After three hard-working weeks of Training Camp and Preseason, the Edmonton Oilers will entertain the Vancouver Canucks in Game 1 of 82 with their '21-22 Home Opener set to go down at Rogers Place in Ice District tonight.
This time around, with the added caveat of having fans back in the stands for the first Home Opener since October 2, 2019 (742 days), the excitement to begin a new season in the Oilers players and coaches is reaching levels they haven't experienced in over two calendar years.
"It's been a strange couple of years," forward Leon Draisaitl said pre-game. "Even though it was amazing to have fans back in preseason, I think tonight is a different level of excitement. Opening Night is always special, whether it's a normal season or not, but especially with the last two years, (tonight's) even more special."
To Head Coach Dave Tippett, the return of fans for regular-season play and the positive preparation put in by his players over an extended Training Camp means tonight's Home Opener has the makings of being a memorable one.
"It's great to have fans back," the bench boss said. "Hopefully, we get a full 82 games and it's a regular year that we get to enjoy. I think our team has prepared well, has had a good camp, and everybody's excited to get started."
This season, there's added expectation in the locker room. After putting together a strong 35-win regular-season campaign in the North Division under the unique circumstances of the '20-21 NHL season, the Oilers fell short in a four-game exit to the Winnipeg Jets in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Oilers boast a deeper forward group with the additions of Zach Hyman, Warren Foegele, Brendan Perlini, and Colton Sceviour after the forward inked a one-year deal with the club this morning following a successful Professional Tryout (PTO).
On the blueline, experience blends with youth. Duncan Keith prepares to take to the ice for his first regular-season game in Edmonton on a pairing with Cody Ceci, while Evan Bouchard looks to further solidify his presence on the defence core tonight alongside Kris Russell.
There were plenty of positives to take from last season, but a good start to the season tonight with a victory over Vancouver will help put the players on the right path toward their ultimate goal of making even bigger strides into the postseason this campaign.
"We had a pretty good year last year," Draisaitl said. "One thing I would do different from last year is probably the start of the season. Last year, we were scrambling a little bit early on, and we're obviously looking to get off to a good start tonight and keep it rolling from there.
"We've got a good team. We have to make sure we know that and play our game, establish our game early, and I think we'll be fine."
FLEXING AT FORWARD
It's hard to find many holes in this Oilers forward group, and the players in it know the potential they possess as a single entity.
The job now, and moving forward, is how to best deploy the troops and assemble the squad formation on a night-by-night basis over the course of the regular season.
"I think this is probably the deepest (forward) group we've had since 2017, so we've got a lot of options," Draisaitl said. "We can go with a lot of different combinations. We added a lot of guys that have played a long time in this league and have had success. It gives Tipp more options and more possibilities to make our team unpredictable."
To begin the year against the Canucks, Tippett will deploy the Dynamic Duo on the top line with Jesse Puljujarvi - a decision that was made a lot easier for the bench boss with the added benefit of having a strong new addition in Hyman to shuffle around his top six.
Hyman will start on the left-wing of the second line with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Kailer Yamamoto.
"There are some things we're looking at for the whole group," Tippett said. "Some of it is geared to how each of our lines play and that we've got to be a harder team to play against. There's just a lot of factors that went into it.
"As we went on here, I wanted to get to know Hyman a little bit and I wanted to see where Nuge was at. We'll probably tinker with it as we go on here, but there are certain things we're looking for in our lineup all the way through it. This is the way we're going to start tonight."
Free-agent signing Derek Ryan will look to bring a consistent presence to the third line playing centre between summer trade acquisition Warren Foegele and the freshly-signed Colton Sceviour. The fourth line boasts veteran Kyle Turris, Ryan McLeod, and pre-season standout Brendan Perlini, who netted six goals in six pre-season games.
Tippett wants to see the bottom-six continue to carry over their offensive production and strong roleplay from the preseason to provide a positive impact on the game in their limited ice time.
"They're capitalizing on the opportunities they're getting. That's a big factor," Tippett said. "We've talked about the ice time those bottom-six guys are getting. They're not going to get a lot of power-play time, so they have to be solid in what they're doing on the ice. When you get a chance to contribute offensively, you've got to make the best of it. That's exactly what they did in camp."
Tippett pointed to McLeod on Sunday, along with Tyler Benson, as two players who could've been the odd men out with the depth the club has in the forward positions.
Without Devin Shore in the lineup tonight due to injury, Tippett is hoping McLeod can make the most of his opportunity to impact the game in a positive way.
"He's sound positionally, skates well, but he needs to have more of an impact on the game; more impact at a critical time," Tippett said.
"He was (playing) careful, and he's got to feel confident in what he's doing. He's a good player. He's going to be a good NHL player for a long time, but he just needs to push a little more. That's just going to come with growth and maturity in his game."
SCEVIOUR SIGNING IN
Sceviour showcased himself well enough on a PTO over the last three weeks to earn a one-year, two-way contract on Wednesday morning worth an AAV of $750,000.
So well, in fact, that he already felt like part of the team to his teammates.
"First of all, he's a great guy," Draisaitl said. "He seems like a great team guy. He puts the team first at any moment and sacrifices his body, does the little things right, and he's someone who's going to be important to our team with (Josh Archibald) being out right now.
"He's going to try and bring that same intangible to our team, so he's going to be big on the penalty kill for us. We're happy to have him."
