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FEATURE: Assembling the pieces

Head Coach Dave Tippett is deep into the process of setting the building blocks for his ideal Oilers roster while knowing plenty of factors still need time to play out in the coming weeks

by Jamie Umbach /

EDMONTON, AB - Some assembly required.

Head Coach Dave Tippett has been methodically putting together the pieces of his ideal Oilers lineup for the start of the '19-20 NHL season despite having yet to take to the ice for Training Camp or stand behind the bench for his new employer.

The new Oilers bench boss has used a stockpile of game footage to begin constructing his forward lines, defensive pairings, and goaltending tandems over the summer months before using the many conversations he's had with players, assistant coaches and contacts throughout the off-season to supplement his thinking.

There are pieces that have fit well together in the past, like Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, along with multiple pieces both old and new in James Neal, Joakim Nygard and Mike Smith that can fill a gap in a blueprint that still needs time to fully develop.

All of which set the stage for an intriguing task for Tippett in his first season at the helm of the Oilers.

Video: RAW | Dave Tippett 09.09.19

Tippett began at the top with the deadly duo of McDavid and Draisaitl, who both recorded 100-point seasons last campaign and can perform as powerful offensive weapons either on their own or together with a to-be-named winger on the first forward unit.

"My goal is to start that way, but there's always room for change," Tippett said of the pair in a media avail at the Edmonton Oilers Charity Golf Tournament on Monday. "The way things could change a bit is other players push up to the wings where we think there's a lot of depth."

"Connor and Leon both like playing with each other. They're going to see time apart from each other at certain instances of the game when I throw them each around on a line, but right now they look very comfortable together."

After that, there's plenty of avenues for Tippett to take.

Neal, a fresh arrival in Edmonton and a perennial goal scorer in the League with 20 or more goals in 10 seasons, presents himself as an intriguing option to fill the top-line spot or as a winger for Nugent-Hopkins, who's coming off a career year of 69 points (28G, 41A) in all 82 games for the Oilers last season.

"A very, very motivated player," Tippett said of Neal. "I think the players see that around the dressing room. You watch him in the captain's practices, he's ready to go. He's got lots to prove, he's got lots to give still, and I think he's going to be a really good player for us. We've talked a little bit, but some of it depends on how the rest of our lineup looks. He's comfortable on both sides, but we're going to let that play out."

If given the opportunity to line up alongside him, Nugent-Hopkins is sure to leave an avenue open for the trigger man every shift in hopes of gelling early in the season.

Video: RAW | Nugent-Hopkins 09.09.19

"He always finds himself in the right positions to get the puck and get a good shot off," Nugent-Hopkins said. "I just have to have my head up and make sure I'm looking for him out there and not try to force anything to him and get some chemistry early if we play together."

Perhaps the biggest flex point in the blueprint for Tippett has been at third-line centre thanks to a trove of bodies - either battle-proven players remaining from last year, rookies fighting for a spot, or players brought in during the off-season - to compete, fill and thrive offensively in the bottom half of the lineup.

"There's a whole list of guys there," he continued. "I've talked about trying JJ (Khaira) there a bit. Now Sheahan comes in and might change that a little bit. Haas, Marody, Malone is a solid player there, so there's a cast of players that are going to go in there. I don't look at it as a number three, I look at it as we have a top six and a bottom six and we might have a couple of our bottom two lines geared a bit different - one's maybe a little heavier line and one maybe a little bit quicker that has the ability to score.

"It always looks good on paper in the summer and you go figure out the pieces as you go through to see how they fit, but I like our mix at the bottom. We just have to figure out where everybody fits."

Sometimes all that's needed is a little bit of reshuffling, as referenced in Tippett's hope of returning defenceman Kris Russell to his natural left side after experimenting on the right in recent years.

"I'd like to get him to the left side," he said. "I've always been a big left-right guy, but some of that is determined by the players you have. I've seen more left shots be able to play right than I have right on the left.

"Lubomir Visnovsky, who was here a while ago, was one of those guys and I had him in LA. He was a better player on the right than he was on the left, but most of the time you look at the simplicity of moving the puck and the feet position dictating a lot of things happening on that right side when you're on your off side."

In the crease, Tippett hopes to use both Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen equally or until one eventually shines through as the club's number-one goaltender.

"They know there's competition. It's already started in practices," he said. "I know Smitty well and I've watched a lot of Koskinen on tape. I told them both that I hope they each play 41 games well. If they do that, we'll be fine."

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