After an impressive first game, an Oilers roster spot is Sutter’s to lose

Winnipeg Jets' Dominic Toninato (21) and Edmonton Oilers' Brandon Sutter (20) battle for the puck during third period NHL preseason action in Edmonton on Sunday September 24, 2023. (Jason Franson/CP)

EDMONTON — It’s pre-season game No. 1, a time when the veterans are supposed to be the ones to settle down the rookies. 

But on this night, 34-year-old Brandon Sutter felt as nervous as 18-year-old Beau Akey, as the two warmed up for what would be a 2-1 Oilers shootout loss to the Winnipeg Jets

“I’ve never been jittery for a pre-season game before,” said Sutter, who was playing his first NHL game in two years after battling Long COVID through the past two NHL seasons. “It just felt good to be out there. My kids were here and they haven’t seen me play in three years. They’re little, so they don’t remember anything. So, it was kind of a special night for me.” 

Akey, meanwhile, pulled on an NHL jersey for the first time. The Oilers top pick in the most recent NHL draft — 56th overall in Round 2 — wore jersey No. 82 and played 17:26 on the Edmonton blue-line. 

He’s still 770 games behind Sutter, but how’s that saying go? Even a journey of 10,000 miles starts with but a single step. 

“Honestly, the first time stepping into that atmosphere, warmups were pretty cool,” Akey gushed post-game. “You really realize when we’re standing in that rink how big it is, and how big it actually feels. So, just a pretty cool experience.” 

Sutter played 14 minutes on Sunday and had five shots on goal, second only on the Oilers to Zach Hyman’s six. Hyman scored Edmonton’s only goal, banging home a rebound on the power play, while Olivier Rodrigue stopped 26 shots and went the distance. 

In reality, just getting to the finish line on Sunday night was an accomplishment after all Sutter has been through. Now, he can settle into trying to claim the fourth-line centre spot that is his for the taking — if he stays healthy and continues to find the game he’s played in the NHL since Akey was about three years old. 

When’s the last time he tried out for a team? When he didn’t have a predetermined spot in the lineup? 

“Midgets? No, World Juniors, I guess, would be the last time. Yeah, it’s different for sure,” said Sutter. “It takes three or four games to feel like you’re up to par — especially when it’s been a while.” 

Oilers head coach Jay Woodcroft will give Sutter some runway here. 

“We should expect him to play three of the first five exhibition games — and he won’t be playing (Monday in Winnipeg),” Woodcroft said. “But he’s somebody that I thought … was very good tonight.” 

So was the veteran Mattias Janmark, who stood out on the wing with Sutter and Dylan Holloway. We can see Sutter and Janmark as a duo throughout the season, with Derek Ryan or Holloway filling out the line. 

And, of course, we can see Akey back in Barrie of the OHL, for his 18-/19-year-old season with the Colts. 

“Realistically, Beau Akey knows that he’s not playing for the Edmonton Oilers in the middle of October here,” Woodcroft said. “What he wants to do is come in and leave an impression on the management group, an impression on the coaches and an impression on the people that matter the most for someone like him: the players on the NHL hockey team.” 

It sounded like the impression was left on young Akey, who was thrilled to have played his first game at Rogers Place for his new pro team. 

“I’m standing in Oilers dressing room right now, thankful enough that the coaches played me and all these guys have been so kind to me in welcoming me into this team,” Akey said, planted in front of his dressing room stall, complete with a name plate he’ll likely ask to have as a keepsake. “You go from junior, and then you’re going against NHL players — real NHL players — and it’s definitely a change of pace. You’re thinking, ‘I’ve got to be good this shift because I’m going to against those guys.’” 

Edmonton flies to Winnipeg for the return match Monday night. 

• Expect to see Edmonton Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl in action Wednesday night at home against the Canucks, with the two pre-season openers out of the way. Edmonton will make some midweek cuts, bring a large roster to Calgary for Friday’s game, and send some kids home from there. 

The remaining roster will travel to Vancouver for a Saturday night game that will be televised on Sportsnet. They’ll do some team building on Sunday, and play in Seattle Monday night before closing out with two pre-season games at home. 

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.