Over the eight Oilers pre-season games, the veteran suited up for seven of the contests and showcased himself as a serviceable penalty-killer and a forward who can play wherever needed.
"I showed some versatility in my ability to play all three forward positions. I think my ability to penalty kill is probably one of the number-one assets that I bring, and that's kind of what I wanted to show. That's more than likely one of the bigger reasons (I was signed).
From the moment he arrived at Oilers Training Camp as a PTO, Sceviour stuck to his role and leaned on his 500 NHL games of experience.
"You have to come in with some sort of belief in yourself, otherwise you're wasting your time and everyone else's," he said. "There's obviously confidence that you can fill a role or help the team, and then as you go, it's just kind of free-wheeling because you just do your thing."
Signing in Edmonton for the '21-22 season comes with the added bonus for the 32-year-old Red Deer, AB product of getting to jump right into the lineup and compete on an Oilers team set to push for the Stanley Cup.
"That's exciting," he said. "Playing on a team that's winning and competing for a Stanley Cup, it's way more enjoyable to be at the rink. Those are the kind of teams you want to be on, and the ability to come and tryout for a team that has those aspirations and ability in that locker room is exciting.
"I just want to show the rest of my game here going forward with some more opportunity."
The signing of Sceviour comes at an opportune time for the Oilers ahead of tonight's Home Opener with news that forwards Devin Shore and Zack Kassian will be on the shelf with injuries until at least Saturday.
"Tonight he comes in handy," Tippett said. "The doctors ruled out (Kassian) until Saturday, so he'll go in there in Kassian's spot. He's had a good camp and he's ready to go."
Shore tried skating through an undisclosed injury before Wednesday's pre-game skate, taking to the ice in limited equipment, but the centre will be unable to suit up for tonight's Home Opener after putting together a strong camp and pre-season showing.
"He just tweaked something, and it's too bad," Tippett said. "He's disappointed because he had a pretty good camp. He was looking forward to getting going. But with a couple of days in between the next game, we thought it was best to hold him out.
"He wanted to give it a little try today, but we don't want to put him in a bad position here. He'll take a couple of days and hopefully, he'll be ready to go by Saturday."
Kassian skated in full on Tuesday and during Wednesday's pre-game skate, but was not given the green light by team doctors to rejoin the lineup tonight against Vancouver.
"The doctors want him to get a couple more practices in then we'll talk about it in the next couple of days," Tippett said. "He's going full speed out there. He's ready to go right now he thinks, but the doctors are just being cautious with him, which I understand."
After breezing through the pre-season calendar with a 6-1-1 record and 26-17 goal differential, the Oilers are poised to transfer that success to Wednesday's 2021-22 Home Opener at Rogers Place.
Although the club registered their 23-man roster on Sunday, some parts of the lineup remain in flux after Tuesday's practice. Zack Kassian, sidelined after hitting his head on the ice against the Canucks last week, participated in the team's most recent practice but still requires medical clearance before playing.
Head Coach Dave Tippett also confirmed forward Devin Shore, who was not in attendance at practice on Tuesday, is dealing with a day-to-day injury. As far as the line combinations go, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl have skated alongside Jesse Puljujarvi to form the team's top line, while Zach Hyman, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Kailer Yamamoto slot as the squad's second trio.
In the bottom six, Warren Foegele, Derek Ryan and the aforementioned Kassian took reps as a unit and the forward group was closed out by Brendan Perlini, Ryan McLeod and Colton Sceviour. "With the additions we've made, we feel like we've got some extra depth down there. We want to see how it works out," Tippett said.
"Connor and Leon have a great track record together. Hyman coming in, Foegele coming in and Derek Ryan gives us some of that extra depth. We're going to see what we have early."
The Canucks were defeated in their final two exhibition games, a home-and-home with the Oilers, dropping consecutive 3-2 decisions to conclude the schedule with a 2-5-0 record.
Vancouver Canucks General Manager Jim Benning has been busy leading up to Wednesday's kickoff. On Tuesday, the general manager signed former Edmonton Oilers winger Alex Chiasson to a one-year contract and on Sunday, he trade 2016 fifth-overall selection Olli Juolevi to the Florida Panthers in exchange for defenceman Noah Juulsen and forward Juho Lammikko. Last week, Benning also inked fresh contracts for Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes, locking up two valuable members of the club for the foreseeable future.
By The Numbers
Connor McDavid (8G, 14A) and Leon Draisaitl (7G, 12A) combined for 41 points in 10 games versus the Canucks last season. ... Both players also put up nine power-play points apiece over those matches. ... The Oilers have owned the NHL's best powerplay over the last two seasons, holding a 29.5 percent average in '19-20 and a 26.7 percent rate in '20-21. ...
J.T. Miller led the way offensively against the Oilers last season, leading Vancouver with six assists and eight points over eight meetings with EDM. ... Elias Pettersson dressed in only four outings against the Oilers last year, notching one goal and two assists. ... In 11 career games vs. EDM, Pettersson has three goals and seven points. ... VAN ranked 25th on the PP in '20-21 with a 17.4 percent clip. ...
OILERS - Devin Shore (undisclosed) is day-to-day; Zack Kassian (upper body) is on IR; William Lagesson (undisclosed) is on IR;
CANUCKS - Brock Boeser (undisclosed) is on IR; Brandon Sutter (illness) is on IR; Tyler Motte (upper body) is on IR; Brady Keeper (fractured leg) is on IR.