Edmonton Oilers

Edmonton Oilers 2023–24 preseason notebook

Just like that, the Edmonton Oilers have finished their preseason. A 5–2–1 record has them looking like they’re picking up where they left off and will be in strong contention for the Stanley Cup and an easy favourite to lead the Pacific. Here are more notes from the preseason.

On Connor Brown

It’s gone about as well as possible for Connor Brown during his first preseason as an Oiler. Not only does he look fully recovered from the knee injury that held him out of virtually the entire 2022–23 season, but Brown has shown great chemistry on a line with Connor McDavid and Evander Kane.

Although Brown does have some strong seasons of production throughout his career, in a vacuum his offensive upside does leave a bit to be desired from a top line winger. Of course, McDavid is uniquely qualified to support Brown in this venture, and to project new career highs for Brown might not even be considered bold. Brown does provide his new linemates with some defensive ability, giving the trio all the makings of a symbiotic relationship.

Holloway looks fast

Dylan Holloway essentially forced his way into the opening night roster last season after an incredible training camp. While the fanfare this time around is diminished, Holloway might be better prepared to have a more consistent impact on the lineup than he was able to manage last season. Holloway does seem to be a bit stronger and a bit faster this season, or at least more decisive and comfortable.

It is encouraging to see more of a dynamic quality to Holloway’s game as a power forward, and this is likely how Holloway will be at his most effective in the NHL. While there are puck skills present, Holloway should rely on simple, direct plays, such as taking the puck to the net or getting in on the forecheck, to open up potential perimeter plays and passing lanes.

Holloway does seem destined for a role in the wing, but he has yet to be featured with other forwards expected to be in the Oilers’ top-nine. While it would be interesting to see how Holloway looks in the top-six, the more likely and more measured hope might be a spot on the third line, centred by Ryan McLeod. Warren Foegele has been fantastic on McLeod’s wing, and though Derek Ryan has been solid alongside, Holloway would appear to have a bit more upside.

For now, Holloway seems to be destined to start the season on the Oilers’ fourth line, though his effect on the game would appear to have increased since last season. It might not be long until Holloway starts pushing his way further up the Oilers lineup.

Bourgault looking strong

Xavier Bourgault is going into his second professional season and will start the season in a featured role with the Bakersfield Condors, the Oilers AHL affiliate. While it would be aggressive to think that he could have earned a spot on the Oilers opening night roster, Bourgault has shown lots of positive signs early through the preseason.

Bourgault has looked quite strong as a defensive presence, especially as a transition defender in the neutral zone. What’s more, is that Bourgault was able to show off another hallmark of his game—an accurate one-timer from the inner slot. While Bourgault does have some shooting talent, this might speak more to his ability to find quiet ice in the slot, or in a broader sense, reading the play.

Bourgault still has some things left to prove in the AHL this season, including becoming an all situations top line player for the Condors. Some fans might be disappointed by Bourgault not making the team, but the reality is that his game is trending in the right direction. As much as it was very likely that Bourgault would be starting this season in the AHL, it might well be the last time that such is the case. With a strong first half to his sophomore AHL season, Bourgault’s strong training camp definitely helped his chances at a promotion in the long term.

Lavoie producing

While the preseason has not been over the top outstanding from Raphael Lavoie, he has been able to produce fairly consistently. His spot on the Oilers roster is one of the biggest uncertainties of the preseason, and after a long summer of speculation, we have little indication of which direction this will go.

Towards the end of the preseason schedule, Lavoie has shared the fourth line with Dylan Holloway, a strong enough sign that Lavoie is under serious consideration to start with the team. The two provide a lot of size, speed, skill, and ultimately upside for a fourth line, though they might require a sort of defensive chaperone.

With a plethora of physical talents, the biggest questions surrounding Lavoie are regarding consistency and reliability. At times, Lavoie’s motor can be questioned, and it is unlikely that Lavoie will provide much from a defensive standpoint. Still, the upside is certainly there, as Lavoie would provide a lot of offence in a bottom-six role, making the fourth line especially dangerous when McDavid or Draisaitl double shift with them.

Lavoie might be sent down to the AHL once again, a result that would be disappointing but not shocking. Waiver claims are fairly uncommon, but based on his size, talent, draft pedigree, and general profile Lavoie might be the most likely candidate to be claimed by another team of those on the Oilers roster bubble.

Campbell reforged?

Among the biggest storylines from camp is the strong play of goalie Jack Campbell. After a rough first season as an Oiler, this is excellent news, not only because of the inherent importance of goaltending but also because of the sizable investment of cap space from the Oilers.

Though last season might have ended on a positive note—as Campbell might have played his best hockey of the season in the playoffs during a string of relief appearances—Campbell is a better player than he showed last season. Campbell has had his share of ups and downs throughout his career, which might inspire some confidence that his form will return.

If there is any lesson the Oilers should take from their goaltending situation last season is that they should not be shy to ride the hot hand. While neither Campbell nor Stuart Skinner is thought of as a true number one goalie (at least for now), a healthy timeshare as a tandem and a strong defensive team in front of them both might be better placed to provide their best quality of play.

