The Edmonton Oilers roster will have five new faces this year. Tom Gilbert, Anton Lander, Magnus Paajarvi, Andy Sutton (injured) and Tom Renney will be replaced by Nail Yakupov, Teemu Hartikainen, Nick Schultz and Justin Schultz, while the most important new face could be head coach Ralph Krueger.
Krueger inherits a young roster full of potential but also some veterans who underachieved last season. Many pundits and oddsmakers outside of Edmonton feel the Oilers are on the verge of a major breakout. Vegas gave them a mind-blowing 14-1 odds to win the Stanley Cup, while Sports Illustrated has them ranked #3 in their preseason rankings. Keep in mind those rankings change every week and are based on a belief the Oilers should get off to a quick start due to 12 players already being in game shape.
Krueger will be have to balance calming those expectations, while ensuring his team learns to compete every night and understand the sacrifice it takes to win regularly in the NHL.
It won’t be easy.
The Oilers will have player medicals on Sunday and then hit the ice Monday for an abbreviated five-day training camp. It is not the ideal situation for a rookie NHL head coach, but Krueger is incredibly organized and he’s been through short training camps numerous times before as the head coach of the Swiss National team between 1997-2010.
I caught up with Krueger earlier this week and picked his brain on line combinations, line matching, defence pairings, rolling four lines and his desire to play a high-tempo, fast-paced game.
Gregor: You’ve mentioned before that you are more of a believer in line duos than line trios. Should we expect some regular juggling of lines?
Krueger: I think a lot will depend on how the players come in to camp. Once we get a feel for everybody, there are some advantages everybody can well know to using the Oklahoma City line early on in the season, but also being flexible to adjust and to surprise the opposition. Maybe even have portions where we do it because of how teams are matching up against us or so forth. Generally we feel good about the options we have and it’s exciting. We’re still waiting to see how Nail Yakupov comes into camp, who is still an unknown at this level. We do have some lines in mind Jason, but they’re going to grow and develop here pretty quickly in the next ten days.
Gregor: Nugent-Hopkins, Eberle, and Hall played together in the American League, are they destined to start the season together?
Krueger: There’s a chance they’ll see playing together, but even down in Oklahoma City we had to take them apart in one phase. Once they came back together, they came on strong. They’ve had portions of last season where they really were a dominate line in the league, especially here at home. It’s an option that will certainly show up in some point in the season, if not early on. You’ll see the three of them together, and they also worked very well together on the powerplay down in Oklahoma City like they did last season here. Growing and continuing on that path is definitely an option that we’re looking at seriously.
Gregor: What are your thoughts on matching lines?
Krueger: That can not be a given or a definite. If you look at a season like this, using your bench and creating pace, for the fans out there they need to know we could be looking at seven games in fourteen days right through the whole season. A game every second day, with back- to-backs, we might have a two-day break every once in awhile but then probably return with back-to-backs. When you do line matching it’s dangerous in so far as you can lose your rhythm and lose the pace a little bit. We’ll adjust accordingly, but we’re going to be concentrating more on what we do and what we need to do to be successful than on tracking the opposition too intensely. The priority will be pace; the priority will be depth and using the bench.
Gregor: Do you want to make it more comfortable for Yakupov early on and keep him on the right wing, or would you contemplate a move to the left side?
Krueger: First of all, we have to see if there was an advantage for him playing with men in the KHL since the summer. On the other side, he also was playing both left and right wing. Those are conversations that we will have. I believe that Nail will be a player who can attack from both sides.
He Will be playing the right side on the powerplay, nonetheless, because of his excellent direct shot and the release that he has on his off wing. In the five-on-five game, we still need to see how he reacts to the NHL pressure of pinching, for instance, clearing the puck on your off side is difficult for forwards under that pressure. There are some things we still need to get to know about Nail to make sure whether or not he can play on that right side in the NHL, or if he is an option on both.
Gregor: Teemu Haritkainen has something most of your other forwards don’t have- size. What do you expect from him heading into camp?
