Players, fans, and coaches alike of the Edmonton Oilers have been chomping at the bit for their first real taste of competitive action since the onset of Main Camp last Thursday. They'll all get their wish when the Oilers open their Pre-Season campaign tonight at Rogers Place against the Winnipeg Jets.
"It's exciting," winger Sam Gagner said following this morning's pre-game skate. "It's a long summer and you get through these first few days at Camp just itching to get into game action, so it's exciting and hopefully we make it a good first one."
Both rookies and pros are keen to make an impact and impress a fresh management and coaching staff to solidify a spot on the Oilers opening night roster, putting lessons learned throughout the previous days' practices and scrimmages into action against real opposition.
"It's huge for myself and everyone in the room to showcase what you have," defenceman Evan Bouchard said. "With a new staff and everything like that, you really want to show what you have, but I think the main focus is playing as a team. If the team plays well, it's good for everyone individually."
Bouchard is only one name on a list of that includes defencemen Caleb Jones, William Lagesson, Joel Persson, and forward Tyler Benson - who all suit up tonight against the Jets - that Head Coach Dave Tippett wants to see elevate their game from the influx of competition created from Camp.
That level of evaluation takes on new importance now moving forward.
"You want to see them embrace that competition," Tippett said from the Oilers Hall of Fame Room. "A lot of them, especially the guys from Bakersfield last year, are all buddies and teammates. But they have to recognize they want that job in the NHL. So far, the competition's been pretty good and the next level starts tonight."
Summer addition James Neal and centre Ryan Nugent-Hopkins have been paired up all Main Camp as two-thirds of a line, and Sam Gagner is the first player being given the opportunity to complete the trifecta.
It's only one of the many auditions set to begin playing out at Rogers Place, and one that surely won't conclude tonight with six more Pre-Season matches still on the docket before the kickoff to the '19-20 NHL season on October 2.
"We've been able to talk a lot the last few days about our tendencies and trying to figure each other out," Gagner said. "I played a little bit with both of them in the past, Nuge last year a little bit and Neal way back when, but I'm excited about it.
"There's a recipe for success on that line. Obviously Nuge is a great two-way player who can create a lot of offence, and Neal is a shooter. For myself, it's a matter of trying to hunt pucks down and make plays for those two guys. I think we can be really effective."
The first test for Gagner will be to occupy his off-wing on the right side after lining up on Nugent Hopkins' left side for the majority of Camp's practices and scrimmages.
"It's a change, but at the same time I think there's areas where it can be really helpful," he said. "I think on rims, a lot of the times they're coming to my forehand so I'm able to knock those down and make plays. I feel comfortable making plays on my backhand, then it's just a matter of being on the inside in the D-zone and making sure I'm winning races to pucks."
YOUNG & ASPIRING BOUCHARD
Big dreams in the NHL demand big things from rookies.
19-year-old blueliner Bouchard got a taste of the dedication needed to remain in the NHL at the start of last season, appearing in seven games and scoring his first NHL goal against the Washington Capitals before dominating the OHL with the London Knights and the Calder Cup Playoffs with the Bakersfield Condors.
"The biggest thing was getting to see what the pro lifestyle is like and seeing how hard they work day in, day out," Bouchard said. "You have to come in here and take someone's job, so that's motivation to do it. They're not going to let you do it easily, so you just have to keep pushing yourself."
Bouchard impressed Tippett with two goals and two assists in Sunday's scrimmage at the Downtown Community Arena, and already is showing his potential and growth in his game despite a limited tenure as an NHL regular.
"To play in the NHL, you have to be able to hold your own in a lot of different situations," Tippett said. "Each player has their strengths - Bouchard is a good offensive defenceman with unbelievable poise on the puck - but the weaknesses in his game are inexperience and the ability to defend when he has to. Those are areas he recognizes that he has to establish himself as an NHL player and he's going to get an opportunity to do that."
Goaltender Stuart Skinner watched the Oakville, Ontario product's quick progression at the AHL level last campaign in the Calder Cup Playoffs, attributing his success with eight points (3G, 5A) in eight games as a product of his well-rounded, dynamic play at both ends of the ice.
"He's such a fast skater and he's really smart too, so I think he just makes the right plays at the right times," Skinner said. "Those key players make the right plays at the right times and that's what he does. His timing out there is phenomenal and obviously he has a Bouch Bomb, so he's got a good shot and he's lethal with it. He's a great passer as well, so he's got all the components."
Skinner gets the start between the pipes tonight against the Jets in front of friends and family, expecting to split goaltending duties down the middle with Dylan Wells.
The Edmonton, Alberta product is one of three hometown players alongside Benson and defenceman Matt Benning looking to impress in their first pre-season action of the campaign.
"I just have to keep it simple and play the game that I'm used to playing, not trying to overcomplicate anything," Skinner said.
"Obviously it's going to be a great crowd. I'm from Edmonton, so it's really exciting for me and also Benson coming from Edmonton. It's an exciting time for us to play in front of fans, friends and family too, so I think just playing our game and not trying to overcomplicate things."
Expected Oilers lineup tonight after this morning's skate:
Neal - Nugent-Hopkins -Gagner Khaira - Sheahan - Archibald Nygard - Haas - Chiasson Benson - Cave- P. Russell