Blueline depth

While the preseason injury absence of Mattie Ekholm allowed for some new looks at the top of the Oilers’ defensive depth chart, the more compelling developments over training camp come from lower in the lineup. After a fairly rock-solid top four of Ekholm, Darnell Nurse, Evan Bouchard, and Cody Ceci, as well as third pairing staple Brett Kulak, the Oilers have a number of options to decide from in finalising their opening night lineup.

Philip Broberg certainly has the potential to develop into a legitimate top-four defenceman, but it is a level of quality he has yet to achieve consistently. This was evidenced by some less-than-stellar outings, especially early in the preseason schedule, but Broberg managed some stronger performances as well. Despite being a left shot the Oilers have and continue to show no qualms in using Broberg on the right side, and at this point, he might well have won the third pairing right side spot to start the season, or would at least seem to have a strong case.

Vincent Desharnais is coming off a surprise breakout season, but a lacklustre preseason performance might have his spot in jeopardy. Desharnais is a right shot, which helps his cause. At 27 years old, Desharnais is quite old for a sophomore—an outlier of sorts—which might make projecting growth in his game difficult. It’s not impossible that Desharnais is able to keep growing his effectiveness, though the opposite might be the case just as well.

Ben Gleason was likely the standout performance of the preseason as far as Oilers depth defenders go. A steady AHL contributor for some time, Gleason joined the Oilers this summer and has already started to push his way up the depth chart, perhaps enough for NHL consideration outright. The 25-year-old left shot has a fairly well-rounded skill set, and played within his means, responsible, direct, and functional. He certainly outperformed Desharnais this preseason, but Desharnais might have built up enough goodwill to hold onto his spot.

Markus Niemelainen and Phillip Kemp played well this preseason, but likely not well enough to have pushed up the depth chart much. Still, in adverse conditions, the Oilers might have to rely on one or both over the course of the season.

The blueline shuffle?

After the trade to acquire Mattias Ekholm last season, the Oilers’ defensive game continued its upward trend. It seemed that in Ekholm the Oilers found a true shutdown defenceman and an ideal partner for Evan Bouchard just as he earned top four minutes. This lightened the load on the pairing of Darnell Nurse and Cody Ceci, and gave the Oilers a rock solid top-four defencemen.

From that strength, the trio of Brett Kulak, Vincent Desharnais, and Philip Broberg were left to handle roles on the third pair. Kulak, for his part, seems a stable benchmark for the role, and inspires little doubt in such. Desharnais was an older rookie, but fitting of the archetypal tall defensive defenceman, excelling at in-zone defensive play. Broberg, a highly touted prospect caught in an awkward combination of development and opportunity, is perhaps not yet ready for a true regular spot on a contending team.

While having what seemed a fairly strong recipe given the ingredients, the injury absence of Ekholm early into camp offers the chance to experiment as a silver lining. Is change afoot on the Oilers blueline? Naturally, injuries will force changes throughout the season, and the Oilers could always return to the more tested pairings of the past, but it is worth considering what options might be available to the Oilers if they commit to a new direction.

Early on we have seen Nurse and Bouchard paired together. Despite their overall quality as individuals, early results would suggest that theories about their combined defensive contributions being a bit suspect are not unfounded. As a pairing, Nurse and Bouchard would likely yield high-event hockey and the Oilers’ mission of becoming unified in defensive focus might be tested. Perhaps this is a challenge to both to give a bit more to the defensive side of play, as neither is partnered with the defensive presence we are accustomed to seeing them with.

A Nurse and Bouchard pairing does offer the benefit of pairing Ekholm with another partner. As a left shot, the two obvious options to pair with Ekholm might be either Cody Ceci or Vincent Desharnais. In theory, this pairing would have to play top minutes, though unquestionably they would bring a constraining style to the Nurse/Bouchard pairing, and in turn, would have to be trusted with top defensive assignments.

The more experimental option comes in the form of pairing Ekholm with Broberg. Though he is a left-shot, the Oilers have shown a willingness to play Broberg on the right side, which would likely be the case here. While this would hardly be ideal, a contending team placing the relatively unproven Broberg in such a key spot, it’s also true that this would be a fantastic opportunity for Broberg’s development.

A mitigating factor here might be that Kulak and Ceci will likely be strong enough to handle more responsibility than a typical third pair, and could handle tough defensive assignments. Such an alignment would give the Oilers three interesting pairings, all relatively strong as the wealth of talent is spread. Still, Broberg pairing with Ceci or Desharnais on the third pair, on his strong side no less, might be a more reasonable proposition.

From the coach

While fans, writers, and everyone in between can focus on certain elements or storylines, the opinions that matter most come from within the organization. To this, Coach Jay Woodcroft offered his view on the Oilers performance in training camp and the preseason, both explicitly and implicitly.

Woodcroft stated outright that the story of preseason was the Oilers unified sense of focus. Each season is a chance to reforge your team identity, and the coach knows that even though the Oilers still have a lot to prove, they are in the right headspace to give it their best shot. The team has been skating together since the captain’s skates in early September.

Time for real hockey

The Oilers kick off the regular season on the road next Wednesday against the Vancouver Canucks. Tune in at 8 p.m. MDT and let’s get this season started!

Photo by Curtis Comeau/Icon Sportswire

Gregory Babinski

twitter: @axiomsofice

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