Krueger: His development has been strong in that he worked hard in the summer and early in the season. He was really pushed to be a physical specimen down in Oklahoma City and it speaks for their professionalism, how they’ve developed him. He is an interesting option as we look to bring five forward lines and four sets of D into training camp. With the injuries to Ryan Jones and Andy Sutton, we will need one defenceman and two forwards from Oklahoma City.
Teemu is a good guess on your part for having an opportunity, especially because he brings something unique to the table. Down on the powerplay in Oklahoma City he was the net front presence that allowed Eberle, Hall, Nugent-Hopkins, Arcobello, and Justin Schultz to have so much success as of late. So there have been some interesting things that he’s developed and grown in the direction that we like to see. Also, he has a mean streak in him and can play tough physically, which is an important asset that we’ll need in our lineup.
Gregor: What are your thoughts on Shawn Horcoff? He admitted that he didn’t necessarily accept his role as well as he should have late in the season. What are your plans on how to use him?
Krueger: I thought overall that he actually played a strong role in the team last year. When you look at his role on the powerplay, his winning draws, net front presence, puck retrievals, and at the same time he was a go-to player on the penalty kill. On many nights he played against the top line of the other team at even strength. It didn’t show up maybe in offensive numbers, but he sacrificed with a lot of character for the team. I thought his role acceptance was quite strong.
He’ll be seeing similar opportunities this season and he’s always a player that comes in excellent shape, he always works very hard. He should be fine coming out of this time without games, but like all of our players he’ll need some adjustment. He will be an important piece in many different departments because of his ability to play multiple roles and to give us depth in those roles. He might not be the go-to finisher on the powerplay, but overall there are a lot of important elements that Shawn will help us at.
Gregor: Ben Eager came in last year to add a lot of size and muscle to a lineup that didn’t have a lot of it. In spurts he showed it, but then for long stretches he didn’t. He said there was some miscommunication between him and the former head coach. Have you had a chance to talk to Ben? What do you like about his game and what do you need to see from Ben Eager this year?
Krueger: Well I love Ben Eager’s passion and his style when he’s on and healthy, just like Lennart Petrell. They’re important players for us to create physical pressure on the opposition’s defence and to be hit finishing, aggressive leaders on our team. We need that element in our lineup. Ben Eager and I had an excellent talk in the summer. I felt extremely optimistic he was in excellent shape heading into a potential season and my reports are that he has continued to work hard, waiting for the opportunity that has arisen now. He’s an energy player. He’s somebody who can really create, with his size and battle-ability; he can create some room for the rest of our offense. These character guys, who aren’t maybe in the top of the list for a lot of people in points or in the goal category, will do a lot of things important for us. I feel good about where Ben is right now.
Gregor: You’ve talked a lot to me about pace. You want to be a coach and a team that is very aggressive, and constantly pushing the pace. In order to play that way you’re likely going to have to roll four lines. Is your plan to use 12 forwards consistently?
Krueger: A hundred percent Jason. The reason then for players like Petrell, Eager, if you look at our depth possibly Hartikainen coming in, that they play an important role in developing that depth and being able to roll your lineup. We need to them to also have minutes of responsibility. We need to get them up in double digits so that they really feel in the game. There was often times last year where they only hit five or six minutes and it’s difficult to create pace with that. So that’s going to be one of the challenges for me as a coach, to make sure that we can get those players into the game and get them their minutes so that they can produce the physicality necessary for us to wear down teams.
Gregor: Let’s move to the back end. Ladislav Smid and Jeff Petry was a very good tandem at the end of last year. Are you a guy who believes in continuity? Would you like to see them stay together, to start the season at least?
Krueger: That was really a solid pair right through the year, playing against the top lines of the other team day in and day out, on the road, and at home. There is a really good chance they will stay together. Again, I am looking forward to assessing the players as soon as we get them, running them through the test, making sure they are physically fit. That’s certainly a pair that has a good history and a good personality and their future is still ahead of them for sure.
Gregor: Nick Schultz and Ryan Whitney are the two obvious candidates to play beside Justin Schultz. Give me your thoughts on who would be a better partner for Schultz, potentially, based on styles?
