Ah, September; the month where the athletic calendar starts to get busy again! In Edmonton, once the Eskimos are finished losing to the Stamps on Labour Day, our focus shifts to the Oilers! Rookie camp began with medicals on Thursday, and main camp begins on the 12th.
There has been a fair amount of change in Edmonton this summer. New GM Ken Holland set out to build the bottom 6, and he has certainly made moves towards that goal. His first move was to sign Swedish winger Joakim Nygard, who was 2nd in the SHL in goals last season. He took another gamble on a European veteran forward by the name of Gaetan Haas. He would later sign Markus Granlund, Josh Archibald, and Tomas Jurco. Finally, he signed centre Riley Sheahan on Thursday. In addition to those moves, Holland re-signed Alex Chiasson and Jujhar Khaira.
Holland made a tough decision to buy out veteran defenceman Andrej Sekera, so there is a spot open on the Oilers defence. As Mark Spector reported today, it appears that Kyle Brodziak has played his last game as an Oiler due to a back injury that is likely to see him end up the LTIR.
Finally, Holland did the seemingly impossible by trading Milan Lucic for James Neal, a useful NHL goal scorer that has a better contract than Lucic’s.
I’m not going to go through each and every potential battle that will take place at training camp because that would take forever. Instead, I’m going to talk about three potential surprises that could push the Oilers to playoff contender status if they are indeed ready to succeed at these positions.
Please note that these are POSSIBLE SURPRISES! These are NOT suggestions that these players are definitely ready and absolutely need to be put into the spots that I’ll talk about here. If these guys happen to be ready for the positions that I’ll talk about, then that would be amazing because the positions in question don’t have veterans that are locks to succeed in them.
I’m going to start up front and focus on the top 6. Obviously, McDavid, Draisaitl, and Nugent-Hopkins will be in that group. Neal is essentially a lock to be there as well. That leaves 2 spots open.
I think one of those spots will end up having a rotating cast on the right side. I think Kassian will start to the right of McDavid and Draisaitl, but I also believe that Chiasson and Gagner will get looks there at different points during the season.
That leaves one spot open.
Neal and Draisaitl are both capable of playing either side. If they both play on the left, then two of Kassian, Chiasson, and Gagner will be in the top 6 on the right side. That seems to be the safest bet at this point, but I also don’t think it’s the best possible situation for the Oilers.
There is too much depth on the right to warrant having both Draisaitl and Neal on the right, so I think at least one of those two will be on the left. The ideal scenario for the Oilers would be an unproven LW stepping up to take that open spot in the top 6.
The unproven candidates for that LW spot are Nygard and Tyler Benson.
Nygard is largely unknown to North American fans, myself included. I do know that he has been a successful scorer in Sweden, and he is fast! We also know that he is 26 years old. He is in the prime of his career, so we will learn what his ceiling is quickly. Most pundits believe that he projects as a 3LW in the NHL (myself included); but hey, maybe there’s a chance that he clicks with Nuge and he proves some people wrong. That’d be nice, but I’m not counting on it.
Benson’s ceiling appears to be much higher. He’s just 21 years old. He is coming off of his first professional season. He put up 66 points in 68 games in Bakersfield. He’s a tremendous playmaker that is just starting to show what he can do when he’s healthy. @Woodguy55 recently put out a piece on Benson and his NHL readiness, and he suggests that Benson is likely to produce at the level of an NHL 3LW this season, but in fewer than 82 games.
Benson’s AHL production was great last season. Some observers have also suggested that Benson wasn’t the same player without Cooper Marody in the lineup. Regardless, a top 6 role in the NHL is definitely in the cards for Benson; the question is how soon can he get there.
I’m not saying that Benson will make the team. That is far from a guarantee, especially with Holland’s “over-ripe” prospect policy in place. I’m also not saying that he will play in the top 6 if he makes the team. It’s super rare for a 21-year old to make an impact as a rookie in the top 6; but Benson grabbing a spot beside Nugent-Hopkins on the 2nd line would be a big surprise that would certainly boost the Oilers’ playoff chances. Having an Oilers draft pick from outside of the first round contribute in the top 6 would be huge for the club!
The other seemingly open spot up front is at 3C. The Derick Brassard deal fell through, so he’s not an option there. Colby Cave didn’t hurt the Oilers last season, but he didn’t do enough offensively to make me think he is an everyday NHLer, let alone a 3C. Gagner, Granlund, and Khaira can all play centre; but all of them are better suited to the wing. Gaetan Haas is definitely not a guarantee to make the team either, and 3C would be the best-case scenario for him here (highly unlikely in my opinion).
