Training camp is winding down and we’re just eight days away from the opening of the NHL season. But there are still some roster spot battles going on and some surprising names still with the big club, after others have been cut and sent back to junior, Europe, the AHL or elsewhere.
Each of the Canadian teams has at least one question mark remaining from the pre-season, so we look at what’s going on with each team.
EDMONTON OILERS: WILL IT BE YAMAMOTO OR PULJUJARVI, NOT STROME, ON MCDAVID’S WING?
When the Oilers sent Jordan Eberle to the Islanders for Ryan Strome, it was an opportunity for the team to either use Strome as the third-line centre if Leon Draisaitl was on McDavid’s left side, or as a right-winger on the top unit next to McDavid. But two younger first-round picks have been given a look there and now we have to wonder if one of Jesse Puljujarvi or Kailer Yamamoto ends up in that plum spot in October.
Puljujarvi has gotten a couple looks in that spot: He played with McDavid on Saturday night and scored two goals and an assist – the entirety of his pre-season production – all of which were at least a bit lucky. He was out there again with McDavid Monday night against Carolina, but coach Todd McLellan eventually swapped him out for Yamamoto; the 19-year-old Finn was put on the Driasaitl-Lucic line, which makes for an interesting trio of size and skill itself.
Strome has two goals and one assist himself, but hasn’t seen as much time on the McDavid line lately as either of the younger players. McLellan spoke about it being an early message sent to Strome, and a confidence-building opportunity for Puljujarvi
“I thought Ryan had to get a little bit harder, a little bit more competitive. So it sent him a bit of a message, let him understand how we do things,” McLellan said. “And (he was) trying to get Jesse going. Hopefully the two messages were strongly sent. One got the benefit, the other has got to be a little bit better.”
Behind it all is Yamamoto, the 5-foot-8, 155-pound right winger who leads all players with five goals in four pre-season games. The 22nd-overall pick in the 2017 draft, Yamamoto scored 42 times in 65 WHL games last season with 99 points and it’s highly possible his lack of size limited his draft stock. His speed would certainly complement McDavid and his offensive upside could explode in that role.
If Yamamoto sticks for at least the first nine games, the Oilers could get an idea if this production would keep up against real NHL competition. They’d then have the added depth that comes with moving Strome down in the lineup, and the option to move cautiously with a still-inconsistent Puljujarvi by putting him back in the AHL to start the year. Edmonton has one more pre-season game Saturday night, and we could learn a lot about how the top line will shape up after that.
MONTREAL CANADIENS: IS VICTOR METE THE BEST FIT WITH SHEA WEBER?
“My dream is to play in the NHL one day,” reads Victor Mete’s Twitter bio. No one had him on the radar at the opening of training camp, but now he’s the most interesting player of the Canadiens’ pre-season.
The 19-year-old was a fourth-round pick (100th overall) in 2016 and after going back to score 44 points in 50 games for the OHL’s London Knights, he’s suddenly the dark horse to be Shea Weber’s partner on the Habs blue line. He’s been used there all pre-season and it looks like he will survive all of training camp, after which the team will make the call to keep him, or send him back to junior.
As Eric Engels wrote for Sportsnet 10 days ago shortly after training camp launched, Mete’s skill set appears to complement Weber’s better than any other Habs blueliner.
“He’s good,” Weber told Engels. “I didn’t realize how young he was. He’s really good with the puck, he’s mobile, and at that age it’s pretty good. I thought he was older than he was. For him to be that young, he should have a good career ahead of him.”
If Mete doesn’t stay with the team, Engels pointed out that GM Marc Bergevin would then likely have to go out and find someone who plays a similar game. Who that player would be isn’t clear, although we do know the Vegas Golden Knights have an overflow of defenders and are looking to trade at least one.
CALGARY FLAMES: IS IT MARK JANKOWSKI’S TIME?
