Ralph Krueger was named head coach of the Edmonton Oilers on June 26th. It was a dream come true for the 53-year-old and when I spoke to him that Wednesday, but this 87-day lockout has him waiting
patiently impatiently to show the hockey world his plan of attack.
Yesterday I spoke with Krueger and we didn’t mention the words HRR, make whole, decertification, Bettman of Fehr. It was a refreshing change of pace. We actually talked hockey. Does he have some line combinations in place? Who will play beside Justin Schultz? Will Nail Yakupov play right wing, or will Krueger try him on the left side.
Krueger had some good insight into what he will do when the lockout ends.
Gregor: Tell me about all the stops you have been on. How often have you seen the OKC guys? How many of your other Oiler players have you seen in Europe?
Krueger: Well Jason, I’ve been bouncing around. That’s certainly the right word to use. I began with the training camp in OKC, which allowed me to spend some time with our prospects and our Oilers that are down there for a few days. Then in between that and what’s happened lately, I was bouncing around Europe and visited all kinds of different teams where I know people and just kept myself close to the game before I returned and spent another week around Thanksgiving with OKC and the players there. I’ve been back in Edmonton now for awhile. We’re just keeping everybody in the ready mode. It’s kind of like being in the starting block of a sprint and just ready to have somebody to shoot the gun right now.
Gregor: Your thoughts on Justin Schultz after having seen him live for the first time?
Krueger: I hadn’t seen him play before. I had seen tapes of him, but not live. Of course, to watch Justin live is a much more exciting experience to see how much of the game he comprehends, how complete he is as a player. And that was, of course, a real positive. The person that goes along with that is just a bonus. He’s a super character, a great team player, a competitor. We’re all very positive about Justin’s future.
Gregor: Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall have been raving about the offensive upside of Justin Schultz. Like any young defenseman, he’ll have to work on his defensive game. When you work with a young defenseman, how do you improve their defensive game?
Krueger: Well its just overall awareness. More than anything, it’s anticipating the play. That’s why we often speak about defenseman really not settling into their prime until their mid-to-late twenties. As far as the way they see the game and read it defensively, it’s anticipation. It’s doing things in advance, we call it “pre-gapping” in a lot of situations, that you’re pre-positioning, that’s where the great experience of Steve Smith will come in to help Justin there, with his experience of multiple years as an NHL defenseman and the way he sees the game.
We’ll take it piece by piece. He’s already got a keen sense of what he needs to do. At the NHL level, there will be much more power coming at him, it’s a stronger league than the AHL. The physicality of it will be something that on the forecheck, as a defenseman, you will also have to solve. But the game away from the puck, whether you take a young forward or defenseman it’s not really much different. There’s just a lot of principle teaching to do, there’s an awareness there that they might not have had to have as a junior player or a college player because they were so tough offensively that nobody worried about that. But they have a high game intelligence; I think that that part of it should come quickly.
Gregor: Have you allowed yourself to put a lineup in pencil at all? Have you thought, “OK, Justin Schultz, based on the way he’s played he’s likely going to start the season here.” In a perfect scenario, is there somebody you’d at least like to try him with to start the season?
Krueger: Well when you look down the left side, we’ve got Lady Smid, and we look at Nick Schultz and we look at the experience of those two players, for instance. They’re candidates. Ryan Whitney down the left side would be more somebody who’s also playing power play and strengthening our offensive game. There’s a couple great options there of experienced NHL defenseman for Justin. Once again, I do play with the lineup, Jason, that’s something as a coach you’re doing consistently and trying to find different combinations- whether up front or on D. Once again, that’s something we hope we’re doing really quickly but there’s nothing set in stone yet until we get the team together, hoping everybody’s healthy and the lineup will then quickly take its form.
Gregor: You’ve said on many occasions the likelihood of a trio of a forward line sticking together the whole season is rare. Do you find, based on your coaching experience, that you can have more success if you keep your defence pairings together though?
Krueger: I agree Jason, especially in the NHL where you end up with pairs who would have a tendency to play against top lines. If you look at the development of the pair of Jeff Petry and Ladislav Smid last year, they really, really started feeding off of each other, reading off each other and were hungry for that shut down role that they took on and spent most of the season against the top lines of the other teams.
Playing together as a defensive pair, there’s just so many little instinctual advantages to having spent time to knowing what your partner’s doing, and to understand what his tendencies are. I’ve been one, in the past, that’s often found pairs and really left them together for long periods of time. The synergies that develop offensively are also good. How they read they play, who’s jumping on the rush, when the right time to jump is and who’s supporting the play. So in both directions there is a lot of advantages and I think that one pair of Smid and Petry was a great example of a synergy that developed through last season.
Gregor: You have had more time than you would like, I’m guessing, to think about your strategy heading into the season. If we see a sprint to the finish of 48 games, compared to an 82, will you have to adjust your strategy as a Head Coach?
Krueger: What’s going to be critical here, because we’re all believing there’s will be a season and we all believe there’s going to be a compressed season. It will be less about the strategic changes than the need for using your bench, for the depth of the roster. With the type of a high paced game that we want to play, both offensively and defensively being a high pressure team, we will need for to use all of our 14 forwards and 7 defenceman. There’s going to be players coming in and out of the lineup and you’re really going to have to make sure you can get your fourth line in to play. They will need to get their minutes.
When we’re going to have weeks where we play four games, it would be too much of a burden on three lines, as we were often able to do in the past. That’ll be one thing that we really need to make sure we use our bench well, and that we are balanced in our roster in certain situations. The off ice will be huge as well, Jason. To make sure that the days between games, the overall training that we do that we’re very, very conscience of what the players can handle and how we can regenerate at such a high pace.
Gregor: Do you plan on going down to OKC in the near future and watching, Eberle, Hall, Schultz, as well as Haritkainen and Pajaarvi, because they potentially could be in your starting lineup in January?
Krueger: Well the wonderful thing with modern technology, Jason, is the ability to watch every single game, which we can do. We have certain portions cut up to also try to help them grow. Right now, I’ll be honest with you; I’m planning my life one week at a time, and I have been for quite some time now. We don’t go much beyond that.
So I’ve got this week planned. I look forward to going to watching the Canadian National Junior team camp in Calgary. I’ll be driving down in the morning with Craig MacTavish. We’ll take in a few days of that. If this drags on, there’s no question that I’d be excited to spend some time in OKC again. They’re doing a good job down there. It’s interesting and it is always neat to see your players from the outside. I’ve always been on the bench with them for the last two years, so to watch them play from the stands is good. It gives you a little different perspective on their strengths and also on the things we need to work on.
Gregor: What would be the benefit to go down and watch the World Juniors, for you?
Krueger: For me, it’s always just staying close to the game right now and changing the environment. Quite honestly, I don’t want to be anywhere too long. I could feel that whether it was in OKC or in Europe, I don’t want to get in anybody’s way. I want everybody to be able to do their work. When an NHL Coach shows up somewhere, it can be distracting. I’ve had three and four day trips all over the world visiting organizations, and Hockey Canada is just another one.
They’re going to have a big camp there, and it will be great to see the facility. I’d like to see the new work they’ve done in their video room, so there are things outside the training camp that I’ll be looking at. But of course to see the players, to see the prospects, the top Canadian prospects of the future is always an exciting thing to observe and to get to know some of the names and the players, which is what I was able to do while I was with the national team in Switzerland. To see the youth of the world and to see Canada’s players was always good. To watch what the coaches are planning there and to get a little feel of what’s going on in that respect, in preparation of the juniors, it will be nice to see it first hand.
Gregor: Do feel there will be an advantage for your team, because your top projected six or seven forwards have all been playing actual hockey games, if the NHL returns?
Krueger: We looked at it today. To have potentially ten players playing right now, I’m sure we’re right at or above the NHL average. That’s a good situation. Again, you have to make it your advantage. That’ll be up to us. On the other side, other teams might have a little more experience or still have players who are also playing, so it’s not that we’re the only ones. We’ll make it an advantage, Jason. We’re going to work hard to do that.
Gregor: Ralph, you mentioned how from week to week you don’t really know what you are doing. Hockey people are very much creatures of habit. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in this situation, where you’re a coach but you’re not coaching. How do you keep yourself sharp?
Krueger: Well I turned pro as a player at 18 and I’m 53 now so it’s been awhile. I’ve been coaching 23 years and it’s the first time I’ve sat around this long. What’s very, very important is as always, to continue to work on your fitness. I’ve been doing a lot more reading and also a variety of reading, really going into different genres… psychological kind of information to rethink the game. It’s been an advantage to rethink the game and to bounce all kinds of questions off coaches around the world. It’s re-awakened ideas that I’ve had inside of me. You just have to make sure that you have a plan. So my plan is short term, but it is intense. I keep my days full with lots of things that are inspirational and more than anything, just staying active physically too has helped a lot to deal with the situation.
