with Nuge and Neal together on another line. The identities of the other two wingers on those lines remain unidentified to this point, although Kassian playing with McDavid and Draisaitl seems as sure of a bet as any. In my opinion, this is the best hockey I’ve ever seen Kassian play. He looks fast, and he showed a lot of confidence with the puck. That is nice to see!
We can also reasonably assume that the line of Jujhar Khaira, Riley Sheahan, and Josh Archibald will be a thing to start the regular season because they were stapled together as a group for all of camp when it was possible.
On defence, we know that Darnell Nurse and Adam Larsson will be a pairing. We know that Nurse, Oscar Klefbom, and Kris Russell will be on the left side. We know Larsson is on the right side for sure… beyond him, the right side is pretty open; more specifically, the spot beside Klefbom. Matt Benning seems like he has a hold on that 3RD spot, but that hold is tenuous.
In goal, it was always going to be Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith battling for ice time.
Let’s dive in and take a look at the battle for each open roster spot and how the candidates fared during camp:
4th line centre: Colby Cave vs Gaetan Haas
Cave seemingly had the advantage for the majority of camp. He played in 6 of the 7 games, and he showed tenacity on the forecheck as well as reliable defensive play in those outings. However, the only offence that he was able to muster in those games was one single secondary assist. That is Cave in a nutshell… he won’t hurt your team, but if you want offence, then you’ve got the wrong guy. I have said previously that I don’t think he can produce enough offence to hold a full-time NHL role for a full season, and I’m standing by that.
Haas started camp slow. Maybe he was taking some time to adjust to North American ice. Maybe it took him some time to get truly comfortable in Edmonton. Whatever the reason was, Haas wasn’t great early in camp. However, he really picked it up at the end! He started using his speed more, and he even got a goal against Calgary on Saturday.
In reality, both players would be cheap and reliable 4th line centre options for the Oilers. Cave played 6 games to Haas’s 4, which could suggest either that Coach Tippett loved Cave or that he needed to see more of him to evaluate him properly. I think Haas has two things going for him in this battle: the fact that he is the only right-handed option at centre, and the fact that he scored a goal. It’s a small sample size against inferior competition, but it seems like Haas might have a bit more offence in him than Cave does. The bar isn’t set very high there! Haas was also decent in the faceoff dot in the pre-season. The big thing working against Haas is that he is waivers exempt, so the Oilers can’t possibly lose him if he is sent to Bakersfield.
My Pick: Cave. For now… I’m predicting that Haas will take over for Cave at some point early in the season.
4th Line Wingers: Patrick Russell vs Markus Granlund vs Alex Chiasson
I’m going to start this section off by commending Patrick Russell for his showing at this camp. He played in the first 6 games consecutively, which is a good sign that the coach was interested in him. He was annoying as hell on the forecheck, and he rarely made any mistakes defensively. He even chipped in 2 points in those 6 games. However, I think the competition was too much for him to overcome to earn a full-time spot on the 4th line in Edmonton this year.
Granlund was dealing with a bit of a core issue in camp (according to Bob Stauffer), so we didn’t really get to see much of him. He wasn’t noticeable when he did play. Tippett did say that he thinks Granlund is a smart player after the game on Saturday. Given the $1.3 million contract that Granlund got this summer, I think his name being on the opening night roster is a safe bet.
Chiasson is another guy that was always going to be on the team as well. It looks like Tippett wants more speed in the top 6 because Chiasson has been playing with lower quality line mates than what he got used to last year. Chiasson will be fine in a bottom 6 role with some added PP time.
Russell may have had the best camp of these three, but he was always facing an uphill climb to make the team. Russell will be a solid call-up option this season.
My Picks: I’m predicting a 4th line of Granlund-Cave-Chiasson for opening night.
Winger for Nuge and Neal: Joakim Nygard vs Tomas Jurco vs Sam Gagner
This turned into a tough decision as camp unfolded. Sam Gagner got the most looks playing directly with Nuge and Neal, which could be a tell from Tippett. The coach is also familiar with Gagner from their time in Arizona, which doesn’t hurt Gagner’s cause. However, the other two guys in this battle made it exactly that.
Nygard showed me a lot in this pre-season. I was excited about him coming in to camp, but I didn’t fully know what to expect from him. I knew he was fast, but I didn’t know that he was so willing to get involved physically. I didn’t know that he could win puck battles along the boards. I didn’t know that he could draw penalties. I didn’t know that he could find his way into open spaces like he does. The interesting thing to note about Nygard is that he got A LOT of time with Draisaitl during camp. The two seemingly had decent chemistry as well. Kassian’s spot riding shotgun with 97 and 29 might not be as safe as we all thought.
I definitely would not have called Jurco leading the Oilers in pre-season scoring, but here we are! His 3-point night against Winnipeg helped his cause, but he was solid in all of his games. His lines were always cycling in the offensive zone. His lines were always generating chances. There aren’t many Oilers that could’ve scored his highlight reel goal against Winnipeg. His skill was on display there!
My Pick: Nygard was impressive in camp, and he deserves a chance to start with Nuge and Neal; but my gut is telling me that Gagner will end up in that spot. If Gagner is not in that spot, I’m sot seeing where else he fits in on this roster. That’s an expensive player to have in the press box if Nygard or Jurco outplays him.
Right Defence: Joel Persson vs Ethan Bear
This was the most intriguing battle of the camp in my opinion.