The most likely candidate to fill that spot is Sheahan. 19 points in 82 games last season isn’t 3C production, but Sheahan has cracked the 30-point barrier twice previously in his NHL career, most recently in 2017-18 (32 points in 81 games). He’s a decent skater that can kill penalties, which is the type of player the Oilers need more of. I’m just not sold that he can produce enough offence to be a true 3C.
Sheahan is the best veteran option for that 3C spot at the moment, but one player could surprise and make a big difference if he is in fact ready.
Remember how I said that some people have suggested that Benson’s play in Bakersfield last season was elevated by Marody?
Marody appeared on Jason Gregor’s show recently and said that he’s confident coming into this camp. He’s 22 years old, and he’s got 3 years of NCAA hockey and one full year of AHL hockey under his belt. He got 64 points in 58 games in Bakersfield last season, which is solid production!
He also played 6 NHL games last season, where he went -1 with 0 points. The knock on Marody is his speed. He needs to improve his foot speed if he wants to be in the NHL. He’s had a full summer of training, and he believes that he can be a top 9 forward in the NHL. He’s a right-shot centre, which is something that the Oilers need.
I’m not saying Marody is there yet, but I think he has the hands and the offensive instincts to get there at some point soon. IF he were to earn that 3C position and IF he were to produce in that role, then the Oilers would be in a much better spot this coming season!
The most interesting battle in camp for me is going to be for Sekera’s spot on the defence. If we are to believe the hints that have been dropped by Dave Tippett and Jim Playfair recently, then it appears that Darnell Nurse and Adam Larsson will start as a pairing, and Kris Russell will start back on his natural left side. Their goal seems to be to not have anyone playing on their off side this season.
In that case, the left side would be Oscar Klefbom, Nurse, and Russell. The right side would feature Larsson, Matt Benning, and a mystery player.
The decision to move Russell back to his left side is a bit of a curious one in my opinion. The left side is pretty deep for the Oilers right now. The simple move would’ve been to have Caleb Jones or William Lagesson take Sekera’s spot on the 3rd pairing with Matt Benning. The problem with moving Russell to the left side is that while the pipeline is full of promising young RD, none of them have proven to be ready for 2nd pairing minutes yet!
Matt Benning has become an effective NHL defenceman, albeit an inconsistent one. I have no problem with him as a 3RD, but I really don’t think he is strong enough to be a 2RD. He is a good open ice hitter, but he doesn’t have another skill that he does well enough to make me want to see him on the 2nd pairing. I also don’t think he is strong enough to be the calming presence for a rookie on his pairing that Sekera was for him on that 3rd pairing late last season. That may also have had something to do with the decision to move Russell to the left side.
It seems like the plan is to let Evan Bouchard marinate in Bakersfield this season in the spirit of over-ripening prospects. I’m all for this plan with Bouchard. There’s a chance that he comes to camp and blows everyone away, but I think he would benefit from time in the AHL to work on finer details like puck retrievals and defensive positioning. There’s no need to rush with Bouchard.
Ethan Bear is a big wildcard here, but I also think he could use a full healthy season in the AHL to refine the defensive side of his game.
Jones was playing the right side for most of last season in Bakersfield, but he was playing on the left side during his 17-game stint in the NHL last season. He showed well there, which is why a lot of people want to see him on the team this season; but I think the coaching staff’s desire to not have defencemen playing on their off sides will work against Jones.
The last option for that 2RD spot is Joel Persson. He has been one of the top offensive defencemen in Sweden over the last 2 seasons. He’s 25 years old, the same age as Benning. He’s shown far more offensive upside than Benning has in his career! Persson’s age means that he is going to have a bit more polish to his game than the young Bakersfield kids (or Bouchard).
Persson is an offensively gifted defenceman. He’s a right-shot that can move the puck and quarterback a powerplay. He did some damage working a powerplay with Elias Pettersson in Sweden 2 years ago, and his production was similar without Pettersson last year. His NHLe based on last season’s output in the SHL (34 points in 51 games) is 33 points. That is 2nd pairing production! He might be a good fit with fellow Swede Klefbom, whose game is pretty well-rounded.
Persson might not take well to the North American ice surface. He might not be as strong as we would like him to be defensively. He might not make the team at all; but I think he has the best opportunity of the bunch to step up and earn that open spot on defence. I’m bullish on that much at least. I think Persson playing on a 2nd pairing and getting powerplay time would be a surprise, but I think it’s the most likely surprise of the three that I have mentioned here. If Persson steps up in that role, the Oilers might just be a playoff team!