Krueger: I would love to be able to answer that right away to you, and we are very excited about what Justin Schultz brings us as a player. The offensive threat of Justin Schultz was present all the time in the American League. He will need adjustment to the NHL, so we’re all clear, and he’ll need to focus on the game without the puck. We have some ideas of how we want to see our defensive core develop, but we also want to read the players a few days before we add pairs. I think it was easy to speak about Petry and Smid staying together, but the way the other pairs are going to work out will be dependant a lot on how players come into camp, and what we see as the best fit for the team.
Gregor: You are a huge believer in rest and how important that is to the success of your team. Talk about your strategy during an abbreviated training camp.
Krueger: Well one of the things I have mentioned a few times is my experience dealing with world tournaments and the Olympics, where you had a seven to ten day training camp. It’s very important that the quality of work is extremely high. We’re going to immediately set the tone with our off-ice work with the preparation.
If we look at the activation that we want to do physically in the weight room, to make sure that the soft tissue injuries that can jump up at you in a season that begins this quickly and a pace that we’re going to be going at so highly, that we can do a bit of preventative medicine. A lot of that will be important, while the on-ice work will focus on creating speed right away, and tempo. We want to create game-like situations for the players that haven’t been playing on a regular basis. It will be extremely important to really feel what the players are capable of.
We don’t want them going into game one with an empty tank. We want to make sure that tank is full and that’ll be important — the awareness. We will also be looking at nutrition, looking at the regeneration and looking at getting good sleep patterns. That’ll also be a part of when we set up our schedule for travel. All those details, they will be magnified in a season like that. We need to get a hold of the things that we can control and take care of them as good as possible to have the team reach its potential.
Gregor: Devan Dubnyk got some playing time at the Spengler Cup. How much of a relief was it to see your starting goaltender get some action before the season starts?
Krueger: Well number one that he played, but number two that he played so well and so calm. I liked that he showed the same consistency at the world tournament to when he played those two games in the exhibition game just prior to that, as well as down the stretch for us last season. I’m happy for Devan that he was able to get some games in. There is nothing that can replace that and coming out of the tournament as a champion and a winner makes all that much more valuable. He definitely gave a good business card to the league right there. A lot of good players on his team got to know him better and I have nothing but respect for what he showed.
Gregor: When you start training camp on Monday, how do you balance conditioning to game strategy when you’re not going to have any pre-season games?
Krueger: Well that’s where the individualization is going to come in to the training processes that we have; whether it’s off-ice or on-ice, even at the end of practice, that we identify the groups and their needs. We’ve got some players that are mid-season shape, and some who have been working out really hard but haven’t seen contact in eight and a half months.
So identifying that and using the strong, supporting coaching staff here to be able to give each individual player what he needs in training camp. Whereas in a training camp that you would generally have, when he have like sixty-six players, every player would go through exactly the same processes for the first four or five days and then you would adjust. Here we’re trying to get a read on everybody as quick as possible and then individualize the way we prepare for the first game.
- Interesting to hear Krueger mention he needs to see how Yakupov handles the pressure his own zone playing the right side. Yakupov shoots left, so playing LW might be easier in his own zone. That could lead to Ales Hemsky and Yakupov playing on the same line.
- I suspect Krueger will require his forwards play a similar style to that of the Phoenix Coyotes under Dave Tippett. The Coyotes don’t have many big forwards, but they are relentless on the forecheck and deliver more hits that separate the defender from the puck, rather than trying to knock them through the boards. The Oilers need to be much better at retrieving pucks and creating turnovers.
- Krueger won’t worry about matchups as much as Renney did last year. He wants all his players to stay in the game, and doesn’t want them sitting on the bench for 10-14 minutes. He’ll shorten his bench late in games, but don’t expect many games with his fourth line playing only five minutes.
- Krueger will also be more demanding that some think. His veterans, or even the young kids, won’t get a free pass like some, mainly veterans, did under Renney last year. He will demand accountability from everyone.
- Sounds like the Oilers will open the season on Sunday in Vancouver. They are still trying to get a Saturday night home date on the 19th, but looks like Sunday will be season-opener.