Ramsay talks coaching, defence and powerplay

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Craig Ramsay has been involved with the NHL for the past 44 years as a player, coach, director of player personal and assistant general manager. This will be his 21st season as a coach, and he brings a wealth of experience to an Oilers team that doesn’t have much of it on the ice.

The Oilers opened training camp for the 35th time this morning with the veterans taking medicals. They will be on the ice tomorrow and Saturday before playing two preseason games on Sunday vs. the Flames.

What will Ramsay add to the coaching staff? He and I discussed his philosophies on defence, powerplay and most importantly, for him, the need for his players to trust him.

Gregor:
I’ve spoken with many players who have played for you and they all raved about
what a great teacher you were. How did you learn to teach the players in a way
they could understand and actually employ your instructions on the ice?

Ramsay: It is interesting as a coach, you
can go into a place where you deal with people and you start telling them what
to do and I don’t think that can be very effective. I think in the short team
it might help, but in the long term the concepts are to help someone understand
why they’re doing something.

If you can help them to understand why they
are going to a certain area, why they are putting their stick on the ice, why
they are blocking or passing, see even standing in a shooting lane if they
understand that, they’ll find a way to do it and they’ll find a way to react to
situations that they break down as they change and they morph into something
different.

You’ve got to understand and you’ve got to
feel comfortable doing that. And that’s what I do a lot, I try to spend time
talking to the players and I really want them to understand that I care about
them personally. I care about their life and I want them to be better people by
the time I’m finished and hopefully better players for doing that because I
really do care about them.

I learned a lot of that from Roger Nielson
as Roger really cared about everybody that he worked with, worked for and
coached. And I would like to bring that forward.

***Ramsay has an excellent reputation of connecting with his players. He could be instrumental in helping Jeff Petry, Justin Schultz, Martin Marincin, Oscar Klefbom learn the game.**

Gregor:
How much tape have you watched of the Oilers defencemen or do you wait until
camp starts to get to know them?

Ramsay: That’s a tough one. I have watched
some. I actually, in order to learn some of the systems, the video system
again, Myles [Fee] set me up and I went in and I cut up a game and pulled out a
lot of what I saw were good clips, really good things that we can reinforce.
And they’re clips that players can see themselves doing some things that we
want them to do every time, not just once in a while, we want them to do it on
a long term basis.

So I have looked at it, I’ve done some but I never like to get preconceived
notions on the people when we are talking about our team and where we are going
to be at training camp. We haven’t spent a lot of time breaking down individual
players because sometimes you go in and you’ve got an idea in your head that
probably not quite correct and I want to give the players every opportunity to
show me what they’ve got and to listen and see where they can get to and I
don’t want to have any bad thoughts in my head when I start that.

Gregor:
You don’t want a bias because if you see something early on it might lead you
down the wrong path?

Ramsay: Yes. It’s interesting, if you had
that bias and you look at a game, you can find something that the player is
doing incorrectly and then oh, there it is, I told you. But the reality is he
did an awful lot of things that were really darned good. But you were looking
for something in particular and you will probably find it over the course of a
game or two games, you can find what you want to find.

I would say that I thought that I was a
pretty good checker and you could find a clip and say ‘whoa what is he doing,
the person doesn’t have any idea of what he’s doing.’ But over the long term I
was probably a decent player and I hope that the players will understand that
when they get short term coaching it’s in order to make them better in the long
run.

Gregor:
Video has changed the game so much now that I assume most players are more
educated as far as what to expect from a coach. Can you catch them off guard,
can you surprise them with anything or have they seen most of it and now it’s
is more about reinforcing things constantly?

Ramsay: Well, I’ve caught them off guard a few
times because what I really teach.  I was
talking with Zdeno Chara, one of my favourite players that I’ve ever coached, when
I was in Boston
for a month. I had to call the D over for a meeting after a practice. I said,
‘boys we’re having a problem, I’m telling you things and you’re not doing it.’

And he just turns to me and says, ‘Well
Rammer, we like it but it’s different. You’re telling us to do things we’ve
been told not to do our whole lives and it takes a little while to learn
because it’s different.’

And I want to be a little bit different. I
wanted them to understand that there are different ways to do things, you don’t
have to be programmed, you don’t have to be a robot. I want them to be able to
extend themselves and grow into a bigger and better role and I really believe
that you can show them things. You’ve got to be careful though that you don’t
overwhelm people and try to drive something down their throats because it takes
away what makes them a special player.

