News and notes from the Oilers final practice of Training Camp, including Head Coach Dave Tippett and General Manager & President of Hockey Operations Ken Holland voicing optimism for the season ahead of the home opener.
EDMONTON, AB - It's the closest thing you'll get to Christmas in October.
Hockey, and the Edmonton Oilers, are back.
It's Opening Night in the NHL, and Oilers players hit the pillow last night knowing all the effort they put in both on and off the ice during Training Camp and Pre-Season will be put to the test in Game 1 of the regular season tonight when they play host to the Vancouver Canucks at Rogers Place.
"Opening Night is like Christmas morning for us," Darnell Nurse, a newly-named Alternate Captain for the club on Tuesday, said pre-game. "You wake up with a big smile on your face, but Game 1 is an opportunity to set the tone for the whole season. That's the approach we have coming into tonight."
Oilers Head Coach Dave Tippett looked forward to an extended Camp with his new group when GM & President of Hockey Operation Ken Holland recruited the bench boss as the club's 16th head coach in late May, but couldn't do anything other than share his players' sentiments about the return of the regular season.
"I said to some people earlier: when you start Training Camp with a new group, you feel like it's not long enough," Tippett said from the Oilers Hall of Fame Room. "Now, I feel like it was way too long. It's time to get going, and that's how we feel this morning. I think the players excited to play and get this thing going, and we've prepared well and I like the way our team has prepared in Camp. Let's see how we do tonight."
Captain Connor McDavid's lengthy off-season recovery from a PCL tear has coincided with a formative summer for the Oilers headlined by big-name additions in goaltender Mike Smith and forward James Neal, who'll start alongside McDavid on the top line with newcomer Joakim Nygard - the speedy Swede set to make his NHL debut along with centre Gaëtan Haas.
"It's obviously just new faces all over the room in every position, coaches, management, so that's new," McDavid said. "Just a little bit of a different feel to it. Some older guys, some more voice in the room which is nice, so definitely a different feel."
The aforementioned Smith, a veteran of 13 NHL seasons with Dallas, Arizona and Calgary, gets the start between the pipes tonight in his first game for his new club and his first opportunity to make an impression on a new fanbase.
"It's one thing when you're on the same team every year, but I think going to a new team and seeing the excitement around a new city and a new organization is always special - especially being in a Canadian market and club like Edmonton with so much history," Smith said. "I'm super excited to get in there tonight and hopefully help this team have a great year, and obviously the fans should be excited about the group we have in here today."
The time for players and coaches to reflect on a formative Camp has past, and the time for them to begin the long haul towards Game 82 and beyond is now.
"As you look around the room and go through Camp, there's been a lot of growth and a lot of change obviously within the systems and within the personnel," Nurse added. "But there's been a lot of growth within the group and there's a lot of excitement. We know what we're capable of and that starts here tonight with our work ethic."
THE FIRST LOOK
With the defensive corps settled with the inclusion of Ethan Bear on a pairing with Oscar Klefbom, the attention turned to Tippett's task of assembling the forward lines and choosing a netminder for opening night.
With an established history with Smith and a desire for a different look, Tippett is leaning on the familiar.
"I liked what I saw. I have a history with him and I understand where he's coming from," Tippett said. "I Just think in Game 1, we're looking for something different from a lot of different players. We got some different players and Mike is a different goaltender and a different look from last year to start the year."
Tippett has watched the progression of Nygard since the onset of Camp, and is electing to give the winger a top-line opportunity with McDavid and Neal in his NHL debut thanks to his speed and progression.
"I've seen him get better every practice and every game," Tippett continued. "As he gets more familiar with the North American style and ice, his tenacity, relentlessness on the puck and quickness are things our lineup needs."
While it's Nygard in the top left-wing spot tonight, Tippett elaborated by saying a lot can change as the season evolves like his group.
"He's played in that role over in Sweden, and we've talked about him, Jurco and couple others there, and it's an evolving group here," he said.
"If you think these are going to be our lines in Game 82, I would second guess that."
LOUDER LEADING VOICES
The leadership list grows.
Neal and Smith are bringing their wealth of experience to a new locker room, but the ones who already helped lead it are gaining more responsibility.
