News and notes from Oilers practice at Rogers Place on Thursday, where Head Coach Jay Woodcroft turned the page to the second stage of Training Camp.
EDMONTON, AB – Roll out the big guns.
The preseason continues on Friday night at Rogers Place for the Edmonton Oilers with their fifth exhibition tune-up match, but the roster that the club is set to deploy on home ice against the Calgary Flames feels more like Game 5 of the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Flames iced a veteran-stacked lineup on Wednesday night at the Scotiabank Saddledome, and now it’s Edmonton’s turn on home ice.
The Oilers will bring names like Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Evander Kane, Zach Hyman, Darnell Nurse and Jack Campbell into the fold for the first time this preseason as the Oilers look poised to ice an experienced lineup and kick Training Camp into another gear with five exhibition games remaining before the start of the regular season.
“We’re excited about the lineup we’re introducing,” Head Coach Jay Woodcroft said. “I would say that we’ve got a lot of really good practices in with some players that haven’t played.
“I’d think that they’re sick of practicing and they’re ready to go against the live-fire competition, jerseys of a different colour, jerseys of a different logo and those types of things. While we’ve got a lot of good practices in, I think our top players are excited about playing against a different opponent.”
Woodcroft spoke on Thursday about turning the page at Training Camp into Stage Two, where preparation for the regular season really ramps up and the number of players begins to inch closer to that of a normal roster size. So far, the Oilers head coach has been pleased with how Camp has progressed and how strong of an impression his veteran players have made early in the year.
“That first day I saw our leaders come in in top condition and show how important it was to be in top shape in order to have the type of year we want to have,” he said. “I was quite pleased with that. I’ve been very pleased with the pace of practice, the amount of teaching that we’ve been able to get done, while balancing the need for the work rate to be high, especially early.”
The Oilers captain, who’ll face a different opposition tonight other than his teammates for the first time at Camp, shared his coach’s sentiments about pushing forward into a new phase of preparation.
“Guys that are going to be on the opening-day roster, you want to get your game up to speed and get our team game up to speed,” McDavid said. “I think that’s where we’re at now in Camp and I thought everyone’s come in and done everything that’s been asked of them, but I think it’s time for us to get our game to where it needs to be so that we’re ready for opening night.”
While they haven’t been involved in any pre-season action so far, the veterans who’ll make their debuts tonight have been hard at work skating daily since the start of captain’s skates near the beginning of September. But eventually, game action becomes a necessity for building chemistry, getting the legs going, and preparing yourself for the rigours of an 82-game regular season.
“We want to get those games in and start to feel like hockey players again,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “You can practice so much, but you don’t really feel comfortable and confident out there until you start playing games.
“I feel like my game’s in a pretty good place, but we’ll find out tonight pretty quick where it’s going to be at. I’m definitely looking forward to getting out there and playing against some real competition, seeing where I’m at and seeing where our team’s at.”
While Blue & Orange are the Oilers colours, all three of McDavid, Nugent-Hopkins and Coach Woodcroft spoke to the media on Friday morning from the Hall of Fame Room dressed in orange to mark the National Day of Truth & Reconciliation across Canada.
A hockey game is set to be played tonight, but taking a moment to commemorate the tragic and painful history of residential schools in our country similarly to how the Oilers acknowledge their place on Treaty Six territory before every Rogers Place home game was important for the players and coach.
“Hockey’s one thing, but I would just like to take a moment to recognize what today is in this country,” Captain Connor McDavid said. “Obviously, it’s Truth & Reconciliation Day and I think it’s a time for all of us to reflect and remember our country’s history and continue to work on ourselves and continue to reconcile with the indigenous people, our brothers and sisters in this country, and continue to make our country inclusive.”
McNIFTY FOR FIFTY?
With questions coming in about his potential to reach the 50-goal plateau this season for the first time in his career, McDavid doesn’t want to get too far ahead.
It’s only pre-season game number one for McDavid and Co., so the goal tonight is to get accustomed to the game pace and start filling the gaps in their games ahead of what is expected in the dressing room to be a long and successful season for the club.
“This team has kind of done the individual awards thing and the stats and all that, so our focus is on the team only and winning games to get ourselves into a good spot to continue to take steps forward,” McDavid said. “Obviously getting into the playoffs is the first step of the year, so getting off to a good start is super important. It’s the first pre-season game here for a large majority of us and I’m looking forward to that and just trying to work out the kinks.”
The captain is coming off a career-high season of 44 goals, 79 assists and 123 points in 2021-22 and will continue to try and build on his game to become an even-more prolific talent in this League with the right play at the right time.
“I think Connor’s always about making the right play in the moment,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “Obviously the numbers he’s put up in the past are incredible goals-wise and assists-wise, but I think he’s always going to be a guy that uses his teammates, uses his linemates, and he’s making them better.
“He’s making the right decisions at the right time, so whether that’s taking it end-to-end sometimes like he has to do, he can obviously pull that out. Other times, it’s just using his linemates.”
