In Part 1, I wrote about how some of the early cuts from the Oilers camp performed. Today, I’m writing about the players in battles for the remaining roster spots.
We knew coming in to the camp that the battle for right wing positions would be interesting. McLellan revealed that he had a meeting with a number of players vying for those spots prior to the Oilers’ first preseason game where he told them that they were essentially fighting for two spots. It’s up to the players to sort it out for themselves. McLellan didn’t say exactly who was in the meeting, but we as fans can likely guess at least some of the names. Ty Rattie, Tobias Rieder, Jesse Puljujarvi, Zack Kassian, Drake Caggiula, Kailer Yamamoto, Pontus Aberg, Alex Chiasson, and Scottie Upshall are all of the guys that could possibly play right wing. Kassian is the only veteran in this group that is signed beyond this season, which leads me to believe that he wasn’t in the meeting. Rieder was signed to the most expensive contract of anyone in this group, so I would assume that he wasn’t in the meeting either. Caggiula plays left wing mostly, so I would guess that he wasn’t in the meeting either. That leaves Rattie, Puljujarvi, Yamamoto, Aberg, Chiasson, and Upshall as the guys who were most likely in that meeting.
At this point, Rattie has pretty much cemented his spot on the top line with McDavid and Nuge. I’m dubbing it the RaMN (ramen) line. The guy got 5 points last night! He has 4 goals in his last 2 games. In Vancouver, he got two goals without McDavid or Nuge in the lineup. The best part is that his two goals were hard working goals. He jammed a puck in from the crease for a greasy goal on the powerplay, and he stripped a defender of the puck and tucked it five-hole on Nilsson on a partial breakaway. McLellan has commented that he has improved his play along the boards. He is starting to do the little things right, which is what was holding him back from earning an NHL roster spot prior to this season. He looks significantly faster out there this year. He said that he was motivated to work hard in the gym this summer because of the opportunity that he is getting here on McDavid’s wing. Rattie will have himself a year this year if he keeps this level of play up.
Puljujarvi also had a good summer of training. He looks like a more confident skater this year. He apparently shortened his stick, which seems to have been a positive change so far. He has scored 2 goals in 2 games so far this preseason. He has good chemistry with Strome, which is something that McLellan noticed last year. He wanted to keep Puljujarvi with Strome on the third line. I still think that he is struggling with getting his shot off quickly. His release is quite slow and deliberate. He needs a lot of space to get his wrist shot off. As a result, he gets a lot of shots blocked. He will figure it out. I don’t think his spot on the team was ever in jeopardy, but how high he goes in the lineup is still to be determined.
McLellan seems determined to keep his lines together as much as possible during this camp. The sentiment from the players last year was that they would’ve liked to have seen more consistency with the lines. McDavid has mentioned that in more than one interview that I have seen. McLellan has listened thus far. Rattie seems locked in as the right winger with McDavid and Nuge on the RaMN line. Rieder has been with Draisaitl and Lucic throughout camp so far. Puljujarvi has been with Strome and Khaira, which has been partly because of Strome’s influence on Puljujarvi. Kassian has been with Brodziak and Caggiula, and he is essentially locked in as the fourth line right winger.
Basically, someone else will have to make it impossible for McLellan to leave him off of the roster if he wants to play on a consistent basis this year. If not, then there will be a battle for the 13th and potentially 14th forward spots.
Yamamoto scored 2 goals against Calgary, and he got an assist against Vancouver. He has been good in the main camp, but he was quiet in the rookie camp. He scored 5 goals in 7 games in last year’s preseason, and he earned himself a 9-game audition with the Oilers where he got 3 assists. He earned that audition, but he also didn’t have a strong group of wingers to compete against at that training camp. This year’s group is deeper and stronger than that group last year. Yamamoto will need to keep scoring like he has if he is to have any chance of making the team this year. There’s no way that he would be an extra forward if he is with the Oilers this year because of his age and his skill set. I still think he would be best served by spending the year in Bakersfield.
The fact that Aberg played in the game against Calgary showed me a lot about where he stands in this organization. Calgary’s big players were all in China during Monday’s game, so the roster they had wasn’t much better than what they had in the rookie camp. The Oilers iced a similar roster with very few veterans. If the organization was confident in Aberg, then I doubt that he would’ve been in that game. You won’t see McDavid and Draisaitl in very many preseason games because there is no doubt that they will be on the team. The guys that will play the most in the preseason are guys that the coach wants to see more of. The coach would want to see more of a player for one of two reasons: either he is young and he has been impressive, or the coach has questions about the player that need answering. Aberg was in that Calgary game for the latter reason. He has been skating with players that are expected to be in the AHL this year or guys that are on PTOs thus far in camp. Aberg got a goal against Calgary. His line created some chances against Winnipeg last night, but he didn’t get any points. He also gave the puck away behind his own net in the third period. It’s going to be an uphill climb for Aberg to even be an extra forward with the Oilers at this point.
