Edmonton Oilers rookies offer anxious fans their first real hockey fix in months
Who will still be here when the season opens in early October? Let the guessing begin
The kids had their medicals and fitness tests on Thursday, then stepped into the media spotlight to tell everyone what they did on their summer holidays to prepare for what they hope is the next step on the road to the NHL.
After countless hours on the ice and untold grunts and groans in weight rooms, about two dozen young players came to Edmonton from all over the world to see if they have what it takes to play on the sport's biggest stage.
Some of the names and a few of the faces will be familiar to a rabid fan base looking forward to a new season while still smarting from last year's major letdown.
- Edmonton Oilers launch 40th anniversary 'retro' jersey, announce free fan event
- Favourites to fiasco: Why the season left the rails for the Edmonton Oilers
Evan Bouchard, the 10th overall pick at the NHL Entry Draft in June, is here to see if he's ready, at age 18, to step into a gaping hole created when veteran defenceman Andrej Sekera tore his Achilles tendon during off-season training, his second major injury in the past two seasons.
Winger Kailer Yamamoto, last year's first-round draft pick, is here to see how much he has progressed after spending nine games in the NHL last fall before finishing his final season of junior hockey with the Spokane Chiefs of the WHL.
Defenceman Ethan Bear, who made his NHL debut on March 1 and played the final 18 games of the 2017-18 season with the big team, is here to see if has what it takes earn a full-time spot.
Let the guessing games begin
Will any of them still be here when the season opens in early October?
Well, that's the fun part. Because no one knows.
Bouchard spent part of this summer at the World Junior Summer Showcase in Kamloops, B.C. That extra competition, he said, helped him prepare for rookie camp and the full-fledged training camp to follow.
It's an Evel Knievel-like jump for a defenceman to go straight from junior hockey to the NHL.
"I've been training to make that jump all summer," Bouchard said, when asked if he thought he was ready.
Asked about that leap, he said some of skills can be honed over the summer or in the coming training camp.
"I think you learn a lot of them here," he said. "Whether it's working on quick feet, working on gap control. Of course, there's stuff in games that happen that you can't learn during practice."
The rookies will spend Friday and Saturday on the ice before travelling to Calgary to play the Flames rookies on Sunday. More practice comes next week, followed by a game against MacEwan University and NAIT players, then a rematch against Calgary in Red Deer on Wednesday.
Bear said he worked hard over the summer and learned a lot from his 18-game stint last spring.
"It showed me how hard I had to work," he said, "and what I had to improve on, strength-wise and conditioning-wise."
He spent six weeks with Oilers' skating coach David Pelletier, the former Olympic figure-skating champion, and also worked to better his gap-control and adjust to the faster NHL game.
"I wouldn't consider that I'm an NHL player yet," said Bear, who scored his first NHL goal March 25 against the Anaheim Ducks. "I've still got a lot of work to do."
'Younger and younger'
Scott Howson, the Oilers vice-president of player development, said management and coaching staff will face a lot of tough decisions over the next month.
He was asked if Yamamoto, Bouchard or Bear will be NHL-ready this year.
"This league is trending younger and younger," he said. "If a young player is ready to play, there will be room for him."
But each player, he said, will have to prove he can fill a spot and help the team over the coming days and weeks.
"With Kailer, you can see that there might be room on the wings," he said. "It's probably an area that we could use some scoring. But again, if he doesn't make it right away, it doesn't hurt him to go the America [Hockey] League for a little while either."
The wings Howson spoke of are principally on the right side of the ice, both on the top line with Connor McDavid and on the second line with Leon Draisaitl. The team struggled all last season to find players to fill those spots on something approaching a full-time basis.
Bouchard arrived in camp carrying his own expectations on top of those of the fans. He'll get his NHL-level feet wet at rookie camp and training camp, Howson said. Beyond that, the team will have to judge how best to handle the young man's development.
"You certainly don't want Evan Bouchard sitting here until Christmas, playing eight games, he said. "You want him playing somewhere if he's not playing here."
As for Bear, this is his fourth rookie camp, and he admitted he doesn't want to have to come back for a fifth. He had a tantalizing taste of the NHL this spring, Howson said.
" We all saw him have some success, and we all saw him have some trying moments. He'll have to again prove that he's ready to play and that you can sustain it. You don't want a player to come up here and play two games and then drop off. You've got to be able to sustain it. Is he ready to sustain it? He'll answer that."
Asked what he learned from McDavid and company during his nine games last fall, Yamamoto had this to say: "It's unbelievable how hard they work."
Let that stand, then, as a motto for all the rookies who hope to make their NHL dreams come true.