Oilers Notebook: Tippett still searching for best fit with Anthanasiou

Oilers head coach Dave Tippett spoke about the decisions that go into making the teams for each scrimmage and how the players have been able to adjust to the changes.

EDMONTON — Edmonton Oilers GM Ken Holland acquired three players at the Feb. 24 trade deadline, buttressing his lineup for a playoff run. But when he brought in defenceman Mike Green, speedy winger Andreas Athanasiou and veteran Tyler Ennis, the intent was not for the Ennis to be the most impactful of the imports.

Well, the best laid plans….

Mike Green cost Holland a fourth round pick in 2020. He played two games for Edmonton before getting injured, then opted out of the playoffs. Green is an unrestricted free agent after this season.

Ennis, a pending UFA, came to Edmonton from Ottawa for a fifth-round pick. Athanasiou, a pending RFA, cost the Oilers the pricey sum of two second-round picks.

Livestream the Oilers in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers, plus every game of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs on Sportsnet NOW.

So far, Athanasiou has not panned out. He flamed out next to Connor McDavid upon arrival, and after spending the first week of Phase 3 on Leon Draisaitl’s left wing, Athanasiou lost his spot to Ennis at Sunday’s scrimmage.

Ennis is “a veteran player who’s been around the league a long time,” head coach Dave Tippett said after Sunday’s scrimmage. “He’s played with and against good players and he’s not intimidated. He’s a smart player. Plays the game efficiently. He knows when to make the right play, and when you have to move on and try something simpler.

Here is the money quote, where Ennis and Athanasiou are concerned: “(Ennis) plays off people very well, reads off people, and has good skill. Top players like to play with guys like that because they’re good compliment players.”

Athanasiou hasn’t been around for long — just two points in nine games for Edmonton — and Tippett still doesn’t have a sense of what the player’s strengths are or where he fits into his lineup.

“You’re right. We’re still trying to find exactly where the best fit for him is,” Tippett said. “You can tell he has speed, he has skill. But you’re trying to find that niche for him in the lineup, or that chemistry with somebody. That’s still a work in progress.”

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Translation: Athanasiou had two separate stints next to a world-class centreman — McDavid before the pause, and Draisaitl after — and did not impress upon anyone that he fit in a top-six role. He doesn’t work well off the cycle, and doesn’t trade pucks well with two elite centremen who have specific needs in their wingers. And although Athanasiou increases your overall team speed, he still needs to find a role where he can make the team better.

There is a special pressure playing in the top-six of an NHL team, one that is even more intense when your centreman’s name is McDavid or Draisaitl.

“There are no ifs, and or buts: There’s pressure,” Zack Kassian said, referring to himself on McDavid’s right wing. “When you’re playing on the first line of a hockey club, you have to produce. Top lines are meant to produce.”

Athanasiou is an RFA after the season and must be qualified at $3 million. At this point, there is absolutely no chance Holland will offer Athanasiou $3 million, even if he has to swallow hard, having given Detroit two second-round picks. But he’ll likely try to re-sign the winger for less and see if he can find a home for Athanasiou in Edmonton, kind of the way Just Schultz did in Pittsburgh, where his salary fell from $3.9 million, to a one-year deal at $1.4 million, before signing a three-year pact that averaged $5.5 million with the Penguins.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

Anniversary of Neal-Lucic trade

One year ago Sunday, on July 19, 2019, the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers swapped wingers Milan Lucic and James Neal.

Clearly, both players needed a change of scenery, and each team did too. The Oilers and Flames each wanted to look at someone other than the free-agent bust each player has become.

At the time it was accepted that Neal’s contract was superior from a buy-out perspective. But really, for both clubs, it was about getting some production out of a pair of contracts that had become anchors.

Remember this quote from Ken Holland?

“The Guide and Record Book says that James Neal scores goals,” he said. “I know, he had a bad year last year. What’s the Guide and Record Book going to say four years from now? I don’t know.”

The numbers:

Lucic — 68 Flames games, eight goals, 20 points.

Neal — 55 Oilers games, 19 goals, 31 points.

Both teams would tell you they like the deal, and they’d make it again.

Oilers not impacted by flood at Rogers Place

Edmonton mayor Don Iveson was speaking the other day about the dire financial straits his city is in. He could have been the mayor of any city in the country, as economies struggle amid a pandemic.

Edmonton has a projected $172 million budget shortfall in 2020, amid rising debts and plummeting revenues. He expects a $60 million shortfall in the transit budget, mostly due to cleaning costs and depleted ridership levels.

And then last week, some pipes burst at Rogers Place, flooding the centrepiece of the NHL’s Western Conference bubble.

“I was at (Adam) Larsson’s place,” said Oscar Klefbom. “We saw the tweets and the videos… We thought it was a sign: First COVID, and now this. We just want to finish the season. I think we have a really good chance to go all the way.”

Ironically, it turns out that the damaged areas would have affected where fans enter the building. That won’t be a problem this summer.

“The whole team was relieved when we walked into the rink today,” Klefbom said the day after the flood. “We’re not as affected as I thought we would be.:”

The Oilers insurance is expected to cover the costs of the clean-up. Iveson said the city will not incur the bill.

McDavid finding another gear

Connor McDavid has flown through the first week of camp. “It almost looked like he’s gained a step during this whole time,” said Riley Sheahan.

Here is a video of McDavid scoring a goal on Sunday:

How good could McDavid be in these playoffs? I look at it like this:

Nearly every player we’ve ever covered who suffers a serious injury, like the PCL tear that McDavid spent the entire summer rehabbing a year ago, struggles somewhat upon his return. The first season back is almost never as good as the second season back.

Well, McDavid surprised most everyone by finishing second in league scoring with 34 goals and 97 points in 64 games. Now, he’s had four months off —akin to a normal offseason. He will return in August like the player in his second season after a serious injury.

He has dominated at camp this week, and seems uber-focused about leading a charge into these playoffs for Edmonton.

“On the ice, nothing feels different at all,” he said of camp. “We’re all out there, playing having a good time, working hard together. That hasn’t changed, and isn’t going to change. It’s more the off-ice stuff. Wearing masks, keeping your distance, taking your temperature… All the stuff we need to do to make each other safe, but all the stuff that isn’t in our normal day to day (routine).”

His teammates continue to marvel at the things he does on the ice. “We were saying on the bench,” Ennis said, “it looks like he got faster over the break.”

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