The guys on PTOs haven’t put up much of a challenge yet, which could work to Aberg’s advantage. Chiasson brings a certain level of professionalism and experience to the locker room. His Stanley Cup run with Washington last year is a definite advantage for him, but he hasn’t done much to impress in a game yet. Upshall has been hurt, so he hasn’t had much time on the ice so far. That will certainly impact his chances of making the team, but he’s a veteran that knows how to get the job done. The guys on PTO’s have experience and are sure commodities, whereas Aberg is entirely unpredictable. He has approximately equal odds of getting 30-35 points this year and of not making the team at all.
To recap, the right wingers that appear to have locked up spots on one of the top 4 lines are Rattie, Rieder, Puljujarvi, and Kassian. On the left, those wingers appear to be Nugent-Hopkins, Lucic, Khaira, and Caggiula.
There could be as many as 2 extra wing spots open depending on how the Oilers choose to configure their roster. Yamamoto, Aberg, Chiasson, Upshall, McLeod, and Marody are competing for the extra spot(s). I’m expecting there to only be one extra forward spot initially because I expect Bouchard to stick around for a 9-game audition.
If there’s one winger that I listed as being locked in that could lose his spot, it would be Caggiula. He was sick to start camp, and he has only played in one game. He’s behind the 8-ball. He was on what would be the 4th line. He wasn’t particularly noticeable in that game. He just signed a shiny new two-year contract, which is the biggest reason that I think he is locked in.
However, professional hockey is a business; and if the organization thinks that another player could help the team win games right now, then that is the guy they will put in there. Aberg can play either wing. Upshall is a left shot. McLeod is a left-handed centre. Bob Stauffer pointed out that Patrice Bergeron and Ryan O’Reilly both made the NHL straight out of the draft as centres taken in the 2nd round, so McLeod making the Oilers wouldn’t be unprecedented. Having him play the wing instead of centre would ease his transition into the NHL if it were to happen. McLellan and his staff will certainly have options for what to do with the wingers at the bottom of the roster.
The picture on defence is much clearer. We already know that the top five are Oscar Klefbom, Adam Larsson, Darnell Nurse, Kris Russell, and Matt Benning are the top 5 defencemen. The question is who will be the 6th and 7th guys?
Based on contractual status, Kevin Gravel and Jakub Jerabek have a leg up over the competition. You know what you’re getting with Gravel. He’s a consistent, stay-at-home defenceman. He is more mobile than what a defenceman of that description would normally be though, which is a necessity in today’s game. Jerabek has the opposite style. He is more mobile and he moves the puck up the ice quickly. That is what the Oilers have been preaching that they want their defencemen to do more of this season, so I really can’t see Jerabek not making the team. The other plus to Jerabek’s game is that he can play the right side as a left-handed defenceman, which takes the pressure off of Russell to have to do that. I see Gravel and Jerabek rotating in and out of the line-up in that 6th spot for most of the year, with Jerabek getting the greater number of games.
Bouchard is the one defenceman that I think could change that scenario. I wrote about him in part 1 of this article, but he has shown that he can move the puck quite well. He’s 19 years old and he has 3 seasons of CHL hockey under his belt. He does need work on his defensive game though. I have said previously that I think he will get his 9-game audition, but then he will be sent back to London. Having him on the roster would be a risky and intriguing decision though. Seeing him paired with Nurse for the game against the Jets and playing almost 23 minutes suggests that McLellan might be at least thinking about having Bouchard on the team. Stay tuned to that story as camp rolls along.
Ethan Bear apparently tested really well in his fitness testing. He showed that he can move the puck well at the end of last year. He also showed that his defensive game needs work. Not much has changed on that front in training camp this year from where I sit. There are simply too many other good options that can play on the Oilers roster to have Bear up with the big club instead of in Bakersfield. There is no harm in having him develop down there and having him as a call-up option if the Oilers so need.
Jason Garrison has been basically unnoticeable in his PTO so far. That’s good for a defenceman usually, but he needs to make himself noticed in a positive way if he is to have any chance of earning himself a contract. I honestly don’t see him being in Edmonton this season, and he will be lucky to get a contract anywhere in my opinion.
To recap, the defencemen that I think will be on the roster opening night are Klefbom, Larsson, Nurse, Russell, Benning, Jerabek, Gravel, and Bouchard (although he won’t be there for long).
The Oilers camp will certainly intensify next week because they will need to have the roster pared down before they go to Europe. The players have 4 more games in North America to battle it out for roster spots. It should be an exciting battle!