EDMONTON — As training camp grinds to a close, you begin to see what head coach Jay Woodcroft was thinking all along. The answers he’s looking for, after five games you can see what they are — and if this roster can provide the solutions he seeks.
The general manager has stated emphatically that young Dylan Holloway won’t stay in Edmonton as a fourth-line player getting 10 minutes a night. That is both fair and wise.
Woodcroft, we can see, is going to start his season with a third line of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins between Ryan McLeod and Warren Foegele. He’s had them together all pre-season, and they’re slowly finding some groove. There is some promise there of a decent third unit.
From there, let us deduce.
Nobody is saying that it is top-six or bust for Holloway, but that’s exactly what it is for the 21-year-old. He is officially in a dog fight with Jesse Puljujarvi and Kailer Yamamoto for two winger spots on Line 1 or 2.
And Yamamoto isn’t going anywhere, we will predict. Which leaves Holloway and Puljujarvi in a battle for the Opening Night lineup, or quite possibly a spot in the press box as the 21st man.
Well, advantage Holloway.
“Look at our forwards,” began Zach Hyman, who skated on a line with Holloway and Leon Draisaitl in Monday’s 7-2 win over Vancouver. “They’re so deep, and it’s hard to make this team. He’s doing everything possible to not allow the coaches to say no.”
Holloway had a hat trick and four points Monday, a statement game from a kid who — like Puljujarvi — has all the physical tools. But Holloway’s toolbox contains one extra piece of hardware, and Draisaitl spotted it in just one game as his centreman.
“In these games, real games, you see a guy’s hockey sense. The way he reads the play, right?” said Draisaitl. “That’s what is important. It seems to be there.”
Holloway has been Edmonton’s best skater in three of his four pres-eason outings, and on an entry-level deal with an AAV of $925,000 he’s that young, cheap player who would be a major bonus if he became a legit contributor this soon in his pro career.
“Kind of one of those nights where everything seems to go right,” the shy, Bragg Creek, Alta., native said post-game. “I saw that I was playing with Leon and Hymes, so obviously I was pretty excited. And my adrenaline was going there right from the start. So yeah, super excited all day and just felt good.”
SO who is Dylan Holloway, and how does he play?
He’s “Straight Ahead Fred.” A winger with champagne and caviar skills who plays a meat and potatoes game.
And fast? Holloway is lightning, an above average NHL skater at age 21. He’s Hyman-like, working to free pucks and win battles. And unlike his primary competitor, plays don’t die on his stick the way they have been with Puljujarvi.
On Monday, Holloway’s three goals came on a deflection and a couple of wrist shots from inside 15 feet. He looks like a guy who will score the kind of goals that don’t fill up the highlight shows, but win you games just the same.
And when the playoffs arrive, and the Play of the Week goals are few and far between, guys who score the way Holloway does are golden. Because those goals will always be there.
What does Hyman like about him?
“I mean, everything…” began the veteran left-winger, who will scooch over to the right side to accommodate Holloway, if that is what is asked of him. “He’s driven. He’s determined. He’s a guy who was drafted early, but aside from skill, he works like he wants to get the puck back — I think that’s what makes him the most effective.
“And then, obviously, he has elite speed, skill, poise…. He’s just a kid who’s really driven and wants to make a team that’s hard to make.”
The Oilers flew out Monday night to the lower mainland, where a day of sturgeon fishing awaits on Tuesday. Then it’s a game against a much better Canucks lineup on Wednesday, and the pre-season finale Friday at home to Seattle.
Right now, Holloway stands ahead of Puljujarvi. Is the 24-year-old Finn up to the challenge? Can he dominate a game the way Holloway has this far?
That’s exactly what everyone in this Oilers organization will be looking for in these final two games.
“It’s about answering some questions,” said Woodcroft. “We expect two pretty good lineups in the last two games of the pre-season. And you balance everything, in terms of answering the questions you want answered.
“But at the same time, you’ve got to make sure you get your team ready for when the regular season begins next week.”
If Holloway is on Draisaitl’s left side come Friday night against Seattle, he’ll be there on Opening Night versus the Canucks.
It’s up to him to take his job back.