Oilers Training Camp Preview: Will Keith's experience help push team forward?

Duncan Keith. (Kamil Krzaczynski/AP)

EDMONTON — “The time is now,” general manager Ken Holland told us last week.

“The time is now,” Connor McDavid echoed a few days later, unprompted.

OK then, so be it.

“Now,” begins Wednesday, when the Edmonton Oilers gather for training camp 2022, a camp that is supposed to precede a season that will launch this team from also-ran to serious contender.

They’ve had their regular season success and their playoff foibles. They’ve muddled through Peter Chiarelli’s cap jail and into a 2021 offseason where Holland was able to sign Zach Hyman, Tyson Barrie, Derek Ryan and Cody Ceci.

They’ll break in Evan Bouchard this season, a high-pedigree defenceman for whom the sky is the limit. And they’ll debut three-time Stanley Cup champion Duncan Keith, whose experience may just arrive at the perfect moment for a roster that might just be good enough to put it to some use.

There are warts here, the goaltending top among them. But it’s not difficult to assess that Holland has improved his team year over year, and if he gets some internal growth from a Jesse Puljujarvi, a Kailer Yamamoto, or perhaps a Ryan McLeod, they could be a lot better.

Here’s a look at some questions we’ll ask as training camp opens, and what we’ll be watching for, if it is indeed “the time is now.”

Current salary cap space: $0.00

GM: Ken Holland

Head coach: Dave Tippett

Assistant coaches: Jim Playfair, Glen Gulutzan, Brian Wiseman

Unsigned players: None.

Can Keith make Edmonton better?

There are plenty of unflattering numbers that stuck to Keith as he left Chicago, as the 38-year-old played 23:25 per night in Chicago, leading a Blackhawks team in ice time as they stumbled to a sixth-place finish in their division last season. The Blackhawks absolutely bled scoring chances — they allowed the second-most in the NHL last season behind Vancouver — had average goaltending, and Keith played with a collection of youngsters named Ian Mitchell, Connor Murphy and Adam Boquist.

Did Keith drag down the performance of those rookies? That’s one take on it.

We would say that in any pairing of Keith playing top pairing minutes with any of the aforementioned young blue-liners, only one player in that group has ever been able to call himself a legit top pairing D-man. That is Keith.

In Edmonton, Keith will play second-pairing minutes on a much better team, likely with veteran right-shot Cody Ceci. He’ll kill penalties but see minimal powerplay time. As such, his minutes and the competition he’ll face will be more suitable for a 38-year-old.

At camp, we’ll be watching for his ability to hit forwards with accurate breakout passes, and we’ll want to see the state of what was once a world-class ability to skate the puck out of the defensive zone and be a factor in trailing plays off the rush.

Can Duncan Keith be a positive driver on Edmonton’s back end? That’s what Ken Holland thinks, and what a skeptical portion of the fan base doubts will happen. We’ll be watching.

When does the chemistry between Hyman and McDavid begin?

When your top two centres are Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, it’s not much of a fall for a winger to be demoted from Line 1 to Line 2. But let’s face it: Holland didn’t sign Auston Matthews’ left winger to a seven-year, $38.5 million deal to have him play with anyone other than McDavid.

Hyman gives Edmonton its fifth legit top-six forward (we’re counting Puljujarvi as one), and an element that the Oilers have lacked among their top forwards. We’ll be watching for Hyman’s net-crashing ability, his hands in tight around the goal, and how he keeps up with McDavid off the rush.

Will Hyman assume the down-low role on the powerplay that was previously the property of Alex Chiasson and James Neal? Does he truly have that innate ability to play next to a superstar? Or was he just compatible with Matthews?

Hyman is a big, long-term piece that has to work in Edmonton. Because at that kind of money, if you can’t produce next to the world’s greatest player, then no one else will take a chance that Hyman could be productive with their guy.

Is Zack Kassian ever going to be 2017 Zack Kassian again?

Remember Kassian in that 2017 playoff run? Skating, hitting, sniping, fighting?

He was Edmonton’s emotional sparkplug in their two-round playoff journey, but that Zack Kassian has never been seen again. Now, he is entering Year 2 of a three-year contract with a pre-pandemic AAV of $3.2 million. A pair of injuries left him well back from justifying that number in Year 1 last season.

What makes Kassian so valuable/unique is the combination of his footspeed, his toughness, and his ability to be the net-crasher on one of your top two lines. Right wing in Edmonton is the weakest forward position, meaning a renaissance Kassian could push Puljujarvi and Yamamoto for time next to one of the big centres.

A good Kassian makes Edmonton a more dangerous team — no question about it. Another sleepy season means we’ll be wondering about a buy out in the summer of 2022.

Will the real Zack Kassian please stand up? Let’s see.

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