OK — raise your hand if you had Ethan Bear and, to a lesser extent, Tomas Jurco as your two biggest surprises to make the Edmonton Oilers 23-man opening-night roster?
What’s the old saying? That’s why they play the games, as Bear whizzed past names like Caleb Jones, Evan Bouchard and Matt Benning on the Oilers depth chart, while Jurco appears to be have won the derby of all the one-year, sub-$1 million forwards that Ken Holland tried out at his first camp as the Oilers general manager.
Let’s start with Jurco, an oft-injured Slovak drafted in the second round by Holland back in 2011, when he was still running the Detroit Red Wings. He scored reasonably well during a year-and-a-half of AHL play, but once called up, Jurco never found a way to score 10 goals a year or stay healthy, before being moved to the Chicago Blackhawks.
He came to Edmonton on a one-year, one-way deal worth $750,000, and an understanding that — at age 26 — his time to claim an NHL job was nearing an end. But head coach Dave Tippett has seen something he likes in Jurco, and in the Oilers second-to-last preseason game he played him on a line with Connor McDavid and James Neal.
Jurco had two goals and an assist.
“The more comfortable I get, the better I play,” Jurco told reporters in Winnipeg after the game. “Once I see I have trust then I play way better. Every player, when he knows he is trusted, everything is just easier.”
After two back surgeries, and only 58 NHL games scattered over the past three seasons, it has been a while since Jurco could say he felt this confident. “Better and better. Every good game that I have, it’s building,” he said. “I’m heading in the right direction.”
“You can present opportunity, but it’s what people do with it (that matters),” Tippett said of both Jurco and Bear. “(Jurco) makes good plays, Has good hands; good skill. And I think he’s come to a point in his career where he recognizes that he has to be a good two-way player. That the skill isn’t going to carry him.”
Bear In Mind
We wrote about Bear earlier in camp, one of those young players who has taken it upon himself to change his own world. After two years as a pro, he didn’t think he was giving it his best shot, and changed the way he approached almost everything this past summer.
“You like to see it,” Tippett said. “He put the work in. He’s changed a lot of his diet, he’s changed his mind set on how he wants to live, and how he wants to play. You love to see guys who do that have success, because it’s a model of how it works.
“He’s a good ‘today’s style’ NHL defenceman.”
Bear scored a goal from the point in that Winnipeg game that the Oilers haven’t seen in a long while, faking that he would carry the puck down along the boards, then back-peddling into the high slot before wiring a slapshot for a goal. It’s the kind of play today’s Top 4 defenceman needs to be capable of, and his blast from the right side may one day find him some powerplay time on an Oilers top unit that is stacked with left-handed shots.
“I worked on it a lot during the summer. I try to at least get a shot per period,” said Bear, who has stuck with his plan not to get excited, or look past the next day this fall. “That’s how I take things, day by day. Not going to get too excited, I’ve still got a lot to work on.”
Two Swedes, Two Flames
The two imports that were getting all the ink prior to camp were Swedes Joel Persson and Joakim Nygard. Neither has played an NHL game, but Holland hoped that one or both could make an impact on this year’s roster.
Persson shows signs of being a useful, mobile defenceman, but lost his spot next to Oscar Klefbom when he injured a shoulder in preseason. He’s out likely for the home opener at least, opening the door for Bear, to which Tippett noted, “He kicked the door open, which is good.”
Nygard also looks like he can play, but he’ll have to prove there is more to his game than his fleet feet. Today, Nygard looks like he can play third-line left wing, and spend his first NHL season learning how to play the game here, with the hope there is a Top 6 producer there one day.
Meanwhile, the two Calgary Flames — Mike Smith and James Neal — both held up their end of the deal at camp, and will definitely be leaned on in Edmonton this year.
Smith has every chance of being the No. 1 goalie here, as Mikko Koskinen has yet to prove himself as an NHL No. 1. Smith has given Edmonton the requisite saves through just two pre-season appearances, and looks like he’ll challenge Koskinen throughout the season.
Meanwhile Neal has shown some chemistry on Ryan Nugent-Hopkins’ right side, which means that he will at least start out as the Top 6 winger the Oilers thought they were acquiring when they swapped Milan Lucic for Neal in the offseason. It will be an interesting experiment between two provincial rivals, but it’s fair to say that Neal did not play with a centre of Nugent-Hopkins’ play-making abilities last year in Calgary, and as such, has a chance to return to being a 20-goal man for the Oilers.
• With Bouchard beginning his career on the farm, and Matt Benning struggling through a difficult camp, the veteran will have a half-season or so to put a game together that will not be deemed replaceable should Bouchard enjoy early success in AHL Bakersfield. It will be between Brandon Manning and William Lagesson for seventh defenceman, but there is no doubt that Benning has fallen to sixth on the Oilers depth chart.
• A cautionary tale: Remember last season, when three right-wingers names Jesse Puljujarvi, Ty Rattie and Kailer Yamamoto combined for 15 pre-season goals? The Oilers thought they would be fine on the right side — until the season started. When it was done, that trio scored nine times in 113 man games in the 2018-19 season.
• Here’s our predicted lineup for Wednesday’s season opener versus Vancouver:
Line 1: Draisaitl, McDavid, Kassian.
Line 2: Jurco, Nugent-Hopkins, Neal.
Line 3: Gagner, Cave, Chiasson.
Line 4: Khaira, Sheahan, Archibald.
Line 1: Nurse, Larsson
Line 2: Bear, Klefbom
Line 3: Russell, Benning
Seventh defenceman: Manning
Starter: Mike Smith
Backup: Mikko Koskinen