On Tuesday, Leon Drasiaitl and Nurse were named new alternate captains for the Oilers as a product of their energy and influence they help bring for a team whose youngest player on the starting roster, Bear, is 22.
"Nurse is a young guy coming up and is very vocal. I like that vocal part of him," Tippett said. "He's a go-getter that's trying to step out and be a leader, so I like that and we're bringing him along.
"Leon is a guy that has a lot of respect in that room and dictates a lot of what happens with our team and how we play. He's a guy that takes a lot of responsibility, and we wanted to make sure he knows that responsibility is for him and the rest of the group."
The Oilers have a growing list of voices to command the locker room, including established names in Klefbom, Adam Larsson, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Alex Chiasson, and the always-present McDavid leading by example every given night.
"It's not just one guy. I think a leadership group is numerous guys," Smith, a newcomer to the group, said. "I think they feel like they're a big part of this team, and even older guys are looking up to those guys to lead by example, to have a voice, and obviously as an older guy you want to support those guys as much as you can and let them do their thing. If they need a little tap on the butt, then we're here for them."
Wednesday's game opens the 2019-20 NHL campaign for both the Vancouver Canucks and Edmonton Oilers. In four meetings last season against Vancouver, the Oilers were 2-2.
The Canucks are 5-0-0 in their last five opening games - a streak tied for the longest in the League that includes a 3-2 win over the Oilers on October 7, 2017. The Oilers are 21-14-4 all-time in season openers and 18-8-3 all-time when opening the season at home.
Oilers team scope:
With an intact core of Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Oscar Klefbom and a seventh-place finish in the Pacific Division in 2018-19 with 79 points and a 35-38-9 record, it was an off-season of change for the Oilers that set the stage for a formative Training Camp under new management in Ken Holland and a new bench boss in Dave Tippett.
Forward James Neal looks to provide offence up front following his acquisition from the Calgary Flames in July, with free-agent signing Mike Smith joining a former coach in Tippett and expecting to split goaltending duties with Mikko Koskinen after making the switch, along with Neal, from Calgary in the off-season.
Speedy forward and NHL debutant Joakim Nygard skated on a line with McDavid and Neal during Tuesday's morning skate, while Zack Kassian flanked Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and 50-goal scorer Leon Draisaitl from a year prior. The bottom six has been built for role players by Holland, who plans to deploy Jujhar Khaira, Josh Archibald, Colby Cave and Patrick Russell on the penalty kill.
Canucks team scope:
The Canucks added pieces in forward J.T. Miller and defenceman Tyler Myers in the off-season after using 37 different players in 2018-19 and finishing sixth in most man-games lost to injury with 342 last season.
A 35-36-11 record last season had the Canucks finishing fifth in the Pacific Division and missing the playoffs for the fourth-consecutive season. But a young core of goal scorers in Elias Pettersson (28), Bo Horvat (27), and Brock Boeser (26) aims to further increase their output and end that streak.
Pettersson recorded 66 points in 71 games last season (28 G, 38 A) to set the Canucks rookie franchise record for scoring and join Pavel Bure (1991-92) as the only Canucks players to win the Calder Trophy.
By the Numbers:
Oilers Head Coach Dave Tippett is 8-4-2 all-time in season openers... McDavid and Draisaitl became the first team with multiple 100-point players in a season since the 2009-10 Washington Capitals... McDavid has 100+ points in 3 straight seasons...
If Draisaitl can score 50 goals again this season, he would join Alex Ovechkin as the only active skater with consecutive 50-goal seasons, along with Wayne Gretzky and Jari Kurri as the only players in Oilers history with consecutive 50-goal seasons...
The Canucks are 8-7-0 all-time when opening the season on the road... Horvat has 20+ goals in 3 straight seasons - the longest streak on the Canucks since 2011-12...
OILERS - Tomas Jurco (undisclosed) is day-to-day; Joel Persson (shoulder) is out; Riley Sheahan (concussion) is out; Logan Day (undisclosed) is out.
CANUCKS - Antoine Roussel (torn ACL) is on IR; Oscar Fantenberg (concussion) is day-to-day; Brock Boeser (concussion) is day-to-day; Tyler Motte (upper body) is day-to-day.