A quick editorial note before we get going this Sunday morning…
On Sunday’s after the Oilers have played a night game the evening previous, this column will appear a few hours later than is typical. Usually it’s there when you wake up. The reason is two-fold:
-One, the guys at The Cult of Hockey often stay up until 1am putting the Player Grades together. Doesn’t make much sense to stomp on those just a couple of hours later.
-Two, sleep is also good.
And so with that, here is this week’s…
9. Call it a gut feeling. But I’m not at all convinced that we’ve seen every player that will start the season on the Oilers 23-man roster. Ken Holland has had an eyeful this pre-season. He knows who’s been bad and good.
8. Joakim Nygard had his best game of the pre-season in Calgary. He had 2 assists and displayed a skill set above and beyond his obvious skating abilities. I can see him getting spot duty at 2LW. But remember, that line faces tough comp. Not sure Nygard’s defensive game is ready for those responsibilties yet. I do have him ahead of Tomas Jurco. I’ve liked Jurco in pre-season just fine. But he was in the AHL last year for a reason.
7. I expect Kris Russell and Matt Benning to get a lot of tough match-ups. Dave Tippett with use Oscar Klefbom and (for now, at least) Ethan Bear in offensive situations as often as possible. O-Zone starts will be high and they’ll team up with the McDavid-Draisaitl line frequently. I’m confident in Russell as a 3LD in that role. Benning? Well, he was a plus player on a bad team last season. And has been each year he’s been in the NHL.
6. There was some buzz after Dave Tippett ran one practice with all 3 of the Oilers best players (Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins) at their natural Center positions. Don’t expect that to happen often. What evidence have you seen from the wingers in camp convincing you that this would be profitable? Nope, I just don’t see the depth being there yet. Leon needs to stay on the wing for now.
5. Zack Kassian was on fire last night. He scored once but could have another or 3 given the chances he had (and largely created himself). Occasionally I think this player just needs a reminder of what he needs to do to succeed. Landing on the 4th line last night was one of those and look how he responded. But I’ll be surprised if Kassian doesn’t start with McDavid and Draisaitl Wednesday night. He has the skill set.
4. There may well be a player in Anton Burdasov. But the time was too short and the stakes too high to let the PTO go on much longer than it did. In fairness to the player, it was an awfully small sample and he was behind the 8-ball from the beginning, coming into camp part-way and all. But in fairness to the club, if playing in the NHL was really Burdasov’s dream (or at least so the story went) then why weren’t his visa and a few months of English lessons already in his back pocket? Hmmm.
3. Some people watch Brandon Manning with blinders on. Yeah, I remember what he did to Connor McDavid. Yes, I watched him try to fail to produce at the NHL level last season after that lop-sided PeterChiarelli trade. But Manning hasn’t played 264 NHL games by accident. And besides…who would you sooner have sitting in the press box as a 7D? Manning, or a kid (like William Lagesson) who could instead be playing 20+ minutes per night in Bakersfield? I won’t be surprised if the Oilers waive Manning first, to see if anyone picks up that contract. But no Oilers on waivers this (Sunday) A.M.
2. Don’t be surprised if Gaetan Haas starts the season in Bakersfield. Haas has improved incrementally through camp against increasingly tougher competition. That suggests that his slower start had a lot to do with the ice surface. Haas arrived in Edmonton with the mutual agreement that he may spend a limited amount of time in Bakersfield in order to help the player get acclimatized. And because he does not require waivers to go to the AHL it could be a smart investment for Haas and the club. Colby Cave won’t hurt you as a 4C in the interim.
1.I 100% expect that Ethan Bear will start the season in Edmonton and likely in a pairing with Oscar Klefbom. Bear arrived in spectacular shape and was on his game from the word “go”. His ability to transition the puck, especially in the face of a pretty good forecheck as we’ve seen from both Winnipeg and Calgary the last couple games, is a huge up from seasons past. In addition to that, it’s important to remember how big of a win it will be for the franchise if a 5th rounder (124th over-all) turns into a real NHL player. Across the league in modern history, only about 16% of picks of Bear’s pedigree play 100 NHL games. So if Bear makes the grade, it’ll be quite remarkable. A win every day of the week and twice on Sundays.
OK — raise your hand if you had Ethan Bear and, to a lesser extent, Tomas Jurco as your two biggest surprises to make the Edmonton Oilers 23-man opening-night roster?
What’s the old saying? That’s why they play the games, as Bear whizzed past names like Caleb Jones, Evan Bouchard and Matt Benning on the Oilers depth chart, while Jurco appears to be have won the derby of all the one-year, sub-$1 million forwards that Ken Holland tried out at his first camp as the Oilers general manager.
Let’s start with Jurco, an oft-injured Slovak drafted in the second round by Holland back in 2011, when he was still running the Detroit Red Wings. He scored reasonably well during a year-and-a-half of AHL play, but once called up, Jurco never found a way to score 10 goals a year or stay healthy, before being moved to the Chicago Blackhawks.
He came to Edmonton on a one-year, one-way deal worth $750,000, and an understanding that — at age 26 — his time to claim an NHL job was nearing an end. But head coach Dave Tippett has seen something he likes in Jurco, and in the Oilers second-to-last preseason game he played him on a line with Connor McDavid and James Neal.
Jurco had two goals and an assist.
“The more comfortable I get, the better I play,” Jurco told reporters in Winnipeg after the game. “Once I see I have trust then I play way better. Every player, when he knows he is trusted, everything is just easier.”
After two back surgeries, and only 58 NHL games scattered over the past three seasons, it has been a while since Jurco could say he felt this confident. “Better and better. Every good game that I have, it’s building,” he said. “I’m heading in the right direction.”
“You can present opportunity, but it’s what people do with it (that matters),” Tippett said of both Jurco and Bear. “(Jurco) makes good plays, Has good hands; good skill. And I think he’s come to a point in his career where he recognizes that he has to be a good two-way player. That the skill isn’t going to carry him.”
A few critics have already jumped all over the play last (Saturday) night when the Flames Sam Bennett walked Bear for a Grade “A” scoring chance. Mikko Koskinen bailed the kid out. Yes, he was beaten cleanly. But let me say this: When a rookie D-man begins his NHL career, even if with proper development and seasoning such as Bear has had…these moments will happen. Development does not go in a straight line. It’s a good league.
So not only do the coaches require patience with Bear. So do fans. And so do writers, just like me. Having a repeat of Jeff Petry or Justin Schultz as young players in this market will do neither the team nor the player any good.