EDMONTON — There is little question this Oilers team is motivated to make amends for an early playoff exit.
The signs are plentiful, as GM Ken Holland noted in his first official media address of the season on Wednesday.
Leon Draisaitl bought a house in Toronto so he could train more often with the team’s contingent of Southern Ontario players. One of whom, captain Connor McDavid, called the squad back to Edmonton two weeks earlier than usual so they could all skate together. This team appears to be on a mission.
Desire alone doesn’t cut it, though. It’ll take more than a little extra sweat and blood for the Oilers to take another step or two and win the ultimate prize.
They’re going to need the players who had successful campaigns to repeat their performances and ideally improve on them. Those who weren’t up to snuff last season must find a way to get back on track.
There’s the individual, and then there’s the collective, too.
For as close and committed as this Oilers group seems, the true test of that will be how they play together on the ice. That starts Thursday when on-ice sessions of training camp begin.
Based on what was discussed Wednesday, this is what’s worth keeping an eye on.
Defending is the priority
Everyone knows the Oilers can score. They led the NHL in offence thanks to McDavid, Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins recording at least 100 points and the best power play in league history.
It’s the defensive side of the ice where things need a boost. Never was that evident more than in the playoffs when they allowed 3.5 goals per game.
“It’s just maybe sacrificing 3-5 percent of your offence to ensure and be 100 percent instead of maybe 90 percent when it comes to playing defensively and keeping the puck out of your net,” winger Evander Kane said.
Kane was clearly speaking from a forward’s perspective where he’s part of an offensively charged top six. Holland is hoping that the inclusion of offseason acquisition Connor Brown, a two-way winger, to that group will help.
Look for Mattias Ekholm, the defensive conscience of the team, to keep the group in line.
“We’ve got to get to where it’s OK to be in the D-zone for a minute, for a shift here and there even if you are a 60-goal scorer or a high-producing player,” he said. “You can’t start after 20 seconds to just go on your own page and then try to do something. It hurts us in the end.”
Per Ken Holland, Mattias Ekholm has a hip flexor and won’t be on the ice to start training camp.
— Daniel Nugent-Bowman (@DNBsports) September 20, 2023
Of course, the forwards aren’t the only players worth noting here.
All seven defencemen — eight if Markus Niemelainen is included — are back and there were no additions nor subtractions to the mix. That means internal growth is a must, namely from 2019 first-round pick Philip Broberg.
Kane hinted at some changes that could be coming to the Oilers’ neutral- and defensive-zone coverages. Those will be interesting to watch in early practices and in preseason games. Buy-in and cohesion are essential.
But the skaters can’t do it all. There’s also the last line of defence.
A solid goaltending tandem is a must
Holland said the same thing Wednesday that he’s said each year he’s been the team’s manager — the Oilers are going to need to rely on two goaltenders to be successful. They could really only trust one of them last season, and it wasn’t the one anyone expected.
Rookie Stuart Skinner stole the crease thanks partially to some sound work that earned him second place in the Calder Trophy voting. They can’t afford his game to dip much considering everyone already witnessed in the playoffs what a dip looks like.
Skinner also became the starter, essentially by American Thanksgiving, because Jack Campbell was so lousy. Campbell was statistically one of the worst goalies in the NHL last season.
That changed in the playoffs when he had a .961 save percentage in 118 relief minutes. His postseason work could be a turning point. But Campbell and Holland are really banking on a fresh start and a tweak in the goaltender’s mindset being the winning ticket.
Campbell isn’t tinkering with his equipment and doesn’t plan on changing his gear like he did last season. He’s now a lot more comfortable in Edmonton.
He’s also trying to not be so hard on himself — something he’s long been known to do — for allowing bad goals or too many of them.
“I judge myself pretty heavily and sometimes you have to let that go,” Campbell said. “Sometimes things are going to go great out there and some nights it’s not going to go my way. But it’s about not being too hard on myself and still keeping that passion and still having that standard of wanting to save every shot, but not necessarily losing a week’s sleep over it.”
Skinner spent the summer on the ice with Oilers goalie coach Dustin Schwartz, and the Flyers’ Carter Hart and Penguins’ Tristan Jarry — the former a Sherwood Park native and the latter a former WHL Oil King. Campbell worked with former NHL goalie Manny Legace in Michigan before returning to Edmonton to reunite with Skinner and Schwartz.
Things to watch
Fan favourite Sam Gagner’s hips aren’t healthy enough to play exhibition games, according to Holland, which means he won’t be able to turn his tryout offer into an NHL contract in time for opening night.
Oilers GM Ken Holland mentioned this tonight. Getting Gagner back up and running in Bakersfield (if that ends up happening) would give the Oilers another useful call-up option later in the season. https://t.co/pR7xXeB4eR
— Daniel Nugent-Bowman (@DNBsports) September 20, 2023
Gagner’s health leaves his playing future with the organization in question. Holland said the veteran forward is willing to resume his career in AHL Bakersfield in an attempt to earn a third stint with the team that drafted him.
Whether it’s soon or later, Gagner would be an asset to an NHL team in a player development or management role. There’d be no better place than Edmonton, where his former agent Jeff Jackson is now the big boss, and his wife Rachel Linke is from.
Heck, there could be a hole to fill within the organization due to a potential upcoming departure.
Special adviser Steve Staios isn’t listed on the Oilers website, nor does he appear in the media guide issued Wednesday. Holland said Staios has been dealing with a family issue and the two men haven’t spoken in a month. He added that Staios remains with the Oilers.
We’ll see if that’s still the case once Michael Andlauer officially becomes the new owner of the Senators. Staios worked for Andlauer as GM of the OHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs before joining the Oilers last fall.
(Photo of Jack Campbell and Stuart Skinner: Perry Nelson / USA Today)