In an off-season of change for the Edmonton Oilers, the most significant news came last Tuesday when captain Connor McDavid was deemed fit to play in his first exhibition game.
McDavid, who tore the posterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the final game of last season against the Calgary Flames when he crashed into a goalpost, will be ready to go when the Oilers open their 2019-20 schedule against the Vancouver Canucks at Rogers Place on Wednesday.
“Well, it’s a big difference,” new head coach Dave Tippett, who was hired in May, said of McDavid’s return to action just short of six months after the injury. “I had full confidence since I took the job that he was going to be ready for the start.
“Obviously, everybody is happy. He’s an elite player. Now, it’s about getting our whole group together, not just Connor.”
The question now is whether new GM Ken Holland has assembled a good enough supporting cast around McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. Can Tippett and his coaching staff coax enough out of his roster to push the Oilers, out of the playoffs 12 of the last 13 seasons, into post-season contention?
Holland took over from Peter Chiarelli. Tippett stepped in for interim coach Ken Hitchcock, who’d replaced fired Todd McLellan. Tippett brought in assistants Jim Playfair and Brian Wiseman, while retaining Glen Gulutzan from McLellan’s staff. Holland made changes in the front office and in scouting.
Not surprising on a team that finished 25th overall.
The major roster move saw Milan Lucic traded to Calgary for James Neal in a swap of players who did not meet expectations last season. Mike Smith was signed as a free agent to split goaltending duties with Mikko Koskinen. Free agent forwards Riley Sheahan and Josh Archibald are expected to add depth up front.
“It’s easy to put names on chalkboards or whiteboards in the summer and say, ‘this is going to work,’ but as you go through exhibition, you start to get a feel for players,” Tippett said.
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“You get a feel for how they fit in the lineup. You get a feel for the energy they bring on the bench, the attributes they bring to the game, who might work with each other.
“Like I said, it’s easy in the summer just to write them on a board. ‘Oh, this looks good. This is going to be great.’ Then they get on there and they’re not great. Then, what do you do? That’s what training camp is all about.”
What remains to be seen is if McDavid’s return and the off-season overhaul translate to the Oilers moving up the ranks in the Western Conference.
“The margin between the teams that make the playoffs and the teams that don’t is very slim,” said forward Zack Kassian, a member of the Oilers team that made the 2017 playoffs.
“It can be a matter of a few details, cleaning up a few areas. We saw last year with St. Louis, that if you get in, anything can happen. Our mindset, without a doubt, is to get in and go from there.”
Head coach: New coach Dave Tippett is in the first year of a three-year contract.
Last season: 35-38-9, 14th in the Western Conference, 25th in the league.
Key players: Connor McDavid: With three straight seasons of 100-or-more points, including 116 points last season, McDavid is the straw that stirs the drink. The question, at least in the early going of the schedule, will be how his knee holds up.
Leon Draisaitl: After enjoying a breakout season that left him second in goals and fourth in league scoring with 50 goals, 55 assists and 106 points — 28 points better than his previous best of 77 — can Draisaitl repeat or come close to that kind of production?
Darnell Nurse: Coming off a career-high 41 points, a season in which he was second only to Oscar Klefbom on the Oilers in average ice time at 23:49, Nurse is being counted in to form a shutdown pairing with Adam Larsson. Nurse is in the final year of a contract that pays him US$3.2 million, so he’ll be motivated.
The big question: Can the Oilers keep the puck out of their net? Tippett has made it clear that cutting down on goals against is his priority. The Oilers were 25th in goals against last season with 274, leaving them minus-42 (they scored 232 goals). To improve, the Oilers will need rebound seasons from Koskinen, who had a .906 save percentage in 55 games, Smith, who had a .898 save percentage in 42 games with Calgary, and from their penalty killing, which ranked 30th at 74.8 per cent.