EDMONTON, AB - It's been a long time coming, but Captain Connor is back.
Connor McDavid is set to make his pre-season debut tonight at Rogers Place when the puck is dropped between the Oilers and Arizona Coyotes in the fourth of seven tune-ups for the club prior to the NHL regular season's official commencement on October 2.
"I'm excited. Obviously it's been a long layoff, but the first pre-season game is always exciting," McDavid said to the media on Tuesday. "This one comes a bit later, but I'm just looking forward to being out there.
"I just want to play. Just be out there and see what that feels like again."
As Oilers Main Camp and the ensuing pre-season progressed, the Oilers captain has been limited to practice sessions as both he, his teammates, and Oilers Head Coach Dave Tippett waited for the go-ahead from the medical staff for his clearance to return to game action.
"He's wanted to play for three weeks," Tippett said. "Between doctors and our organization, we just wanted to make sure everything was right. He's practiced hard for two weeks and he's itching to play."
Tippett has observed the quality his star centre brings to every on-ice session with the team st Camp for weeks despite his on-going recovery from a tear to his PCL sustained in the final game of the 2018-19 season in Calgary.
For the Oilers bench boss, McDavid's impact has already been immeasurable from the increased output his presence and play has brought out of every player in attendance.
"He raises the level of practice just with the things he does and the speed he plays at," Tippett said. "It makes everybody else come with him, and hopefully that's what we see in the game tonight. He plays at a speed that very few players play at, and I'd like our team to all try to keep up with that speed because we're playing hard and playing well."
But Tippett is hopeful for more action tonight, and a little less observing, as the Oilers get down to the nitty-gritty with only eight days remaining until the club's regular-season debut against the Vancouver Canucks.
"First of all, let's hope we don't just go out there and watch him."
CALLING ALL CAPTAINS
It's been a waiting game for Connor McDavid and the Oilers organization.
Whether or not McDavid was prepared before Main Camp to sit out the entire pre-season or not, the captain knew it was going to be a slow roll towards his official return.
"I knew the situation I was in was a little bit different than what everyone else was doing, so I definitely understood I needed to be patient," McDavid said.
But there's no better test for knowing you're in game shape and fully fit than suiting up against real opposition in real game action, and history from a broken clavicle in his rookie season tells McDavid that the first few shifts will be the beginning of a feel-out phase.
"I feel like that's any injury," McDavid said. "I came back from my collarbone, and sure you practice and whatnot and you take bumps here and there, but nothing really replicates a game. Obviously that stuff is part of the game, so we'll see what happens."
Luckily for Connor, he won't have the additional task of adjusting to new linemates. The Oilers captain will centre a line with Leon Draisaitl and Zack Kassian - a carryover from the top line he ended with last season.
"It's always good to come back and have the same linemates you finished with," McDavid said. "Drai and I have played together for a long time, Kass kind of sporadically, but we finished the year together. I'm looking to build on that."
A veteran Oilers lineup tonight dressed by Tippett could provide a good look into the head coach's thinking towards opening night.
Tippett took an experienced group of 31 players to Kelowna for team-building and practice this past weekend as he looks to solidify pairs, lines and roles with just over a week until the '19-20 NHL regular season gets going.
"We've got a veteran group right now," Tippett said. "Through the first four games we really experimented with a lot of people in different roles, and now we're trying to stabilize it a little bit. There are some guys that are going to play the last couple of games after this, but I'd like to get a read on our lineup."
Defenceman Joel Persson remains a player whose spot is in flux as he lines up alongside Oscar Klefbom on the team's first pairing, while also getting a chance to quarterback the first-unit power play tonight.
"I want to see if he can run a power play and the creativity he brings," Tippett said. "The right shot there, he's the one guy that we're experimenting with right now."
Goaltender Mike Smith joins McDavid in making his pre-season debut tonight, expecting to play 40 minutes after battling illness since the onset of Camp.
"When you're not feeling well, it's not the most ideal situation," Smith said. "Especially coming to a new team right at the start of Camp, missing some time there isn't ideal. But I've been around a long time and through a lot of different situations, so this one you never get surprised by anything anymore.
"For missing as much time as I have, I think I feel as solid as I did at the end of last season. So I'm excited to get into a couple of games and start feeling pucks again from different shooters and more game-realistic stuff out there."
Lines at this morning's skate appeared as follows: