On Friday the Oilers finalized their coaching staff with a name few expected or had even heard of; Ralph Krueger. I was perplexed and had the opportunity to sit down with Tom Renney and find out why Krueger? We also got to chatting about Gilbert Brule, Andrew Cogliano and other things.
JG: What brought you to the decision of naming Ralph Krueger as associate coach?
RENNEY: Ralph was on my radar right from the beginning to be honest with you, but quite frankly I didn’t think I’d have a chance with him. As I was interviewing other people I was trying to connect with him somewhere between Switzerland and Canora, Ontario and there was some difficulty with that. The process was such that I did go after Don Hay aggressively initially, with an eye on Ralph if I could catch up with him. As it turned out, Donny decided not to join us and that gave me an opportunity to put all my attention to catching up with Ralph, which I did. I think he adds significantly to our coaching staff.
JG: Last time we spoke, you mentioned that if you were going to bring in another coach it needed to be someone who was a career coach who would challenge you on strategies and philosophies. Why does Ralph fit that?
RENNEY: I think Ralph’s body of work is such that it lends itself to the continuing growth of our team. We have an obligation, at least I do as the head coach, as a coaching staff to reach and stretch ourselves and stay ahead of the curve in terms of where the game is going and how it is being played, and I think Ralph can offer up a lot along those lines. Certainly he fits the bill from my point of view in terms of adding to a strong staff and making it even better and I think he will makes us all grow because of his terrific experience with the Swiss team.
JG: Are you closer to knowing what the defined roles are, as far as who is behind the bench, PP, PK, etc, or will that happen during your coaches meetings the first week of August?
RENNEY: I have an idea, but until we sit down as a coaching staff and discuss those things I want to reserve judgment. As I put pen to paper, I have an idea of where guys will slot in, but these are things we have to make sure we discuss. I’ll ask questions of people that will give me an idea philosophically of where they are, and where their strengths are, and those areas that they aren’t as strong as they’d like to be. And then start to define roles and responsibilities beyond that.
JG: Is it fair to say you won’t be running the defence like you did last year?
RENNEY: If I did I would hope I do a better job. That said you don’t know just yet. My duty, I believe, is to be the big picture guy and oversee everything that goes on with the club; be it on the bench, the dressing room, at practice or whatever. I want to make sure, and it is my coaching style Jason, that everybody feels empowerment, they feel responsibility, they feel like they have ownership for a particular function of the team and the bench is no different. I’ve been one that allowed that guy at the other end of the bench to be autonomous to me, in terms of the decisions he makes, relative to a game plan. If in fact that changes at all, I would operate similarly.
JG: Looking at your team right now, would you like to add another veteran forward in your bottom six via free agency?
RENNEY: I don’t think you can ever have too much experience, and I think our team could use that and that’s another reason for the hiring of a guy like Ralph is to make sure we cover ourselves up from that point of view. As players go, sure. Every coach wants to put on the ice as much experience as he can, but we are all in with respect to this rebuilding process. At the end of day -- as any coaching staff should I believe, even with as much as we are given a voice with respect to what we think of certain players -- we will always coach with the hand we are given and I’m no different.
JG: When you look at the guys you have right now, Gilbert Brule just signed a two-year deal, do you see him better as a winger or will you try him in the middle?
RENNEY: Probably both. But we will want to identify a plan with him as quickly as possible that will see him getting comfortable in one location. That’s not to suggest he isn’t versatile enough to play both positions, but I do love the way he attacks the net, I love his shot and certainly he can make plays there is no question about that, but you also give up a little of his attack game as a guy navigating between the dots. I don’t mind him on the other end of some of those plays where he is going hard to the net and shooting the puck.
That said it is a little early to tell, we will give ourselves a chance to make an informed decision with this group, and see what our depth does look like in the middle. It is quite feasible that Bru could be a part of that centre ice look, but at the same time we need to keep an open mind and make sure we can put the best team on the ice that we possibly can. Allow guys like Gilbert to play to their offensive strengths; to be able to push opponents back because of their ability to attack and make things happen for us offensively. We want to encourage that from all of our players quite honestly.
Another player that people are wondering where he fits in the offence is Andrew Cogliano. He did improve his faceoffs up to 43%, still not good, but an improvement. Do see him still as a centreman, or with his speed as a winger moving forward?
RENNEY: Not unlike Gilbert's situation, to a degree at least, in that we may want to have a look at him in both postitions. Initially we want to give Cogs an opportunity to play centre ice and see how me makes out with that. There are some decisions to make there, because there is little bit of an issue with our size up the middle. That said, speed is a huge threat and can back people off in a big way, and he definitely has that.
