All eyes on Connor McDavid’s knee as Oilers begin camp

Edmonton Oilers general manager Ken Holland comments on handling Connor McDavid who’s attempting to return to the lineup from injury.

EDMONTON — The Edmonton Oilers opened training camp Thursday with all eyes on, well, Connor McDavid‘s left knee.

The Oilers’ star centre has been skating strong and, based on recent pre-camp practices, injury-free.

But he is waiting on the final word from doctors on what his practice regimen will be, and whether he’s cleared for contact, when players hit the ice Friday.

"I leave that stuff up to the doctors," McDavid told reporters at Rogers Place during player medicals.

"My job is just to go out there and play."

McDavid is expected to see very limited, if any, pre-season game action as he rehabs the knee ligament he partially tore five months ago while ramming into a goal-post at freight-train speed in the final 2018-1019 regular season NHL game.

But he said he hasn’t been holding back since.

"I’ve been out there for scrimmages and stuff like that and got bumped and been in battles," he said.

"I’m not nervous about it, but ultimately you’ve got to listen to the doctors."

Head coach Dave Tippett said the key word is caution.

"We’re going to be very conservative," he said.

"Everything looks great right now, but we want to make sure he’s right on opening day of the season."

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The Oilers, obviously, need a healthy McDavid for the start of the season, and every game thereafter, if they hope to surmount pessimistic predictions and return to the playoffs.

McDavid was second in NHL scoring last year (41 goals and 116 points) while linemate Leon Draisaitl was fourth (50 goals and 105 points).

Along with centre Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the Oilers have a formidable trio. But after that, the scoring dried up like a sponge in the Sahara last year as the Oilers missed the playoffs for the 12th time in 13th seasons in 2018-19.

That triggered yet another front-office shuffle, starting with new general manager Ken Holland and Tippett, along with other wholesale changes in the scouting and player development departments.

Holland, hoping to match his success with the Detroit Red Wings, without a lot of salary cap room to play with, spent the summer trying to shore up the bottom six forward group. He signed free agents such as Markus Granlund, Joakim Nygard, Riley Sheahan, and Gaetan Haas.

The goal is to find a gem among the new crew up front, similar to what walk-on Alex Chiasson did for Edmonton last season when he scored a career-best 22 goals.

"There are jobs that are open," said Tippett. "It’s jobs on the team, it’s ice time, it’s roles, and there are a lot of different people that are vying for those roles."

The Oilers will have to make do without winger Jesse Puljujarvi, the top pick from 2016 who has not lived up to expectations. He was pegged in a third-line role this season, but is now playing in Finland while in a standoff with Oilers management.

Holland also dealt underperforming forward Milan Lucic (and his US$6-million salary for this season) to Calgary for James Neal, who is also getting big bucks long term and aims to rebound from a subpar seven-goal season.

On defence, Holland and Tippett have their fingers crossed that young guns like Evan Bouchard and Philip Broberg will soon be ready for prime time while in the meantime relying on veterans Oscar Klefbom, Adam Larsson, Darnell Nurse, Matt Benning and Kris Russell to carry the load.

The Oilers still need a puck-moving D-man, having parted ways with veteran Andrej Sekera.

In goal, Holland has brought in 37-year-old Mike Smith from Calgary with the plan he will push inconsistent Mikko Koskinen and move the goaltending dial, if nothing else, out of liability territory.

There’s lots of work to do.

The Oilers finished 25th overall last season and at 35-38-9 missed the playoffs by 17 points. The offence was mediocre (ranked 20th at 2.79 goals per game), the defence was worse (ranked 25th at 3.30 goals against a game).

The power play was better than average (ninth) but the penalty kill was brutal (30th).

Nevertheless, in Edmonton, where fans bleed blue and orange, hope is renewed that maybe this year the phoenix will rise from what has become hockey’s perennial dumpster fire.

"Everyone’s excited to get going," said forward Zack Kassian, who had a career year last season with 15 goals.

"Everyone in that room feels we have something to prove. As a team, we haven’t performed the way we wanted to.

"That’s our goal, just to make the playoffs."

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