All eyes on McDavid as Edmonton Oilers open season full of hope
Focus not on playoffs but on building a foundation, coach Todd McLellan says
The only negative for the hometown fans of the Edmonton Oilers is that their new era, the one built around 18-year-old rookie Connor McDavid, will begin on the road.
McDavid, the No. 1 overall pick and the latest youngster thought to be the next Gretzky, will join his teammates in St. Louis for Thursday's season opener — the most anticipated in many years for the long-suffering Oilers.
"I'm just worried about each and every day here, trying to get better and prove to the coaching staff and management team what I'm all about and making sure I'm earning their trust," McDavid said during camp.
The 6-foot-1, 190-pound McDavid doesn't have to do anything by himself, of course. Edmonton has piled up talent for years, it's just that the poor results and coaching changes and constant setbacks have taken their toll. The Oilers haven't reached the playoffs in nine years.
With McDavid have come changes. Former Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson was made head of hockey and business operations, and he hired a general manager in Peter Chiarelli who had built the Boston Bruins into a Stanley Cup winner. Chiarelli hired ex-San Jose coach Todd McLellan and overhauled the rest of the coaching staff.
McDavid has been paired in the preseason with Taylor Hall on left wing and either Leon Draisaitl or Teddy Purcell on the right. The other top line is expected to be Ryan Nugent-Hopkins with the currently injured Jordan Eberle and Benoit Pouliot.
Goaltender Cam Talbot, brought over from the New York Rangers after starring there when Henrik Lundqvist went down, is expected to be the starter.
"We're not going to talk about playoffs here," McLellan said, according to Canadian Press. "We're going to talk about foundation."
5 things to watch
With that in mind, some other things to watch in Edmonton:
LOWERED EXPECTATIONS: Asked about McDavid, Chiarelli looked to former No. 1 pick John Tavares and recalled a rookie point production in the mid 50s. He predicted 20 goals and 40 points for McDavid this season. "He could have a real great year but it's a tough league. It's a tough league when you're 18 years old," he said.
PUMP THE BRAKES: In recent years, the Oilers have been renowned for their aggressiveness in adding first-year players to the roster. With the notable exception of McDavid, that's not going to be the case anymore.
"My default instinct is to have kids play in the minors," Chiarelli said when asked if he felt Leon Draisaitl, the third overall pick in the 2014 draft, needed to make the Oilers out of training camp. "I look at it case by case."
PUMP THE BRAKES, PART II: The immediate reaction after Edmonton traded the 16th pick in the draft to the New York Islanders for Griffin Reinhart was that the Oilers may have added a young defenceman who could start for them. And perhaps they have. In time.
"We have a lot of defencemen contractually, so we'll see what happens," Chiarelli said.
DEFENSIVE DEPTH: This group is improving after some awful years. Eric Gryba adds depth. Griffin Reinhart and Darnell Nurse are in the pipeline. Then there is Andrej Sekera, who was signed to a six-year, $33 million offer. "He's a very smart player, strong player," Chiarelli said. "He can log a lot of minutes. He can defend. He can play your power play, very versatile."
CAM THE MAN: Chiarelli admitted "the sample size was small" when the subject of Cam Talbot came up. In 57 games with the New York Rangers spanning the last two seasons, Talbot compiled a 33-15-5 record with .931 save percentage and 2.00 goals-against average while backing up Henrik Lundqvist.
"I thought he was resilient," Chiarelli said. "I thought he played well, and really didn't panic in his play; didn't overextend himself."
More than just Talbot's technical play, the way the goaltender was able to accept and absorb outside expectations drew notice from Chiarelli. "Major market. Major market media. Same applies here in a sense. It's a major hockey market and the media is large and focused on the hockey team."