The then-Flames GM Jay Feaster took high school centre Mark Jankowski 21st overall in the 2012 NHL Draft, it was considered a risky pick and somewhat of a reach. In hindsight, none of the players chosen right after Jankowski have really stood out as steals (Olli Maatta, Michael Matheson, Malcolm Subban and Jordan Schmaltz were the next four off the board) and now might be the time for the 23-year-old to crack his first NHL lineup.
Forty players remain in Calgary’s camp and while that means there are still many cuts to come, the practice splits are noteworthy. As Wes Gilbertson of the Calgary Sun pointed out over the weekend, Jankowski was practising with a group that included Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Mark Giordano, Dougie Hamilton, T.J. Brodie, Travis Hamonic, Matthew Tkachuk, Mikael Backlund… the list goes on.
Last year was Jankowski’s first as a pro after moving on from Providence College and he was nearly a point-per-game player with 56 in 64 games, a total that led the Stockton Heat.
This is a player most assumed would return to the AHL since the Flames didn’t have a glaring need or an obvious opening on the roster. But with three goals in four games, Jankowski has made his presence felt and it’s becoming harder for the Flames to decide he’s not yet NHL-ready.
WINNIPEG JETS: WILL EITHER KYLE CONNOR OR TUCKER POOLMAN MAKE THE TEAM?
These two players came into camp with different levels of expectation.
It appeared as though Connor had a roster spot that was his to lose. The 20-year-old stuck with the team out of camp last year, struggled, and then after a slow start in the AHL, took off with 17 goals in his final 20 games — and totalled 25 in 52 for the season. A sniper and a speedster, Connor needed a good pre-season to play his way into Winnipeg’s top six and push Mathieu Perreault down to the third line, but it hasn’t been such a slam dunk.
Connor doesn’t have a point yet and hasn’t received top-six ice time either. He was put with Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler on Monday night and was scoreless with a minus-2 rating and three shots on goal.
“There’s lots of improvement in Kyle’s game,” Jets coach Paul Maurice said. “There are lots of really good things. He’s still a young man. He’s going to play for the Winnipeg Jets. He’s going to score a bunch of goals for us.
“When that starts, we’re not sure. He’s made huge strides in a year. There’s a lot to learn about the game of hockey and he’s got a really good skill set. But patience with Kyle is really important. I’ve got lots for him. I’ve got lots of time for him.”
The Jets are one of the most patient teams in the league, and insist the long-term approach they take will one day pay off as year-in, year-out contenders rather than one-off performers. Scheifele, picked seventh overall in 2011, didn’t crack a season-long Jets roster until three years after his selection, so it wouldn’t be unprecedented for the Jets to play it slow with Connor too, and send him back to the AHL to gain more confidence. If he doesn’t make the team out of camp, we’d still expect to see him in the NHL at some point this season.
But given all the hype and despite the lack of pre-season scoring, it would still be a surprise to see him go down again.
Poolman, also scoreless in the pre-season, is a different case, though. A fifth-rounder in 2013 after being passed over in two previous drafts, Poolman is buried in Winnipeg’s defence depth chart that has a clearly defined top six. But the 24-year-old has impressed in camp and, despite the fact he’s fresh out of the University of North Dakota and hasn’t played a pro game yet, is forcing his way into the conversation and making the final-cut decisions difficult.
“He’s had a real strong camp. He hasn’t had a dip, he hasn’t had a lull,” Maurice said after Saturday’s game. Poolman played again on Monday and registered 19:13 of ice time.
The issue here is where he’d fit into the pro lineup. The top six spots are already spoken for between Dustin Byfuglien, Jacob Trouba, Tobias Enstrom, Josh Morrissey, Dmitry Kulikov and Tyler Myers. The only potential opening would be for the seventh spot, which currently belongs to Ben Chiarot. But does it make more sense for Poolman to be a depth player watching from the press box, or gaining pro experience with big minutes in the AHL?
