McDavid impressive in first NHL camp; plus, other preseason takeaways

Erich Schlegel/USA TODAY Sports

EDMONTON, AB -- The voice was all but gone. Todd McLellan, sounding a little like a raspy Jon Hamm, isn't too concerned. It happens every training camp, he explained, the result of a long summer break for his vocal chords being pressed into action in a big way this weekend.

Superstar rookie Connor McDavid was the main attraction at the start of camp in Edmonton, but it didn't take long for the spotlight to shift to Edmonton's two other high-profile imports: coach Todd McLellan and general manager Peter Chiarelli.

McLellan was the early star of camp, running a crisp, information-packed practice on Day 1 that included several stoppages from McLellan, with reminders that attention to detail was on the players, not the coaches.

In an Oilers group desperate to win, he's found a receptive audience as he gets to know his team.

"We're three days into training camp, I've finally been able to put names to faces. That's just the first step," McLellan said during a weekend chat. "Then we're trying to take those names and faces and we're trying to evaluate them."

That's proving to be the tougher part. With so much focus on laying the foundation for this team and building an identity in the way this team will play, McLellan is finding player evaluation challenging.

"That's what the exhibition games are for," he said.

And then there was his boss.

Chiarelli took a turn in the spotlight on Sunday after signing defenseman Oscar Klefbom to a seven-year contract extension worth $4.167 million per season. Klefbom has played all of 77 NHL games.

It's a high-risk, high-reward transaction where the payoff may not come until Chiarelli is sitting down to do new contracts for guys like Nail Yakupov, McDavid and Darnell Nurse. McLellan is focused on the now. Chiarelli, three years from now.

"As far as NHL games, he doesn't have a huge sample size. He's known around the league as an up-and-coming player," Chiarelli said. "When you commit to someone long term like that, you look at his character, you look at his durability. Obviously, you look at his skill and projection."

In the case of Klefbom, the Oilers liked what they saw in all those categories.

"His learning curve in all reports I've got -- he just got better day after day after day," McLellan said. "He's still got a youthful enthusiasm to him. He still wants to learn and get better."

It's been a busy few days in Edmonton, and the exhibition season begins tonight. That's when the spotlight will shift back to the 18-year-old rookie.

Nine other takeaways from the first weekend of NHL training camp:

2. As good as advertised

The early returns on McDavid are as good as you'd expect. He's been playing with Taylor Hall and Teddy Purcell, a trio that should get a long look to continue building chemistry. McDavid and Hall appear to have plenty of it together already.

"That line looks really good, including Ted on the other wing," Chiarelli said. And McDavid? "He makes good plays and he's fast. His back-checking, he's good with that," Chiarelli said. "Every time he has the puck, he makes a good play."

3. McDavid playing a two-way game

The impressive play with the puck was to be expected, but it's been McDavid's play away from the puck that has caught the eye of McLellan early on. "For a gifted offensive player, he's been very committed to both sides of the puck," McLellan said. "He's been able to back-check and strip pucks from players and break up offensive rushes for the opposition so far. I think that's a sign of him sending a message to his teammates that he wants to do it right. That's a really good thing."

4. Method to McLellan's evaluations

One way to combat the challenge of evaluating players while packing in teaching has been a heavy use of film. McLellan taped the team's two scrimmages so he could circle back and focus on player evaluation at a slower pace. Taylor Hall scored twice in the first one on Saturday. McDavid had two goals on Sunday. McLellan said breaking down those tapes has been productive.

"We've worked on areas of our game and we'll look for those situations in scrimmages," McLellan said. "Then we can go back to players and say, 'We just talked about this, really well done.' Or, 'We talked about this, this isn't how we're going to play the situation.' Then it becomes teachable."

5. Looking ahead

McDavid hasn't even played in his first exhibition game yet (that will come tonight in Edmonton) and his general manager is already planning on how to fit his next contract into the Oilers' structure. Chiarelli affirmed that McDavid's future salary, one that will be significantly higher than his current one, was a consideration in getting Klefbom's deal done.

