Oilers' Kassian must be productive, physical to reclaim spot on McDavid line

As the Edmonton Oilers begin training camp, Sportsnet's Gene Principe takes a look at how the team is approaching the start of the season after their abrupt ending last year.

EDMONTON — Zack Kassian showed up in his old spot on Connor McDavid’s right wing at the first true practice of the Edmonton Oilers training camp on Monday. Hey, who wouldn’t want to play there?

“If there are 700 players in the NHL, I guess whoever gets slotted on his right side is going to be happy about it. He’s the best player in the world,” Kassian said. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins played the left side on what would be the Oilers No. 1 unit.

The bruising Kassian had some success in that spot in the past, but he was uncharacteristically quiet in the four-game qualifying round ouster by Chicago. He’ll get a chance to reclaim his spot, but Kassian knows there has to be more happening in his game if he is to stay up with McDavid.

“For me to stay there and be productive, I’ve got to be physical, I’ve got to be skating,” he said. “But I’ve got to play between the lines and I’ve got to make plays. It’s that simple: playing with him you’ve got to get him the puck at the right times, and do your part to make sure we’re clicking not only as a line but as a team.”

Kassian is the kind of player whose game can be heard. Either he’s hitting people, being hit, yelling at someone or being chirped at himself. All in all, quiet isn’t a good thing for Kassian.

So the theory would be that playing the Canadian teams nine or 10 times each should work in his favour, right? The more times he plays against Matthew Tkachuk, the more times you can be guaranteed that Kassian will be uber-engaged.

Is that how he sees it?

“It’s the media’s job to portray, and get a build-up going,” he said. “All the Canadian teams will be fun. Calgary, there is obviously tension between the two teams. But a 56-game season against all Canadian teams, every game is going to have its unique little twists. It’s all going to be high intensity. Every game’s going to be fun; every game is going to mean something.

“You can pinpoint Calgary, but there are a lot of good Canadian teams.”

Day 2 lines

Here are you lines and defensive pairings from Day 2 of camp. Listed as “unfit to play” were forwards Dominik Kahun, James Neal, Gaetan Haas and Devin Shore.

Nugent-Hopkins -- McDavid -- Kassian
Ennis -- Draisaitl -- Yamamoto
Archibald -- Turris -- Puljujarvi
Nygard -- Khaira -- Chiasson
Benson -- McLeod -- P. Russell
Quine -- Marody -- Cracknell

Nurse -- Bear
K. Russell -- Barrie
Jones -- Larsson
Koekkoek -- Bouchard
Lagesson -- Lennstrom
Niemelainen -- Stanton

Not a Khaira The World?

Jujhar Khaira is the opposite of Kassian, in that he was that rare Oilers player who played some of his best hockey against Chicago. The line of Khaira (six-foot-four) between Neal (six-foot-three) and Alex Chiasson (six-foot-three) was hard and effective, and gave head coach Dave Tippett hope of returning a heavy, grinding line with two wingers who can score.

But that series was so short, and August was such a long time ago. Can Khaira really carry anything over from then ‘til now?

“It’s definitely possible,” said the 26-year-old Surrey, B.C., native. “It’s a mental game at that point. Being confident, and trusting the game that I play and coming back to it. For me, that’s going to be what I’ll have to do in the early scrimmages here. Getting back to that mentality right away.”

Inconsistency — Khaira has been awesome, and he has been invisible. What he needs is to spend more time just being good.

“He’s a big man who has to play with that strength,” said head coach Dave Tippett, who liked Khaira’s work on the penalty kill last season. “Just trying to find some extra minutes where he can contribute more five-on-five. He’s got to find ways to contribute.”

Khaira was part of an Oilers bottom six that got caved in at five-on-five last season. He knows there’s a job here for him, but he also knows the Oilers are deeper at forward — especially bottom six guys — this season.

“At every training camp there are guys looking to take jobs, and guys looking to keep jobs,” he said. “For myself, I want to continue where I was at in the bubble — I thought I played well. If I can play like that on a consistent basis that’s going to be huge for me.”

Pulju Party

Monday’s workout was Jesse Puljujarvi’s first NHL practice since February of 2018. It was also the first time Tippett has been on the ice with the wayward Finn, who returns to Edmonton after a season in Oulu and the Finnish Liiga.

Tippett’s first impression?

“He’s a monster of a man. He’s a big man,” marvelled Tippett, of the six-foot-four, 201 pound right winger. “I love that he’s (always) smiling — he looks like he loves to play. And highly skilled for a big man.”

No Oiler has had more publicity without having played a game last season, which of course was Tippett’s first in Edmonton. Then the captain’s skates started prior to camp, and Tippett heard even more.

“There were a lot of comments how good Jesse looks on the ice,” Tippett said. “He’s engaging with his teammates, which is a good first step. He was a good player out there today. Hopefully I can get to know him. He looked pretty good for the first day.”

Day games gone

The NHL released the start times for the 2020-21 season on Monday, and the one glaring omission for the Oilers is that they will not play a single afternoon game all season long.

That is music to the ears of Oilers fans, who have watched their team lose 1 p.m. ET starts in Boston, Washington, Philadelphia and other Eastern cities since the inception of the Oilers franchise. Overall, the Oilers were 78-107-12-11 (.430) in afternoon games heading into last season, with just less than one quarter of those games being played in Edmonton.

But last season they went 6-1-1 in games played at 2 p.m. local or prior. So the Oilers finally figure out how to play day games, and the day games disappear. It figures.

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