And he has demonstrated an ability to perform offensively in our league, and we want to make sure we get him back to feeling like he can do that. More than anything else, more than the position he plays or anything else, it is a matter of Andrew coming in and knowing we have embraced him as a player, we feel confident in him, give him the opportunity to run with it and hopefully continue to build on that confidence. A confident player is certainly an asset for your team and pretty dangerous to the opponent.
You have dealt with young players in the past, and Cogliano and Gagner are still young players despite entering their fourth year. Confidence is a big thing with any player, and veterans normally know how to deal with it better. Is the biggest challenge for you and your staff to ensure you can maintain the confidence level of what looks to be a very young team next season?
RENNEY: I think so. First of all, they have to have confidence in us and let's not forget the fact they have an opportunity to play hard for a coaching staff that they appreciate, respect and want to work for. They don't have to like us, but they have to like playing for us. With that said, you have to have a system of play that allows players to flourish, to feel good about their game and that is built on a strong defensive platform, but also allows players to really go after it, to really be an attacking-type player, attacking-type team and that is our objective with this young team that seems to have the elements to do that. Confidence will be the operative word this year and I think too will be patience.
That said, it’s not going to go without the requisite demands of a player to be a solid two-way guy, or without the demands of a player to play within a certain structure and being disciplined and committed enough to do that. The bottom line is, we have to give the young guys a chance to play and that includes guys like Sam and Andrew, who although they have been in the league for awhile now, they are still very young and looking for traction. And we hope to help them find that!
With those two and Brule and potentially Eberle, Hall and Pääjärvi you could have a lot of young forwards. Do you see any value in having a veteran guy, who might not fit into the rebuild long-term, like a Mike Comrie? You saw him around the team last year, so do you think there is a spot or need for him?
RENNEY: Like I said earlier you can never have too much experience, as long as that experience can play. Certainly Mike has that ability, but what we have to ascertain is whether or not he fits in with the combination of people we have with the leadership group that we are looking at.
Those are important people that can help pull those young guys along because of the experience they’ve had and having gone through very similar situations in most cases. Do we want to get a little bit more veteran presence; yeah we certainly could do that. I think it is the system of play that will protect you more than anything. How we choose to grow this team will be important, the opportunity we
players will be important, so naturally anytime you can add to that and sort of fortify all of that with a good veteran player you want to try and do that.
AND EVEN MO'
With a young team in a rebuild you might be in a losing situation this year. How will you avoid over coaching? What is the mistake coaches make when the pressure starts to come down and you feel that I really have to win or my job is on the line?
RENNEY: I think that is a really good point. I think that it is sticking to your guns in terms of your values and principles as a coach, because you get to a certain level of play for having those in the first place; And then maintaining the confidence to display those nonetheless and really sticking with it. I think beyond that, it is important to stay in tune with your players, to make sure you take the temperature of your group with your one-on-one visits and those types of things where by you get a real good feel of what is required of you through them.
The bottom line is you have to be true to what you are all about. You can’t change your philosophy half way through a season; you can’t change your personality and try to be something you are not. You just have to stay real, stay with it and stay confident for sure. Sometimes that becomes a challenge, there is no question about that, but that’s why you have a coaching staff and that’s why you look for people who are loyal. You have to continue to work your tail off because at any moment that turnaround could be right around the corner. And you never know so give yourself the best chance to make that happen and you’ll be fine.
Your very first head coaching job in Vancouver Pat Quinn preceded you, and now once again in Edmonton he preceded you. How different of a coach are you now compared to then, and how much more comfortable and at ease are you going into this situation compared to 1997?
RENNEY: I think I’m the same guy to be honest with you. I think I treat people similarly, I think I respect the people in the game, the fans in the game, the media and every component of the game. That hasn’t changed, but what has is the experience I’ve been able to gain from a number of different points of view with the NHL now. Coming out of the National team and the Olympics back in the mid ‘90s I thought I was pretty good and ready to go. As it turned out we had a terrific start.
The first four months in Vancouver were terrific, and then all of a sudden you could sort of see that Tom might not quite
get this 82 game schedule and the animal that is the NHL and the players that are in it. (Yes, he made a 3rd person reference. Awesome). Consequently I came up short with respect of what I needed to know in terms of how to treat the players a certain way: to allow them to be adults in the game, and adults with families in some cases, and social needs and all those types of things. It was a big learning curve.
Almost more away from the rink and the intangibles than it was from a technical perspective or an interpersonal perspective. I think that as much as anything is what I’ve learned is how this whole mechanism works. How to push when you need to, how to pull when you need to, how to take a step back when you need to and all those types of things. It does take experience and, as most will tell you, often times when you step on the banana peel as long as you pick yourself up and do an honest assessment of what’s gone on, you’re the better for it. I believe that to be the case for me.
