EDMONTON — Dave Tippett glided up next to the hopeful young prospect on the practice ice, delivering a message that Ethan Bear was likely well aware of. Two pre-season games remained, some cuts had been made and a key injury had left a job wide open for Bear.
"Knock, knock," Dave Tippett told Bear. "Opportunity awaits."
Welcome to Phase 2 of a National Hockey League training camp, where nine defencemen remain for seven spots, and two chief competitors for the right-shooting Bear have been either farmed out (Evan Bouchard) or injured (Joel Persson).
Tonight, Bear finds himself on a pairing with veteran Oscar Klefbom in Winnipeg, and perhaps again Saturday night in Calgary, as Tippett tries to put a defence together for Wednesday night’s season opener against Vancouver. Play well with Klefbom and you make the team — it’s plain and simple.
Persson injured his shoulder Tuesday against Arizona and will miss a week to 10 days. Then, immediately after the game, the Oilers sent Bouchard to Bakersfield, opening a top-four spot on the right side of the Oilers blue line.
In steps the third-year pro Bear, who is doing his best to keep the blinders on. This is the biggest opportunity of his NHL career, and although the dominoes are falling for him, he’d rather not talk about it right now.
"That’s happening," Bear allows, "but it’s not in my control. I focus on (tonight’s) game, and making sure I’m eating right tonight. I’m just making sure I give myself the best opportunity to play well."
It’s that time in camp when the battles gain some clarity as the numbers wane.
Here’s a look at a few more questions in Oilers camp that will be answered over the next three days:
Nygard, Persson and Gaetan Haas are three Europeans brought into camp by Ken Holland, none of whom have ever played an NHL game. Odds are, if one was to pan out that would be a victory. So far, however, Persson looks like he can play, and so does the speedy Nygard, who now has to transition his quick European game into a style that works over here.
"You’re here to fight for a job. I want to make the team," said the 26-year-old. A season ago the Oilers had a speedy winger in Tobias Rieder, who never figured out how to bring his speed off the perimeter and into the areas where goals are scored.
It is something Nygard will have to figure out as well, and he’ll do so on a line with Leon Draisaitl and right winger Anton Burdasov tonight.
"Yes, I do. You have to choose the times though," the Stockholm native said. "You have to keep your head up if you’re going to the middle. In Sweden, I am used to going to the middle. If you do it here, you can get hit pretty bad."
Sheahan was one of the five one-year contracts that Holland signed for $1 million or less, trying to get through his first season as the Oilers’ new GM before getting some post-season relief from the cap hell that his predecessor Peter Chiarelli left behind.
He’s a fourth-line NHL centre, for sure. But can Sheahan regain enough of his game to serve as an effective 3C in Edmonton, the way he was two years ago behind Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh?
"It’s a role I’m comfortable in," said Sheahan, who gives Holland the steady faceoff man in his bottom six that Edmonton has lacked for some time, and a player who can do some of the heavy lifting for Connor McDavid and Draisaitl.
"To provide those guys with some relief," he said. "They’re going to have games where they’re not on, or the other team is doing a good job of shutting them down. For us guys playing in the bottom six, you take pride in the role of helping them out. Providing the team with a good shift that creates an icing call, so Dave (Tippett) can put out Connor and Leon for an offensive zone draw against a tired line."
Jurco, a Slovak, has played just 58 NHL games over the past three seasons. He is nearly 27 and on a one-year, $750,000 deal, meaning he either figures out how to help an NHL team pretty soon or makes a choice between an American Hockey League career and a return to Europe.
Burdasov, 26, is uber-intriguing: he’s big (six-foot-two), skates well and possesses a five-star wrist shot. But he’s never played a game in North America and is not even under contract to the Oilers, but skates here on a PTO.
Burdasov is a project. Jurco is known commodity. Coaches like experienced players like Jurco, but they also love a guy with the possibilities of Burdasov.
Tippett will play Draisaitl at centre tonight in Winnipeg, and he’ll have a look at how Burdasov interacts with a legit NHL star, with the speedy Nygard on the other side.
"I want to see Nygard, I want to see Jurco, the big Russian (Burdasov)…" Tippett said. "Some guys that will play with good players. It’s a big opportunity for some of those players."
Tippett isn’t shy about an opening night lineup that includes some inexperience. As long as those players show him some promise.
"I have no problem playing young players," Tippett said. "We’re just looking for players who are good enough to make us a better team."