Pre-season or not, Oilers’ success hinges on improving penalty kill

EDMONTON — After the morning skate, Oilers head coach Dave Tippett talked about the four young centremen who would have a chance to shine in a pre-season game against Vancouver. Watch them closely, he said, and we would learn something later that evening.

So, in that group of Cooper Marody, Ryan McLeod, Gaetan Haas and Ryan Malone, did any stand out, Tippett was asked post-game?

“We lost 6-1,” the coach deadpanned.

Rather than dressing a veteran-laden lineup against Vancouver on Thursday, Tippett — who plans to cut down to about 30 players after Friday’s game against Calgary — gave a bunch of hopefuls one last chance at impressing him. He dressed just six players who would be considered locks to be an Oiler on Opening Night, then sat back and watched them compete for jobs.

The Canucks, who had perhaps nine regulars, crushed Edmonton.

“We got away from our game plan after five or 10 minutes,” said defenceman Oscar Klefbom. “They were faster, stronger for 55 minutes of the game. We were sloppy, and we looked tired. They were the better team, for sure.”

Here are a few takes from this shellacking, keeping in mind that it is only pre-season. Not time to panic — yet.

• Mikko Koskinen saw his first 40 minutes of pre-season action and allowed four goals on 23 shots. One came through a screen and went high glove. The next was a breakaway — high glove. One was a cross-crease pass he likely should have deflected. The fourth, a wrist shot from distance on the power play.

“First game,” said Tippett. “Sure, there were a couple he’d like back, but it was his first game. Move on. He’ll start again (tonight versus Calgary).

Koskinen should get better as the season approaches. He’ll have to.

• If only the goaltending was the lone reminder of Oilers’ troubles past, that would be one thing. However, a team that hasn’t been able to kill a penalty since Randy Gregg manned the blue-line allowed another two power-play goals against Vancouver.

We get it — it’s not the real penalty-killing unit. But guess what? It was not the Canucks’ real power-play unit either. This has been such a sore spot for this team for so many seasons, it’s mighty clear that if the PK doesn’t get fixed, neither will the team.

• On a positive note, left winger Joakim Nygard continues to look like he can help an NHL team. His foot speed is undeniable, but we like the way he goes into traffic as well. Remember, Tobias Rieder was fast, but fast on the perimeter doesn’t mean much.

A second line of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins between James Neal and Nygard has a chance. Although you had to squint to see that, based on Thursday’s game, where Ryan McLeod centered RNH’s wingers. McLeod is a player we like a lot, but as a first-year pro we’ll be surprised if he isn’t in the big group of cuts that will likely be announced after Friday night’s game.

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The Oilers fly to Kelowna post-game, and would like to bring about 30 players along. McLeod is destined for Bakersfield, likely sooner than later.

• We go back to a time when pre-season hockey came with copious — and needless — fights, as young guys did whatever it took to get their names on the score sheet. We are more than happy to see that time gone, but does it mean nobody can even hit each other anymore?

Pre-season hockey has become an emotionless, polite brand of hockey where players feel like the only way to get noticed is to set up a goal or make a diligent backcheck. It’s OK to drill the puck carrier once in a while, guys. Remember, most of the coaches are old.

They’ll appreciate some of that.