"Yeah, absolutely," Chiarelli said. "You roll it out. You project your lineup in one, two, three, four years. When you get beyond that, it's hard. But sure, there's other players who need to be paid too."

6. Why MacKinnon's deal matters in Edmonton

Okay, as much as we like to look ahead in this blog, I'll resist the temptation to try and project what Connor McDavid's next contract might look like before he's even played one game. That said, the contract negotiation Oilers fans will want to keep an eye on is in Colorado, where Nathan MacKinnon is entering the final year of his entry-level contract. Like Jonas Brodin and Adam Larsson did with Klefbom, the MacKinnon contract will help establish a market for McDavid.

The Avalanche and and MacKinnon's camp have had contract discussions, but nothing is close as of right now. MacKinnon didn't have the season we all expected in 2014-15, but is poised for a breakout this season. A deal similar to what the Oilers did for their young players a few years back would make sense -- seven years at around $6 million per season.

7. Why the Avs must keep Johnson

The Avs' more pressing negotiation may be defenseman Erik Johnson, who is set to be an unrestricted free agent after this season. Progress on those negotiations is inching along, but unlike the last two prominent contract negotiations in Colorado -- Paul Stastny and Ryan O'Reilly -- the bet is on this one getting done.

Unlike the centers who left Colorado, there isn't a logical replacement for Johnson coming in Colorado. Not many teams have another 6-foot-4, right-handed shot, top-pairing defenseman ready to go if one, like Johnson, leaves. It's taken longer than people wanted, but Johnson has developed into the kind of defenseman you can build your defense around.

Before he was injured last season, he already exceeded his career high in goals scored. His points per game during the past two seasons is at 0.49. According to behindthenet.ca, he had a relative Corsi of 8.0. The Avalanche simply can't let him go. The most likely solution is a long-term contract in the seven- or eight-year range with the Avalanche.

8. Which young blueliner gets the next big contract?

With Klefbom getting the exact same average salary as Jonas Brodin and Adam Larsson -- "It's no coincidence," said Chiarelli. "I can tell you that." -- it raises the question: Which young defenseman is next?

The Penguins and Olli Maatta would make sense, but Pittsburgh is in no rush to get his contract done with Maatta coming off his injuries last season; on the other hand, if they could get him signed at Klefbom's price, they'd do it right now.

The fascinating one to watch will be Seth Jones in Nashville. Jones is a restricted free agent after this season, and the Predators are expected to make him a long-term offer. They'd like to get him signed. The challenge in projecting Jones' salary is that his growth is blocked by Shea Weber. The better move for Jones may be to cap any contract extension at five years, and re-assess after that.

9. Sorting out the Blackhawks' blue line

The Blackhawks signed defenseman Michal Rozsival to a one-year contract worth $600,000 on Saturday. That deal makes it a little harder for veteran defenseman Jan Hejda to make the team. Hejda is in Blackhawks camp on a professional tryout contract.

"When he took the PTO, there was a spot wide open," said Hejda's agent George Bazos on Sunday. "It almost seemed like it was going to be his spot."

Now, the Blackhawks have seven defensemen under contract. Bazos said the plan for Hejda continues to be to play with the Blackhawks and try to make a positive impression for him or any other team looking for help on defense. There's currently no plan to move him to another team's training camp.

"He'll play some exhibition games and see what happens," Bazos said. "I'll talk to [Blackhawks GM] Stan [Bowman] and if he wants to sign him, great."

10. Whitney hangs 'em up

Congrats to American Olympian defenseman Ryan Whitney on his retirement. Whitney was one of those guys you'd try to talk to even if it wasn't entirely necessary, because the conversation was always entertaining. Who else would sneak in a one-liner in his retirement announcement?

On Sunday, Whitney announced his retirement, explaining that his body couldn't go anymore at 32 years old.

"I'm 32 years old, and you're likely to find stronger and more stable ankles and feet on the residents at your local nursing home."

Congrats on a great career, Ryan.