For the record, here’s what this roster with all of my potential surprises on it would look like:
Draisaitl McDavid Kassian
BENSON Nuge Neal
Nygard MARODY Chiasson
Granlund Sheahan Archibald
There’s a reason that I said Benson, Marody, and Persson all qualify as potential surprises. I don’t think that ALL of them will make the team. I’m confident that Persson will make the team, but I’m not nearly as confident that Benson or Marody will be there. That will be especially true if Holland adds another player like Patrick Marleau. This is the roster that I think we will see on opening night (barring any more additions):
Draisaitl ($8.5M) McDavid ($12.5M) Kassian ($1.95M)
Neal ($5.75M) Nuge ($6M) Chiasson ($2.15M)
Granlund ($1.3M) Sheahan ($900K) Archibald ($1M)
Nygard ($925k) Haas ($925k) Gagner ($3.15M)
Khaira ($1.3M) Cave ($675k)
Nurse ($3.2M) Larsson ($4,166,666)
Klefbom ($4.167M) Persson ($1M)
Russell ($4M) Benning ($1.9M)
LTIR: Brodziak – $1.15M
Buyouts: Pouliot – $1,333,333; Gryba – $300k; Sekera – $2.5M
Retained: Lucic – $750k
Total Cap Hit: $80,241,999
Cap Space: $1,258,001
Before you all chew my head off for including Manning in the 23-man roster, my idea for him is to keep him as a veteran 7D over a young kid because a 7D isn’t going to play many nights. I’d rather keep Manning up and practicing with the team and simply recall an AHL defenceman (Jones, Lagesson, Bear, Bouchard) if the need should arise. That is the best way to ensure that all of those young kids get playing time somewhere. Having a prospect as a 7D is a waste.
If they really need the cap space, then Holland can just bury Manning in the AHL again, but they’re not in a panic with the cap for the moment, especially with Brodziak headed for the LTIR.
I honestly think Persson will make the team out of camp as more than a 7D. If the plan is to move Russell back to the left, then the open spot on defence is Persson’s to lose. He’s a risky proposition as a 2RD, but he would have the support of having Klefbom beside him. The benefit of moving Russell to the left is that each pairing would have at least one proven NHL D on it. Taking a bit of a risk with one player on the pairing isn’t as scary knowing there’s strength on the other side.
If Russell were to stay on the right, a bottom pairing might be Jones and Benning. That wouldn’t be bad; but again, I don’t think Benning is the calming, stabilizing presence that the rookie Jones might need. That would also mean having Russell in the top 4, which limits the amount of puck moving ability in the top 4. Persson being in that spot would certainly add the puck moving element to the top 4.
I think that Neal will be asked to play on the left even though it is not his preferred side because the right side has much more depth than the left side, which will ultimately mean that Benson will be back in Bakersfield to start the season.
Based on his 6-game sample from last season, I think that Marody will have to have made a significant jump in his skating in order to crack the NHL roster, especially as the 3C. He had a few dangerous shifts with the Oilers last season, but his usage (6:55/game on average) suggests that he was a long way from being ready last season. Don’t write him off entirely, but don’t expect to see Marody in Edmonton to start the season.
I believe that Holland had a reason for signing Sheahan on Thursday. Sheahan is a player that Holland is familiar with, and he is definitely the best of the natural centres slated to be in the bottom 6. Sheahan doesn’t have as much offensive pop as I’d like, but I see a potential defensive shut down line in the making with Sheahan, Granlund, and Archibald.
McDavid and Draisaitl’s line will produce at far above an average rate for an NHL top line. The hope is that Nuge and Neal can produce enough to be an average 2nd line in the league. There can’t possibly any less production out the Oilers’ bottom 6 this season than last because it was non-existent last season, but this bottom 6 isn’t going to break any scoring records. As long as the bottom 6 doesn’t get scored on often, being slightly below the league average for 3rd line offensive production is going to be okay since McDavid is a thing here. That’s where I think Holland’s head is at here. He’s brought in cheaper forwards that can possibly still get 10 goals each but that are strong defensively instead of spending more money on a more offensive centre in free agency.
That’s how I see everything playing out at camp. The fact that I’m talking about 3 rookies potentially coming in as potential reasons that the Oilers could make the playoffs isn’t a great sign. Holland has done solid work in fortifying the bottom 6 and by removing some big contracts (Lucic and Sekera, even though the Oilers will spend money on both players for multiple years), but there are still positions that are weak enough that rookies could come in and take.
I’m not going to be all that active in writing during training camp because there will be wall to wall coverage from other sources. Look out for my 2019-20 Season Preview closer to the end of camp. I’ll tackle the question of whether or not the Oilers will make the playoffs from two perspectives: internal changes and what the competition looks like.
In the meantime, sit back and enjoy training camp and preseason hockey!