Edmonton Oilers have plenty of depth at the “depth winger” spot, but who will rise to the top?

Edmonton Oilers have plenty of depth at the “depth winger” spot, but who will rise to the top?

Author of the article:

Bruce McCurdy  •  Edmonton Journal

Tyler Benson
Tyler Benson

Youngsters, veterans, tweeners, reclamation projects, you name it, and the Edmonton Oilers have such a guy battling for a job as a depth winger.

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Not a lot of jobs to be had, mind, as the top nine seems set with Ryan Nugent-HopkinsZach Hyman and Warren Foegele penciled in (with a Sharpie) on the left side, Jesse Puljujarvi, Kailer Yamamoto and Zack Kassian on the right.

But the competition is fierce for spots on the fourth line, especially in the continuing absence of Josh Archibald who continues to skate on his own as both he and the team try to come to terms with his status as the lone unvaccinated NHL regular in Canada. In the short term and perhaps beyond, that opens the window of opportunity a little wider for other role players.

Two of them were featured at training camp on Friday, as veteran Kyle Turris and developing youngster Tyler Benson both spoke to local media, then received some glowing follow-up comments from coach Dave Tippett in his own avail.

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Tippett spoke of the contrast between a young guy trying to make the next step and a more experienced one battling to hang around. He also confirmed  the outstanding work both had done in off-season training, a detail each had spoken of in turn. Turris had gotten some kudos on this front over the summer, and backed that up by ranking in the “top three or four” in Wednesday’s off-ice fitness testing as per Tippett. In a similar vein Benson posted by far his best results to date in his sixth Oilers training camp, some of the priors having been hampered by lingering health issues.

On the ice Benson had a second straight good day, playing a prominent role in Team Blue’s 5-2 triumph over Team White in the first full scrimmage of camp. Once again he teamed up with his former AHL linemates Ryan McLeod and Cooper Marody, chipping in a goal and a primary assist. Scoring plays aside, he was prominent in the general flow of play with an extra jump in his step — in terms of both speed and quickness — and an elevated battle level that speaks to his determination to make the team. “This is where I belong!” he declared to the assembled media; I don’t think he meant here in his home town of Edmonton, AB so much as here in the NH freakin’ L. After three years in the minors and the end of his waiver-exempt period the time is indeed now.

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I saw Turris in both segments of Friday’s on-ice sessions at Rogers Place, as his group did the first session on the main sheet while the other half split off to the Downtown Community Arena. After the Zamboni break, the two squads — minus most of Edmonton’s top forwards –faced off in a scrimmage. Two 20-minute periods, stop time, so a substantial stretch of 5v5 action.

Turris looked good in the drills, himself drilling a couple of excellent shots that rippled the twine. He’s been keeping his feet moving, and the puck moving too. I’ve seen him as engaging in the puck battles, but not winning quite enough of them, an observation that carried right on into the scrimmage.

At the avail he addressed the challenge he faces in his customary personable manner, of how he is welcoming the switch to right wing after after a career-long gig as a pivot. Pretty much full-time near as I can tell; took his 10,000th career faceoff while wearing the Oil drop in 2021. But he spoke of the opportunities at the new position, and how his skill set might be a fit. He also spoke, cheerfully but convincingly, of the frustration he felt watching many games from the press box down the stretch of the season, especially on “all four playoff games”. That stung, he’s a proud man, he’s got a contract, and he’s primed and ready for the battle.

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Turris’ competition on the starboard side includes Benson’s linemate, the afore-mentioned Cooper Marody who showed well in the reunion of what was last year the best line in the AHL. He looked good in some combination plays but to these eyes it was Benson who was driving play. Marody is a fine offensive player and finisher one level down; best guess here is that if he wants a long look he’d best pop a goal or two in preseason, where all of these guys will get their chances. He did get one on Friday, burying a splendid Benson feed into the open side.

The other right-shot winger who is somewhere in the mix is Colton Sceviour, a contemporary of Turris (32 years old, 500 NHL GP), who played 13 minutes a night, most of it as an actual RW, for Dallas and Florida between 2014-20. He fell off in Pittsburgh last year in what at first glance appears to be a classic (end of) career curve. Thus his current status as an unsigned PTO, a late-summer invite by the Oilers in what some see as “Josh Archibald insurance”. A Dave Tippett-approved worker bee type of player, one of his specialties, penalty-killing, has not yet joined the mix of manpower situations presented at camp.

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Sceviour caught my eye on one sequence where he made a good play in the neutral zone to gain the red line and dump the puck in deep, then another to win the race to it in the corner. But it came undone quickly when he his blind backhand pass up the boards led to a jailbreak the other way. Pretty sure I heard swearing immediately thereafter. In fairness his history suggests he’s a safe player, and he’s not had much time to learn his new team’s systems nor his new teammates’ tendencies.

The other right winger in the mix is of course Archibald, who is skating on his own after being deemed behind on his training after his recent two-week quarantine. The job of 4RW is his with a bullet in the event he is available to play the full season. If he isn’t? Other vets like Turris and Sceviour are making their own cases on the ice while creating far fewer headaches off-ice.