Gregor: Have you talked to Freddy Chabot, about how you would get your goaltender, Devan Dubnyk, who hasn’t seen any action- up to speed quickly? Will you have to alter some sort of drills in practice to get him ready?
Krueger: Well we could get one of those baseball machines; and just shoot pucks at him for a couple of days. (laughs) Just put him in net. Quite seriously, he’s been training very, very hard. We don’t have close access to the players, but you hear it through the grapevine and he has been stopping a lot of rubber. I hope that we can get him playing somewhere, which would ideally be the best. If this does drag on for a few more weeks, that would be the idea. Otherwise it will be up to us in practice, to really maximize the ice time. Again, you don’t want to burn out any players and get over-exuberant because of a break like this. I think it’ll take a while for all NHL teams to settle in. You just want to make sure in that chaos, that in the beginning you’re better at dealing with it than others and that includes the goaltending position. Freddy Chabot has stayed very close to that and has some good ideas of how we can get Duby up to game speed.
Gregor: A lot of your players have told me, ‘I think we have an advantage because we’ve consistently had decent starts to the last few years.’ However your team hasn’t been able to maintain that over the course of the season. Why do you think that has happened recently?
Krueger: Well last season we really got off to a good start. It was a little combination of others coming at us a little harder. We did surprise teams with some of our strategy and tactics last year and teams were possibly better prepared for that as we went on. Above all, we were a team growing a lot the last few years. The pain and the setbacks that we’ve had have given us experience that should make us stronger and be more consistent as a group.
We really want to work on and continuing to improve our training habits and practice. I thought that was something that was maybe lacking in our game, we weren’t as consistent as we wanted to be and consistency often comes from what you’re doing when you’re not playing the game. So that will be a focal point, and above all, just being a much more mature team in dealing with tight games. I thought as we lost our great start last year, there were some tight games that we gave up unnecessary giveaways or turnovers and an overall lack of maturity. That’s something I believe we’re going to be much better at dealing with as we head into this phase of our organization’s development.
Gregor: You’ve got Hemsky as a right winger and you’ve got Yakupov. Have you thought about moving Yakupov to the left side, or have you thought at all about putting him on the right side and putting him with two veterans, like Horcoff and Smyth to start?
Krueger: Well the good thing is Nail has spent some time on the left side in the KHL, so he has been exposed to that. We’ll have to see how everybody comes in together. How he’s going to fit in as a player is still new for all of us. Whether we look at what he did in junior or what he’s doing now in the KHL, what and how much he can do in the NHL, and how quickly, is still up in the air. He has an amazing competitive spirit.
He has a wonderful skill-set, but his flexibility left to right is something I’m still not certain of. A lot will have to do with how we feel he is flexible on that and then those lines will take their form. It looks like he did ok on the left side in the KHL for a few weeks. With him being able to come attack on both sides would be interesting. His advantage playing the off wing is his unbelievable direct shot; his one-timer is the best I’ve seen from a young player in a long time. On the power play he is definitely playing his off wing, but on the 5-on-5 game there can be advantages to being on your forehand, especially in the NHL with the fore checking and the D-pinching pressure that he will often experience. Those are all different kinds of elements we will have to look at. Once again, we are just excited with the idea of having him in the lineup.
We can expect Smid/Petry to play together and I wonder if he plays J. Schultz with the stay-at-home N.Schultz or elects to put him with Whitney and attack offensively. You could play Whitney/J.Schultz with the kids or Hemsky’s line and try to generate a lot of scoring chances.
It was interesting to hear he is contemplating moving Yakupov to the left wing. I still foresee a scenario where Eberle, Hemsky and Yakupov all play RW. The Oilers need someone with some size and ability to retrieve pucks, and that is why I could see Ryan Jones or Teemu Hartikainen on the 2nd line and start Yakupov with two veterans like Ryan Smyth and Shawn Horcoff.
Don’t expect the Oilers to keep three lines together consistently. It rarely happens in the NHL, and from listening to Krueger he will try different combinations to see who has the best chemistry.
Yesterday we raised $2,250 thanks to Yvon and his generous bid for the Tire and Wheel package.
Today’s package is courtesy of The Maximum Fighting Championship:
- Two Gold season tickets to all MFC shows in 2013.
- VIP dinner for two at the Shaw conference centre prior to each show.
- You will be a cornerman during one of the fights on February card.
All the proceeds from today will go towards the Christmas Bureau. Bidding starts at 2 p.m and goes to 5:55 p.m. You can bid at 780.426.8326 or 1.800.243.1945