You bring up a great point Tom, in the fact that coaching is a lot about personal relations with the players. I’m sure it is hard to a get a pulse on all of them right away, but you were lucky enough to be with the organization last year and had a chance to interact with most of them. How different is the off-ice dealing with young kids compared to veterans, and what is the biggest challenge or what is easier when dealing with a younger group?
RENNEY: I young group can be a bit more pliable. You might be able to convince them to play the game a certain way, to involve themselves in the NHL life a certain way because they are all ears. There is a certain level of fear of making a bad choice and losing their job, so you have a little leverage there if you want to call it that. I think too you have to have a veteran leadership group, because the room is theirs and it should be theirs. It’s not somewhere where we (coaches) are in there every minute of the day.
It becomes their domain and your leadership has to be onside. They have to be fully aware of what your intentions are as a head coach, and there has to be a huge amount of respect and trust between the leadership group and their coaching staff in order to help the whole process of bringing a young player, or a young group along or for that matter even veteran player s who are outside of that leadership circle. We all have a responsibility to lead, if nothing else ourselves, and sometimes you have to fall in line in order to make that happen.
I know you are getting together with your three assistants this coming week, and I know you plan on overseeing everything, but is there one area facet of the team that you want to ensure you will have your hands in more than others?
RENNEY: I do like to surround myself with the best people I can get. I’ve never had a problem having people around me that are better than me quite honestly. I’m hoping that that’s how this plays itself out continuously as we win. I think I’m pretty well-rounded in the whole game to be honest, I think I’ve been suggested one time in my career to be pretty sound technically.
I think that is still the case, but now more than ever I think it is those inter-personal relations that I’m able to forge and make a very clear plan on how we are going to play, how to describe it and how to engage people into embracing it. I really do allow people to do their work, to sign their work their way with a certain element of support from me, and also as required leadership in the form of discipline.
It is clear that Renney is a good communicator and will have a heavy emphasis on that facet with this players. One of the complaints from players last year was the Quinn didn't communicate very well, and I think it is clear that Renney witnessed that.
It also sounds like Renney wants Brule to play the wing and be more of a shooter than passer. Talking with him off air I sensed that he wants to give Cogliano a long look down the middle. I sense he thinks Cogliano wasn't put in a situation to succeed and produce last year and he plans on affording him that opportunity this year. It will be up to Cogliano, however, to prove he deserves a few more offensive opportunities. Renney will live with his young players making mistakes, but he won't just give them a roster spot. They will need to earn it, and that's how it should be.
I don't see the Oilers re-signing Mike Comrie. Renney likes him, but he will give his young players opportunities to grow and make mistakes. He would love to get another veteran who can kill penalties though.
When the football team in town fires their GM we should at least discuss it. This move was long overdue. Danny Maciocia was never going to lead the Eskimos to another championship. Under his reign as GM the Eskimos have gotten worse, especially their Canadian talent, and that's what surprises me the most. Maciocia is a proud canadian, and he started at the bottom of the Montreal Alouettes organization and worked his way to the top of a CFL team.
He should be applauded for that, but I don't understand how he underestimated the imporantance of having strong canadian talent.
The last four years, he drafted a kicker who couldn't punt, 2nd overall, then he traded away their other first rounders. He had to trade away a first rounder to acquire veteran kicker Noel Prefontaine, when he finally realized that Warren Kean couldn't kick in the CFL. And the most mind-numbing move of all was last spring, when after letting Joe McGrath go to Regina in free agency, he traded a 1st round pick to re-acquire him.
McGrath never was, and never will be a physical O-lineman. Maciocia knew that when they let him go, so why the hell would you bring him back AND give up a 1st round pick??
The Eskimos have their swagger as an organization. Similarly to the Oilers, they are too easy to play against. They have few guys who piss of the opposition. Look for them to hire a GM and probably and assistant GM who have a track record of winning. I suspect Ed Hervey will either become the GM or asst GM.
He is well-respected in the football community in the CFL and NFL. He has the ability to relate to a player from the projects as easily as he can a guy who grew up in a white-collar neighbourhood. Blake Dermott is another name you will hear, and while he doesn't have an managing experience at the CFL level, he has business savy and also a great communicator.
The Eskimos need to regain their swagger and what it means to be an Eskimo so look for them to hire someone who knows what that means. And Renney put it best, when he said communication is key. The Eskimos need a leader off the field who is capable of finding players who can lead on the field.