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Back on the port side, Benson is in a multi-way battle with Devin Shore and Brendan Perlini. They are currently teamed up on a line with Turris, an interesting trio of proven but flawed NHL veterans. Shore, already a know commodity in Oil Country, is currently lining up at pivot. I frankly spent a lot more time watching his wingers so don’t have a lot to add other than this: in person he appears both bigger and faster than he does on TV, which is where I watched every stitch of NHL hockey during his season as an Oiler.

Perlini is himself a large man, listed at 6’3, 211. He’s an excellent skater for a man that size and has a powerful shot. That may explain why he keeps getting chances with NHL clubs, but not why he can’t stick with one. At 25, the Oilers are already his fourth NHL team, after a sabbatical in the Swiss A League in 2020-21 where he scored 9 goals and 7 assists but posted an eye-popping -17 in just 21 games. He does, however, have a past history of scoring in the NHL; in 239 career games he’s averaged 16 goals per 82, even after his dreadful 1-goal (half-)season in Detroit in 2019-20. Colour me skeptical, but if the team is prepared to give him a chance, I as a fan feel honour-bound to do the same. As with the others, let’s give him a few pre-season games to show his stuff, and only then rush to judgment!

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Some of the other kids in camp are having the time of their lives right now, even as there may be better days ahead. Consider Raphael Lavoie who might himself be in the mix for a spot on the wing as early as 2022, but not just yet. But he got a chance to show his primary asset in the best manner possible, when he broke in with Connor McDavid on a 2-on-1 drill, McDavid withthe puck on the right side, the right-shooting Lavoie cocking his stick on the left in the old Gretzky-to-Kurri scenario. The phenom dangled toward the net at speed, then stopped up and fed a butter pass which Lavoie lashed home. Had to be a satisfying moment for him, with dreams of more to come.

Then there’s training camp invite Simon Kubicek, an undrafted 19-year-old who is set to play with Edmonton Oil Kings this season. Kubicek, a right shot defender with a funky skating stride, got to enjoy an entire sequence in a fivesome that included McDavid, Zach HymanJesse Puljujarvi and Evan Bouchard. Not bad company. They kept the pressure on the entire time too, with Kubicek jumping around on the point playing decoy and no doubt savouring the moment.

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McDavid, Hyman and Puljujarvi were soon to be givn the rest of the day off, as were Leon DraisaitlRyan Nugent-Hopkins and Zack Kassian from Team Blue, as Tippett correctly decided that 16 forwards per side was one line too many. He later promised that in tomorrow’s simiilar scrimmage, the big boys will get their at-bats, and some of the younger ones will step aside.

No such luxury on the blueline, where injuries and absences created an all-hands-on-deck situation. On this day Tyson Barrie really stood out, moving both the puck and his feet with alacrity. On one occasion he outraced his own winger to a diagonal exit pass and flew in on a partial breakaway to seriously test Ilya Konovalov. Barrie’s mobility was in evidence both in transition play and in the active cycle in the offensive zone.

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Another good day from newcomer Cody Ceci, and from the pairing of Slater Koekkoek and Evan Bouchard. Among the depth guys, Markus Niemelainen grabbed my attention with the subtle greasiness of his game. On a couple of outside shots, Niemelainen stepped out of the shooting lane to allow his netminder a clear view while gravitating to the right spot to box out an opponent, delivered with a side of lumber.

In the cage Mike Smith started to come alive in the scrimmage scenario, jumping on shoot-ins or thrusting out his goal stick to deflect passes or generally disrupt opponents. At the far end, Mikko Koskinen made one outstanding save by building a wall right alone the goal line and fighting hard to thwart a close-in stuff. Entering the second half of the scrimmage tied 1-1, Konovalov was beaten by Brad Malone‘s well-placed penalty shot but otherwsie slammed the door, while Stuart Skinner didn’t appear particularly at fault but was beaten for three at the other end. The final tally came into an empty net in the best hockey tradition.

For whatever it’s worth, today’s stats from Oilers scrimmage:

Yamamoto – 2G
Marody – 1G, 1A
Benson – 1G, 1A
Rybinski – 1G
Griffith – 1G
Malone – 1G

Barrie – 1A
Foegele- 1A
McLeod – 1A
Broberg – 1A
Tullio – 1A
Bourgault – 1A
Cracknell- 1A
Hamblin – 1A#Oilers

— Tony Brar (@TonyBrarOTV) September 24, 2021

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A similar internal session is scheduled for tomorrow. The preseason gets underway for real on Sunday when some version of the Oilers will invade the Saddledome to jumpstart a sequence of six games in nine days. Six games for the team, that is, though surely no more than four for most of the players. There will be zero standings points at stake, but those will be critical games for most of the players featured above.

Who likes highlights? 🙋‍♂️🙋‍♀️

Two tallies from Yamamoto & some pretty passing from the Benson-McLeod-Marody line are among the must-see moments from today’s #Oilers Training Camp scrimmage! pic.twitter.com/XqxVCsPwa1

— Edmonton Oilers (@EdmontonOilers) September 25, 2021

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STAPLES: The Josh Archibald COVID conundrum

McCURDY: Rookie goalie gives young Oilers a puncher’s chance

STAPLES: Duncan Keith takes one for the team?

Follow me on Twitter @BruceMcCurdy

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