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS: IS CALLE ROSEN THE SIXTH DEFENCEMAN?
When camp was opening, Leafs draft pick Travis Dermott appeared to be the favourite to earn the last open spot on Toronto’s blue line, but another defenceman has made the decision less clear.
Calle Rosen was one of two undrafted Swedes (Andreas Borgman being the other) Toronto signed as UFAs to play in North America this season. Rosen’s pre-season hasn’t been flawless, but he’s turned a lot of heads to the point where it appears he now has the inside track for the sixth spot.
Like Dermott, Rosen is a left-shot defenceman, so it fills a shot the Leafs need and maintains a balance. Rosen isn’t a scorer — Dermott probably has the bigger upside there — but that’s not necessarily needed on this Leafs team. Rosen is proving to be the most reliable defender of those vying for the last spot in training camp.
VANCOUVER CANUCKS: WILL BROCK BOESER OR JAKE VIRTANEN MAKE A CROWDED ROSTER?
With a roster full of veterans, most of whom were signed as free agents, there isn’t much room for youngsters on this rebuilding team yet. But two first-rounders in particular are trying to force their way in: one in a top-six role, the other as a depth grinder.
Let’s start with Boeser, who would be a Calder Trophy candidate if he made the team. He would best fit on one of the top two lines, or else go to the AHL to fill that role, so if he stays in the NHL there, he’d be playing with either Bo Horvat, or the Sedins. That’s prime real estate.
He’s been making a strong case, too, sharing the league lead in pre-season scoring with six points in three games, four of which have been goals. This follows a four-goals-in-nine-games cup of coffee at the end of last season, so he’s been consistently productive in the very brief exposure he’s had to NHL competition.
If Virtanen sticks with the team, though, he’d be a better fit for the bottom six and probably even a fourth-line spot. The sixth-overall pick in 2014 went backwards in his development last season, spending the year in the AHL after playing 55 NHL games in 2015-16.
Drafted as a goal-scorer, if he makes the team now it might instead be as a tough checker with scoring upside that may never be achieved. It’s a transition his coach Travis Green will know a thing or two about as well: Green was picked 23rd overall after a 51-goal WHL season, but made an NHL career out of being a checker who, for the most part, was around the 35-to-45-point range.
“You gotta have the mindset if you’re not scoring goals… you gotta be a game changer somehow,” Virtanen said prior to training camp. “Whether it’s getting on the forecheck, making hits, creating space for your teammates… you just gotta go out there, be good defensively too, you gotta be good at both ends of the ice.”
OTTAWA SENATORS: WHO WILL EARN THE OPEN SPOT AT CENTRE?
With Derick Brassard still recovering from a shoulder injury, there is an available spot for at least the beginning of the season. Colin White was the favourite to nab that spot until he broke his hand blocking a shot in a pre-season game.
So who is the favourite to step in now?
How about 6-foot-6 Logan Brown, whom Ottawa drafted 11th overall in 2016. Brown struggled with injury problems of his own that limited him to just 35 games last season, but he’s been turning a lot of heads during Ottawa’s camp. Brown leads the team with five points in three games and is second with six shots on goal.
“Compared to last year, we know Logan he has a high-end NHL mind,” head coach Guy Boucher told Bruce Garrioch of the Ottawa Citizen. “We knew that, and that’s why he was drafted (high). We’re talking about a real high-end vision and quickness to see what he’s got to do to make plays.
“For a bigger guy to be able to make these plays in a small and confined environment it’s pretty impressive. Last year, he was definitely lacking the pace, the speed and the stamina, which he drastically improved over the span of this year. Now, he’s improved it so much he’s improving every game.”
It may still be better for Brown to end up back in the OHL when Brassard returns, where he can hopefully play a full healthy season and return to camp next year even better prepared. But he still has a chance to earn this available spot with a strong finish at camp and end up getting real NHL minutes at least a year or two earlier than anticipated.