What will Todd Nelson do?
The OKC Baron’s training camp starts next Friday, followed by two exhibitions games on October 5th and 6th before their regular season starts October 12th. Nelson has a wonderful dilemma; will he play Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle on the same line, or will he split them up so four Oiler prospects can benefit from playing with them?
What would you do? I know what I would do, but first let’s hear from the head coach.
I chatted with Nelson on Monday about Eberle, RNH as well as some of the other top prospects in OKC.
JG: Do you think that it would better the development of everybody if you had [Jordan] Eberle on one line and then [Ryan] Nugent-Hopkins on another, or do you think that they’re better served playing together?
TN: That’s something that we have to talk about to see what the best fit is. One line could be [Magnus] Paajarvi, Nugent-Hopkins and Eberle. That could be a really good line. Maybe management wants to see that happen, that could be a line in the future so who knows about that. But right now I haven’t given much thought to that.
As a coaching staff we’re going to talk and see what the best fit is. But it’s awfully nice getting those players to come here. I know some of the feedback from management [is that] things have been really positive from their (Eberle and RNH) standpoint so right now we’re looking forward to getting the season going, and players are chomping at the bit to get playing.
JG: Usually when the players come down to OKC they’ve already been to the Oilers’ camp. That isn’t the case this year so will that change how you go through training camp?
TN: Yes it does. It’s kind of nice for us because we get all of the players here right away so that we can start working on our system work and how we’re going to play, versus before where we had a handful of guys from the Oiler camp come here and you’ve got to round out the training camp with guys from the Central League and so forth. Getting all of the guys here early is going to be a good thing so that we can get working on things. We’re going to have a lot of bodies and so we’re going to have to cover a lot of system stuff. At least now it gives us a lot of bodies to work on those things.
JG: Justin Schultz chose Edmonton over 29 other franchises and comes in highly touted out of college. I think he might be the best benefactor of this unfortunate lockout because he will get some time, however long that is, in the American League rather than straight to the NHL. How have previous players coming directly out of college handled the transition from college hockey to the AHL which is a different style and a lot more physical?
TN: I think it’s always an adjustment. There is always a period of adjustment. It’s excellent for him to come here and start playing pro. Just to play against older guys that are men, it’s a bit more competitive. So I think that we’re going to see him adjust to that but what I do know is that he is a very smart, highly skilled player and let me put it this way, I’m pretty sure that I’m going to make time for him on the power play.
JG: Yeah he’s got a heavy shot. Something tells me that Nugent-Hopkins and Eberle might also be on your power play. When you have guys of that elite skill level, how much can it benefit the other prospects by just the chance to play and practise with them?
TN: Well I think that they’re going to benefit quite a bit. Just to be able to see the things that they do in practice and in games, and also the skill level that they bring is going to demand a higher skill level. I see nothing but positives things with those guys coming here. They’re going to come here and have some fun winning some games. Once again the league is going to be competitive because other teams are doing the same thing; the league is definitely going to be a lot more skilled. And I think that the toughest thing is going to be finding ice time for everybody, just trying to make sure that everyone stays sharp.
JG: You had mentioned that maybe Paajarvi starts with Nugent-Hopkins and Eberle to start the season, where do you see Tyler Pitlick starting this year?
TN: He has to play in a top-six role, that’s where we have him slotted. He might play in a line with Josh Green. We’re just kind of looking at things. To go through our whole lineup you can go through multiple combinations and I don’t think that we’d miss a beat. We’re very deep at forward and having Justin Schultz come help us out on defence is certainly a bonus. Tyler Pitlick, we feel that he’s a top-six guy and he’s going to get an opportunity to prove that and play in that role. I have six lines of possible guys that could play here. We’re just going to have to try to find the right combinations and put a player in a spot where he can succeed.
JG: Do you see Pitlick as a winger or as a centreman?
TN: I see him as a winger right now. I used him both as a centreman and as a winger last year. He said that he felt more comfortable on the wing and he has tremendous speed as we all know, so to have him flying down the wing has been a sight to see. In playoffs last year I moved him to centre for a few periods when guys went down to injury, so he’s pretty versatile, but with all of the centremen that we have down here he’s probably going to have to start on the wing.
JG: Does he have a little sandpaper in his game?
TN: He does. I think the biggest thing with him is just like with a lot of players, he just has to work on his consistency; always finishing your checks game in and game out. I think that that is the biggest thing, just trying to be more consistent with it. He learned that last year, and late in the year I think that he found that consistency. He finished really strong for us. He played well in the playoffs and it was unfortunate that he got a little banged up in the Toronto series. But he does play with jam; it’s just a matter of playing more consistent with it.
JG: Teemu Hartikainen got a little bit of time in Edmonton last year. Will you play him with [Anton] Lander or do you have an idea where he is going to play?
TN: I’m not sure; we’ll have to see where he fits. I think that he can play with Jordan and Ryan and once again, I’m not sure if I’m going to put Jordan and Ryan together. We just have to go through training camp and see what line combinations are working and kind of [let it] feel itself out.
