NHL training camps open six weeks from today. Rookies will report a week earlier and will play games against other NHL rookie teams in various different tournaments or simply home and away games like the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames rookies when they play Saturday, September 7th, in Red Deer, and Tuesday, September 10th, in Calgary.
The season is inching closer, so let’s take a look at some scenarios.
1. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl will start the season together, and Dave Tippett stated Wednesday that Zack Kassian will get an opportunity on the right wing. Does that mean he is a lock to remain there? No, but Tippett wants to see if the rugged winger can remain productive on the top line. From January to April, 2019 Kassian scored 13 goals and 23 points in 43 games. He only had two goals and three points in his first 36 games. He didn’t play exclusively with McDavid and Draisaitl in the second half — he had five goals playing with Kyle Brodziak all season — but he looked very comfortable on the top line.
2. It makes sense for Tippett to give Kassian an opportunity to stay there. He has done nothing in the off-season to deserve a demotion at the start of training camp. The main question now for Tippett is who will play on the second line with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and James Neal. Neal told me last month he feels playing with a left-shot centre allows him better scoring chances in the offensive zone, in regards to him getting one-timers from the right side. Does that mean he has to play RW? I’m not sure.
3. Tippett could slot Neal-RNH with Alex Chiasson — a veteran second line and right now, they are the three most proven players after the top line. Tyler Benson and Joakim Nygard are the only two who I see as potential options to play LW and move Neal to the right side.
4. What about Jesse Puljujärvi? Ken Holland has stuck to his opening comment about Puljujärvi. He wasn’t going to rush a trade and I got the sense Holland and Tippett would like to evaluate Puljujärvi on their own. I thought there was a still a chance that could happen, but in a recent article today Puljujärvi doubled down that he doesn’t want to return to Edmonton. The article was in Finland, but Edmonton-based Finnish reporter Jouni Nieminen translated some main parts of the article and sent it to me.
“I want a new start on some other team. Playing in North America is still my goal. I will stay in Oulu until I have a contract. I will find a place to play somewhere,” said the young Finn. Puljujärvi is still holding out hope he will get traded before training camp.
5. Clearly he wasn’t happy in Edmonton. I’m not sure this will change Holland’s plan though. He will trade Puljujärvi when he gets a deal that helps the Oilers. The problem for Puljujärvi is if he doesn’t show up, how much of a loss is that for the Oilers right now? Not much. Today, he isn’t a difference maker in the NHL. He might become one in the future, but he isn’t now, so Holland doesn’t have to rush into a deal.
After seeing Buffalo acquire a good, young defender in Henri Jokiharju for Alex Nylander, who was drafted four picks after Puljujärvi in 2016 and has produced even less than Puljujärvi, it illustrates if Holland is patient he might be able to get a solid prospect in return.
6. Expect Kris Russell to be their third pairing left defender. I see Darnell Nurse starting with Adam Larsson, while Klefbom will be the second pair LD. The right side is where the competition becomes interesting between Matt Benning, Joel Persson, Caleb Jones and Ethan Bear, who has been training in Edmonton with Benning and Tyler Benson. I could see it being a matter of Klefbom and his partner getting more offensive zone starts, while Russell and his partner end up with more defensive zone starts.
7. If the Oilers can’t sign Derick Brassard, then the third line centre spot is wide open. Do not overlook Cooper Marody. He had a fantastic rookie season in the AHL, and Bakersfield really missed him in the playoffs. If he can get a bit quicker, especially in small areas of the ice, he will be in the mix for that spot battling Gaetan Hass. I see Colby Cave more as a fourth line centre option.
8. Joakim Nygard is the big unknown for me. I’ve never seen him play in real life. Jason Strudwick and I have spoken to a few Swedish scouts and they really like him. They feel he should be for sure a bottom six forward in the NHL. Can he be a surprise and possibly play on RNH’s left wing and move Neal to the right side? If so, the Oilers would be ecstatic.
9. Tippett said earlier this week he would like to reduce McDavid and Draisaitl’s minutes on the PK. Draisaitl was fourth among forwards with 94 minutes, while McDavid was seventh with 48 minutes. This is a wise decision. I’d rather see newcomers like Markus Granlund, Josh Archibald, Hass or Nygard or Colby Cave and Jujhar Khaira on the PK. The odd shift for 97 and 29 makes sense, but using those two more on the PP and EV is good coaching in my eyes.
10. In 2016 the Oilers finished 29th with 70 points. In 2017 they finished eighth overall with 103 points. They improved by 33 points. Realistically they only need to improve by 16 points from last season to make the playoffs this year. With the changes in management, coaching and on the roster I don’t think it would be that difficult of a task.
11. They are all really good players, but if I had to pick I would take Brayden Point over Mikko Rantanen and Mitch Marner. Point plays centre, but is also highly skilled and has more edge to his game than Marner. I’d take Rantanen over Marner, only because I think their skill level is the same, but Rantanen has a huge size advantage. All three are really good, but it is odd to me how many feel Marner will get paid the most. Of course his agent will want to use the Auston Matthews contract as a comparable, but if the Leafs give Marner close to Matthews money it will be a fail in negotiations.
12. In early August, Tampa Bay is my Stanley Cup favourite. Many great teams have lost in the first round of the playoffs, but then went on to have a lot of success in the following years. The Lightning have great goaltending, an elite defender and lots of depth up front. The only knock I see is that they have too many of the same type of forwards. I wonder if Julien Brisebois can trade one of them. The issue is, outside of Point and Nikita Kucherov, all their veteran forwards have NTC.