Island players ready for start of unusual NHL season

Several Island players, from marquee talents Jamie Benn and Tyson Barrie to role players Jordie Benn and Matt Irwin, will be part of the pandemic-abbreviated NHL season beginning today.

It will be a season unlike any other. Well, except last year’s played in bubbles in Edmonton and Toronto.

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A sign of how unusual things are is that while Dallas captain Jamie Benn was on the ice Tuesday in the last day of training camp, 15 of his Stars teammates weren’t because of a COVID outbreak that cancelled camp for four days.

The Stars put a microphone on Peninsula Minor Hockey Association-product Benn earlier in camp and he is heard telling his teammates: “Let’s take care of details, eh. Get it in, get it out.”

Sticking to basics is pretty much going to be the story of the early part of the 56-game season as teams go right into it after truncated training camps and no exhibition games.

“[The short training camp] creates its challenges,” said defenceman Barrie, in addressing a media conference this week following a practice in Edmonton.

“But that’s one of the beautiful things about hockey. It’s easy to get in the mix. I feel like I’m getting to know the guys a lot better just being around the room and skating,” added the Juan de Fuca Minor Hockey Association product, about suiting up for the Oilers for the first time, after playing one season with Toronto and five with Colorado.

“Going through some of these bag skates together is a good way to build chemistry and have some laughs. I feel that part comes together pretty quickly. It does create a bit of a challenge without exhibition games, but everybody’s going through that, so we’re going to have to figure that out pretty quickly. I’m sure there will be some mistakes made and learning lessons along the way. We’ve got a great group here that’s committed and willing to learn and win. It’s a lot instinct at this point. I’m fortunate there’s a group of guys here that have good instincts and have been playing together for a while.”

Among that group is last season’s best power play, which led the NHL with a lethal 29.5 percent efficiency. That it was a franchise record is something considering the Oilers once had a power play featuring Gretzky, Anderson, Kurri and Messier. Add the mobile blueliner Barrie now quarterbacking the power play — to the already-explosive Oilers mix featuring forwards Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins — and the Edmonton odd-man unit should be even more potent.

“The big three [McDavid, Draisaitl, Nugent-Hopkins] obviously did a great job last year,” said Barrie.

That’s the main reason the Islander took less pay than was reportedly offered elsewhere to sign with Edmonton.

“They [Oilers big three] are outstanding players. It’s a great opportunity for me,” said Barrie.

“It’s super important to have a good power play. It will be important for us to get that going early. I’m going to have to take my shots to loosen things up for those three and to let the creativity flow and let them do their thing. They are such high-end players and such smart guys. It’s just kind of a feel thing to see where I fit in and not get in their way. I have been fortunate enough to play with some world-class talent on the sides [in Toronto and Colorado and with Canada]. I know how to play with good players. That’s a positive for me. I’m going to try to get these guys the puck in good spots.”

Defenceman Jordie Benn and his home-province Vancouver Canucks will be seeing plenty of Island-rival Barrie and that high-octane Edmonton power play. Because the NHL is keeping travel regional, Canadian teams will only play each other. The Canucks and Oilers will meet 10 times this season, starting with back-to-back games tonight and Thursday in Edmonton. Benn will miss the first few games as he is deemed “unfit to play.” Benn missed the last few Canucks practices with what are reported to be  “COVID-related issues.”

“Getting the power playing going early [to] win us a few games will be huge for us,” said Barrie.

Other Island players or players from Island clubs who attended NHL training camps included Brentwood Bay’s Irwin with the Buffalo Sabres, Victorians Adam Cracknell and Dysin Mayo respectively with the Oilers and Arizona Coyotes, former Victoria Royals Matthew Phillips, Noah Gregor, Joe Hicketts and Tanner Kaspick respectively with the Flames, Sharks, Red Wings and Blues, Brett Connolly of Port Hardy with the Florida Panthers, Dylan Coghlan of Nanaimo with the Las Vegas Golden Knights, former Victoria Grizzlies offensive-dervish Tyler Bozak with the Blues, former Nanaimo Clipper Sheldon Rempal with Carolina, Laurent Brossoit from the Cowichan Valley Capitals with the Winnipeg Jets and Daniel Carr from the Powell River Kings with the Washington Capitals.

NHL teams spent Tuesday finalizing their 23-player big-league rosters while cutting other players or assigning them to their AHL or ECHL affiliates. Notable was Detroit waiving defenceman Hicketts, the former Canadian junior team world gold medallist, who was the most impactful player in Royals history behind Flames-prospect Phillips. The Flames also sent Phillips to the AHL on Tuesday.

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