JG: We would assume that with their success in the NHL, Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins are going to be able to see them create a lot of opportunities down in the American League. The league has seen this before in ’04-05 with Spezza, Staal, Cammalleri and a lot of other guys were down there and put up some pretty big point totals. Does it change your approach to the game? Will you try to be a little more offensive oriented just because of what those guys are capable of?
TN: No, I think that we’re going to play the same type of system that we did last year. With those types of players I think that the creativity part will come out off the rush, or in the offensive zone. That’s something that they can be very creative with and I have no problem with them trying things there, but in the defensive zone and the neutral zone we have to have a lot of structure. I don’t see us coaching any differently. We may have a couple of different wrinkles in terms of how our power play looks. I like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins on the half-wall and I like Justin Schultz at the top, that’s pretty apparent. Where I think that we might see a bit of a difference is just how our power play looks, but five-on-five hockey that’s not going to change. Last year our team was very successful just playing in our structure and I firmly believe that that is going to help us again this year.
JG: What about your penalty kill are there some young guys that you’d like to see get more ice time in that opportunity?
TN: Yeah, Curtis Hamilton is entering his second year. Guys like him and Pitlick are going to be relied on a lot more. I watched some game tape last summer when Curtis played in the world juniors and he played the penalty kill very well. He’s certainly a very smart hockey player and he’s going to be one of our go to guys on the PK. So guys are going to have different roles, but we’re going to try to find roles for everybody, and hopefully we can try to find enough ice time and have them develop the right way.
JG: Another guy that I think that you must be very curious to see is Tyler Fedun after what happened to him after last season when he broke his leg. I know that you saw him at the rookie camp this summer; do you have any ideas in terms of defensive pairings?
TN: I haven’t really thought about a whole lot. We’re a pretty young D core, but I think that we’re a pretty good D core. A guy like Taylor, he might be a guy that plays his off side with a guy like Alex Plante. I’m not quite sure. We threw out different combinations on the board, but once again we’ve got to know what works. Sometimes a pairing looks really good on the white board, but when they get on the ice it’s not a very good pairing where they just can’t feed off of each other. Once again, we’re going to try all of these different combinations and see what fits.
As for Taylor Fedun, I’m very excited to see him playing this year just based on how he looked in development camp. He has a very bright future ahead of him and he’s a very smart hockey player. I like the way that he moves the puck, so I’m very excited to see him skating well and from all of the indications that I’ve been given, he’s ready to go.
JG: You mentioned Josh Green earlier. He is on an AHL only contract, but do you have any other guys like that?
TN: We also have Teigan Zahn out of the University of Calgary and Danny Ringwald on AHL deals. We had to protect ourselves and sign these players because we didn’t know if there was going to be a lockout or not. You can’t predict those things. Hopefully it’s just a short time that they’re locked out and when that happens, we’re probably going to lose about four guys going up top right away.
At the start of the year there’s going to be a lot of bodies here and we’re going to have to do a really good job of trying to fit guys into different situations to make sure that they get ice time.
JG: Some Oiler fans were wondering since you have Eberle, Nugent-Hopkins,Schultz, Paajarvi and Pitlick and all of these skilled players, will you need a protector down there? Do you have enough grit and toughness in your lineup that they won’t get pushed around at the American Hockey League level?
TN: I think that we do. We have a guy like Dane Byers who is a role player who can also play the game very well, he doesn’t shy away from that stuff but there are also other guys that come to the party as well. We have guys that play pretty gritty like [Colten]Teubert and [Alex] Plante and [Antti] Tyrvainen.
Hartikainen is a guy who plays hard. There is not a whole lot of fighting in this league anymore. You might have a couple of tilts in a game, but that would be rare. You might go two or three games without any fights. I don’t think that that’s going to be an issue. We always pride ourselves with being team tough and that’s a role that a lot of different guys can take. A guy like Tanner House had a fight in the playoffs against Toronto and handled himself very well. That’s something that we have to do by committee and have that wolf pack mentality. I don’t foresee that being an issue. But if it does become an issue then we’re going to have to address it.
It makes sense to play either Paajarvi or Hartikainen with Eberle and RNH if you believe they might eventually play together in the NHL. But it also makes sense to split up the Oilers and allow four players the opportunity to learn from elite level offensive players.
Eberle and RNH will definitely play on the first unit PP, but I suspect Nelson will try both aforementioned scenarios at even strength.
The Oilers are in a great position to find out if Anton Lander can play with a skilled winger like Eberle. You rarely get the opportunity to have your prospects play with the best players in the organization. Usually it happens in the NHL, but then they have to face defenders like Shea Weber. I suspect it will be easier and more comfortable for Paajarvi, Hartikainen, Pitlick and Lander to learn how to play with Eberle and RNH when they aren’t facing NHL-type defenders.
The Oilers need to take advantage of this rare situation and try a few different combos.
Nelson has a few options, but I might lean towards splitting up RNH and Eberle at the start to see how the other four react.