Thank God the NHL pre-season is here soon. There have been so many Oilers blogs this summer about absolute nothing, as there’s been nothing to write about. It's never been in the plan to trade Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, or anyone else significant. There never was going to be a Jaromir Jagr or Jarome Iginla signing. There were three main tasks Oilers GM and President of Hockey Operations Peter Chiarelli needed to get done, and he did them:
1. Sign Connor McDavid to a long-term extension. Done.
2. Sign Leon Draisaitl to a long-term extension. Done.
3. Trade Jordan Eberle for a reasonable return. Done.
Some bloggers have whined about these three moves. A few bloggers ripped on other Oilers moves, like the four-year contract given to defenseman Kris Russell. To each their own. The only thing Chiarelli didn’t do this summer I would have liked to see was re-signing a few guys in the last year of their deals to extensions. I’d like to see if we could extend Pat Maroon now at, let’s say, $4 million per season. I understand why Chiarelli isn’t doing this – Next summer Oilers management need to shave around $7 million in spending, which means some players we like will be going. Extending players now opens the door to potential overpayments, and Chiarelli wants to avoid that. I like the re-signing idea because it gives Oilers management cap certainty going into the summer. They’ll know exactly how much contract spending they need to cut and who needs to go.
While I don’t expect to see any trades during the 2017/2018 training camp, I do believe camp is going to feature several competitions for roster spots. Things to be determined during camp?
1. Who plays the right wing for Connor McDavid? Options include Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Strome, Drake Cagguila, Kailer Yamamoto, Jesse Puljujarvi, and Anton Slepyshev. I think the competition here will come down to Cagguila and Strome, and I’ll go so far to say it’s Strome’s job to lose.
2. It’s possible Draisaitl will be with McDavid, but it’s more likely Drai is getting his own line this season. One of the weaknesses of the Oilers last season is that the McDavid/Draisaitl line did most of the scoring. Draisaitl might play on the right side on the second line with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins as his center. Or, he could play at center. Should he play center, his right-winger options are as diverse as the McDavid question. You could see Nugent-Hopkins, Puljujarvi, Yamamoto, Slepyshev or Kassian with Draisaitl. I believe Patrick Maroon/McDavid/Strome will be the Oilers first line and Milan Lucic/Draisaitl/Slepyshev will be the Oilers second line, but this is a guess.
3. If those are the top two lines, expect to see Jussi Jokinen/Nugent-Hopkins/Puljujarvi as the Oilers third line in an attempt to create scoring throughout their line-up. Jokinen was brought in to help Puljujarvi, without question. I expect to see them on the same line.
4. There will be competition for the fourth line, maybe. Mark Letestu and Zack Kassian should be locks. You’d think Drake Cagguila would also be a lock, but the Oilers will look at Ty Rattie, Jujhar Khaira, and Iiro Pakarinen. If Rattie has a good camp it could force the Oilers to make a minor deal, moving out Khaira. I don’t think they’d move out Pakarinen because he’s too good of a penalty killer.
5. There will be a bit of a battle on defense, as the Oilers have a bunch of younger players who are NHL-ready now. It’s obvious Oscar Klefbom, Adam Larsson, Kris Russell, Darnell Nurse and Matt Benning will all play regularly if they are healthy. Andrej Sekera will be out for some time, so one starting spot will be up for grabs. Dillon Simpson, Keenan Lowe, Eric Gryba, Ryan Mantha, Ziyat Paigin, Ryan Stanton and Yohann Auvitu will all compete for it, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if one of Mantha or Paigin win the competition. Why? The Oilers have too many guys, so they can make this an actual “the best player wins” competition. Mantha and Paigin have actual long-term futures with the Oilers. The rest of the players listed don’t. When Sekera is back, and provided the Oilers don’t get into injury troubles, the six that will play nightly is an obvious group. Sekera’s injury would give Mantha or Paigin 20-30 games to audition at the NHL level.
6. All of this being said, Oilers management tends to play it safe. I’m guessing Russell will be paired with Gryba on opening night; Nurse will be with Benning, and the #7 guy kept up with the team will be Auvitu.
7. In goal, there will be a competition between Laurent Brossoit and Nick Ellis to be Cam Talbot’s back-up this season. I don’t think it matters much, though. Talbot will be playing 70+ again this season. Playing that many last season didn’t hurt him at all in the playoffs.
Oilers Head Coach Todd McLellan loves the line blender, so everyone will play with everyone eventually. The wild cards to make this team is a small group in actuality: Yamamoto, Puljujarvi, Auvitu, Mantha, Paigin, Ellis, Rattie. If I had it my way Yamamoto would be back in Junior for the full season and Puljujarvi would be in the AHL (no need to rush either). Paigin would be the #6 defenseman to start the season, because I think the Oilers will need to give up one of Nurse or Benning next summer due to cap reasons, and Paigin is probably the best-quality young defensive prospect the Oilers have. Paigin is a left-shooting defenseman who plays the right side. It makes complete sense to pair him with Kris Russell to start the season and to use Nurse/Benning as the second pairing until Sekera gets back. And if Paigin sucks, no worries… the Oilers have four or five other guys they can try.
As much as I’d the Oilers not to rush Yamamoto or Puljujarvi, look for Yamamoto in particular to do everything possible to win a roster spot. The kid is tenacious.