Jujhar Khaira, Zack Kassian and Mark Letestu believe they stack up against any other fourth line in the National Hockey League
EDMONTON, AB - "I call him The Wizard."
Zack Kassian said in the Oilers Dressing Room on Thursday.
The forward wasn't referencing the non-fiction literature characters who conjure spells. He wasn't referring to enchanters Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings' Gandalf. There was nothing sinister of his comment regarding Mark Letestu, the player of topic who serves as the artisan of the Oilers fourth line, which also features Jujhar Khaira and Kassian himself.
"He's so smart," Kassian said of his centre. "He can read, react, make plays. It helps me."
As a unit during Oilers Training Camp and in the subsequent exhibition season, the trio has gelled. And although it is the pre-season, where games are meaningless and the points don't matter, there's a sense of belief among the three players that they can and will be one of the premier checking lines of the National Hockey League in 2017-18.
"I would put us up against any other fourth line," said Kassian. "We can dominate that role. We still need to feel each other out a little more but the way we skate, the way we protect pucks, that's what you want out of a fourth line."
Letestu shares the lead in points for the Oilers this pre-season, having deposited three goals and one assist in the two games he's dressed in. Khaira is having a good exhibition campaign himself with two goals in two games, while Kassian recorded an assist on a nice feed to Khaira Wednesday against the Winnipeg Jets.
In all, the three combined to produce four points in Wednesday's 4-1 win, foreshadowing glimpses of what could be seen during the regular season.
"Deep teams have deep rosters," Kassian said. "You look at Pittsburgh and teams that go far in the playoffs. You need deep teams to be successful not only in the regular season but come playoff time. Right now, we're just trying to work and get to know each other to the best of our ability and we'll see what happens come October 4, but we feel comfortable playing with each other."
When they aren't buzzing around the net, wingers Kassian and Khaira are prone to throwing around their lumbering weight - a nice complement for Letestu - who is routinely defensively reliable as the middleman.
"They make it really easy," said Khaira. "I remember last year when we got to play together, we played well. Going in with that confidence that I have them by my side helps me definitely."
Kassian and Khaira shared their sentiments regarding the veteran pivot and how he can magically make the game simpler for them. Oilers Head Coach Todd McLellan - in sticking with the wizard theme - praised the forward's ability to prolong the expectancy of his playing career as he seemingly improves each new season.
"He seems to be getting better as he gets a little bit older," McLellan said. "As you watch him play and you understand how his mind works - how he thinks the game, how he positions himself - you'd use him in every situation. He's just a jack-of-all-trades."
Letestu believes the ultimatum from him and the fourth line is to elevate the competition from within the lineup.
"When you get a team like this, you need that push from the bottom," he said. "You need guys to be competing for ice time and hopefully pushing the guys in the second and third line to keep their spots."
No hocus-pocus here, just a desire to field an ambitious squad.