While he’d love to score more goals, being able to set up his linemates with the right play in the right moment is just as good for the 25-year-old that’s eclipsed 100 points in five of his last six seasons.
“It’s for sure something that I think about,” he said. “When I’m on the ice with Leo, I maybe think about the game a little bit differently. When I’m on the ice with other guys, I think a little bit differently too, so obviously playing with Evander and Yamo, they’re two guys that can score. Obviously Kaner can put the puck in from just about anywhere, so just trying to get him the puck as much as possible.”
Coach Woodcroft knows that when the opportunity presents itself for McDavid to take a shot on goal during game play, he’s going to take that chance. But the ability for him to find his teammates open and potentially deliver the all-important pass over the shot is a characteristic that isn’t talked about in his team’s captain.
“I think probably one of the words that isn’t used enough to describe Connor is how unselfish of a hockey player he is,” Woodcroft said. “That’s a great quality in a teammate.
“I think, and I have 100 percent belief, that when the play to be made is to shoot, Connor will shoot that puck. But he is driven by making the right play in the right moment. Obviously you know about his playmaking ability, but he has a great shot too.”
Some players might be looking to re-establish chemistry with their linemates during the preseason. For others, it’s about finding it with a new linemate.
“For a few of us, it’s the first chance to do that,” Nugent-Hopkins said.
The Oilers will deploy Ryan Nugent-Hopkins on the left wing with Ryan McLeod and Warren Foegele on a third line that will feature two Oilers that played prominently at centre last season — an aspect of the trio that Coach Woodcroft doesn’t have qualms about when it came to assembling them together.
“I think centremen have the ability to play anywhere,” he said. “They can play right, left, and just have that ability to be moved around the lineup. What intrigued us about putting RNH and Clouder together was that we think they have some skills that can complement each other, and we wanted to take a look at that.”
Each piece of the puzzle brings with them separate skills that can blend into a formidable threat. Nugent-Hopkins brings the vision and play-making that can play off McLeod’s speed and Foegele’s explosiveness and strength.
“Obviously he’s a talented player, a smart player, and obviously a great skater,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “You see him kind of moving and getting his feet going and you want to give him the puck and let him go a little bit, but obviously he reads the play well. He’s a smart player. Foegs on the other side too is an explosive player with a great shot.
“I think for us tonight, we’ll probably want to keep things simple and try to work things low and start to build that chemistry.”
— Jamie Umbach, EdmontonOilers.com
OILERS vs. FLAMES
STREAM: 7: 00 p.m. MT; broadcast on EdmontonOilers.com
Oilers Team Scope
The Oilers are expected to ice a very different lineup in their Friday night pre-season rematch against the Flames.
Edmonton is coming off a 4-0 defeat to their provincial rivals on Wednesday night at the Scotiabank Saddledome. Offence was at a premium for a very young Oilers lineup which featured only four players who skated in the Game 5 elimination game in Calgary last May.
With the Oilers also coming off a shutout loss in Seattle two nights before, Head Coach Jay Woodcroft would like to see more of the day-to-day improvements he preaches about at practice.
“Obviously there’s room for improvement when you didn’t score a goal on the road. Wasn’t for a lack of chances, we did have some chances in both games,” Woodcroft said. “We lacked some finishers in the lineup like you mentioned, but I think there’s some tactics and things that we’re focusing on to draw a little more offence out of the whole group.”
The Oilers goaltending tandem of Calvin Pickard and Stuart Skinner held their own against an offensively loaded Flames roster, turning aside 30 of 33 shots. Starting netminder Jack Campbell, who the Oilers signed on the first day of free agency, has yet to make his debut in the Blue & Orange.
Flames Team Scope
Calgary is looking to replicate their Wednesday performance against the Oilers, this time on the road at Rogers Place. Calgary was propelled to victory courtesy a couple of journeyman veterans in Brett Sutter and Michael Stone, who scored the first two goals of the game during the second period.
The Flames are coming off an offseason of massive changes that saw the departure of franchise cornerstones and top two scorers in Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk. The off-season shakeup culminated in Calgary acquiring ’21-22 NHL assist leader Jonathan Huberdeau and defenceman Mackenzie Weegar from Florida, while signing Stanley Cup Champion Nazem Kadri late in free agency.
The trio all found their names on the scoresheet in Calgary’s 4-0 victory on Wednesday, with Kadri assisting on Weegar’s first goal as a Flame and Jonathan Huberdeau potting an empty netter to cap off the preseason victory.
“I think he’s a really good student of the game, I think he’s a coachable player,” Flames Head Coach Darryl Sutter said about Weegar. “He’s learning how we play and making strides. He’s a good player.”
So far this preseason, the Flames have recorded a pair of shutouts at home, but were shutout 3-0 by the Seattle Kraken at Climate Pledge Arena on Tuesday.
“Pretty much the older guys have played at home, we’re very cautious about that,” Sutter said. “We’re trying to put our structure in place, but the individuals have to get selfish and put the work in.”
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