In the offseason, my thought was that if Kris Russell was traded or moved to the left side, then Holland would have to bring in an established 2RD from outside of the organization because going with Persson, the unknown wild card, or one of the rookies in a top 4 role would be a huge risk.
Tippett decided that Russell would be better as the 3LD. He wants a balance of lefties and righties. Holland did not bring in an established 2RD. So, the stage was set for what was a fun battle to watch.
Evan Bouchard was firmly in this battle as well before ultimately being sent to Bakersfield. While Bouchard’s passing ability is top notch, he will be well served by his season in the AHL. This was the right decision.
Persson was stapled to Klefbom’s side for the entire camp when he was healthy. He actually looked pretty good playing with Klefbom. He moves the puck well, and he did not look out of place defensively. He’s 25 years old, so it’s not as if he’s a truly raw rookie. He has professional experience, albeit in the SHL. He was the front runner for the job up until he tweaked his shoulder against the Coyotes on Tuesday.
He should be healthy in time for the 2nd or 3rd game of the season, but he might not crack the line-up upon his return.
Opportunity knocked for Ethan Bear. One day, he was playing with either Manning or Lagesson and not getting a great chance to show what he can do. The next, Bouchard was sent down and Persson got hurt, and Bear suddenly found himself skating beside Klefbom.
How did he respond?
By scoring two goals against the Jets!
Tippett has been speaking highly of Bear all camp. His conditioning is much improved, his diet is improved, his defensive play is improved, and his edge work is improved. His offensive skill has always been there, it was just a matter of getting the finer details of his game on and off the ice in order. It appears that he has done that.
I wrote a piece about Bear during his first cup of coffee with the Oilers in 2017-18. I was trying to project how many points Bear might’ve got if he had played in the NHL full-time last season. When comparing him to current NHLers with similar CHL production, Bear could’ve realistically got anywhere from 20-40 points last season. The range was so big because Bear was drafted much lower than the comparables that I was using, so I accounted for that as well. It’s a big range, but the thing is that he has another AHL season’s worth of experience to consider now. His floor is higher.
I would expect Bear to get 25-32 points in the NHL this season. If he plays with Klefbom and has the chance to feed McDavid and Draisaitl outlet passes all season, then it might be more.
Bear will skate beside Klefbom on opening night. What will happen after that is a mystery.
The Oilers need defencemen that are mobile and that can move the puck. Matt Benning is not that. I mentioned earlier that Benning’s hold on that 3RD spot is tenuous. The reason for that is both Bear and Persson have both played well and they are both deserving of full-time roster spots. Meanwhile, Benning has struggled. I’ve said before that there isn’t one skill that he excels at. He is a decent open ice hitter and he has a decent shot, but he doesn’t move the puck well and his defending is suspect at times. I’m comfortable with him as a 3RD, but I’d be more comfortable with him as a 7D given the emergence of Bear and Persson.
My Pick: Bear appears to have won the battle for the 2RD job. Bigger question now is Persson or Benning for 3RD… I like Persson.
7D: William Lagesson vs Brandon Manning
Given how well Bear and Persson have played, the winner of this battle might not even matter because they could both be headed to Bakersfield.
Lagesson moves surprisingly well, and he’s a rangy defender. He’s annoying to play against! He does have a little bit of offensive upside as well. He projects as a 3LD, but that won’t happen in Edmonton this season.
Manning just doesn’t have the chops to compete with the rest of Edmonton’s blueliners. He doesn’t make clean passes, he isn’t confident with the puck, and he isn’t impressive defensively.
My Pick: Lagesson was the better of the two, but it makes more sense to have the younger Lagesson playing meaningful minutes in Bakersfield rather than just practicing with the Oilers. I would be alright if Manning ended up being a 7D and just not getting into games at all unless it was a dire emergency. Given the performances of Persson and Bear in camp, we might not have to worry about having to watch Manning as an Oiler this year though.
Given what we know and what we have seen so far, I think this will be the roster for Wednesday’s game against the Canucks:
That means that I think Haas, P. Russell, and Lagesson will be Bakersfield bound in the coming days. I don’t think Manning will be too far behind them once Persson is back.
As for Jurco and Nygard, I’d love to see them higher in the line-up. Here’s the thing though: what we see on Wednesday night won’t be set in stone for the whole 82 games. Kassian is playing great right now, but I don’t have evidence to suggest that he can stick as a top line player for 82 games. It’d be cool if I’m wrong, but I’m expecting other wingers to get chances with McDavid and Draisaitl throughout the year. Gagner spent most of last season in the AHL, and produced at a 3rd line pace in the NHL last season. I think the hope is that his hands take over and they lead him to success with talented players on that 2nd line.
The wingers in the bottom 6 aren’t exactly permanent fixtures either. Guys like Khaira and Granlund could come in and out of the lineup as well. We also can’t expect there to be no injuries to anyone for the whole season. Jurco and Nygard will get their chances.
In goal, I’ve liked Smith’s game so far. I think his puck handling adds a much needed additional way for the Oilers to move the puck North. Koskinen has looked shaky for the most part. I know that he is capable of more, but we didn’t really see his best game in camp. Smith gets the nod on Wednesday if I’m in charge.
The real question now is if the roster will be good enough to get the Oilers into the playoffs. I’ll try to answer that question in the coming days before the season starts! I’ve got a two-parter on the Oilers’ playoff chances this season where I’ll answer the question from two different angles: how do these Oilers compare to last year’s Oilers, and how do they compare to the rest of the Western Conference.