FORWARDS AND DEFENCE

Gregor:
Will you work with the forwards as well or are you predominantly going to be
working with the defencemen?

Ramsay: Well I’m going to coach D during
the game and I really want to be a part of everything and Dallas is extremely inclusive. We’ve had some
wonderful meetings with Keith [Acton], Dallas myself and Rocky
[Thompson]. So we all feel like we’ll have input on everything. Dallas is the man who is going
to make a lot of the calls, he’s the guy, but we’re all having input and there
is no question in my mind that defence is a team game…

I was talking to you the other day about how
breakouts weren’t great, well part of that isn’t just the fact the defencemen
didn’t make a good pass, often it’s because the forward didn’t get back, he
didn’t get into position quickly, he was waiting to see what happened. So we
need our forwards to be available, to want the puck and then once we’re done
that, we need our defencemen to get up ice and join rushes.

We need to support our forwards. That makes it a five-man game up the ice and a
five-man game back. Offence and defence are equal partners together, so the
scorers have got to learn to check and the D have got to get up ice and help
create offence and be a part of the offensive program.

**I loved this answer. The Oilers forwards need to be better in their own zone. Too often last season they didn’t give their defencemen a good outlet opportunity. Meanwhile the the D-men have to join the rush and support the forwards. Ramsay’s aggressive approach from his defenders could really help Justin Schultz.**

Gregor:
The Oilers’ defencemen collectively didn’t get a lot of shots on goal last
season. In your experience, you’ve coached a lot of different players, how can
you encourage guys get used to wanting to shoot the puck more?

Ramsay: Well, in every day practice you’ve
got to come up with a drill for sure, but probably more than that, a drill that
requires the defenceman to be shooting the puck and to shoot it in a hurry. One
of the things I’ve always been amazed at, and I don’t particularly like it,
when you watch the game is the defenceman takes the puck on the wall, and then
takes five steps to the middle of the ice and then tries to shoot.

First off,  he’ll allow the defenders to
get out to him, and second with teams blocking shots as well as they do now,
you don’t have just one person in front of you, you probably have three and you
don’t get your shot through.

So we’re going to work on situations and
plays where our D are just getting the puck and shooting it. If they can’t
shoot it on the net, then they shoot it wide and there’s goals being scored
throughout the league now on shots taken wide on purpose, bounced off of the
end boards and where someone gets into a battle for the puck around the net.

So we’re going to try to create a lot of situations and make sure the players and
the defencemen understand that part of their role is to score goals, is to be
involved offensively. Not just to get the puck to a forward and watch it, not
just to wander up the ice, but to get up, to be involved and when you create
that atmosphere, it’s fun. Everybody likes that, everybody wants to be a part
of that and every defenceman you have can skate up the ice quickly and get
involved in the rush, and that is how you start to create that atmosphere of
offence.

Gregor:
Craig, do you like your defenceman if they are a left shot to play the left
side, and a right shot to play the right side?

Ramsay: Yes, overall I think that’s a good
system, it’s a good way to play. And for most people I think that they’re more
comfortable doing that. I’ve always had some defence who like the other side
but overall it’s hard, I don’t know why, but it’s hard to get certain players
to move over and you have to at some point. And I know with Andrew Ference when
I had him in Boston,
Andrew was the go to guy. He played left, and he played right, and he played
left and the same game he would have to do that. But game after game, he would
be switching left to right and he never ever sad a word, he just said “Ok, no
problem’ and he would just go out and do it. But it’s hard to find guys who are
really comfortable playing that opposite side.

Now in the offensive zone, teams set up
players on the off wing, off point so that they can one time pucks from the
middle but overall I think you do that, you go to that, but players are more
comfortable on their correct side.

Gregor:
I know you and the coaches were in a coach’s symposium the last couple of days.
What was the purpose of that, what did you gain coming out of it?

Ramsay: Well, [laughs] this will be my 44th
year in the league, this is the first time I’ve been involved with one of
these.

Gregor:
Wow.

Ramsay: I was surprised. Dallas told me and he asked me to make a
presentation. We had all of the coaches from the various teams the Oilers are
involved with, and Ian Herbers came in from U of A and made a presentation. It
was just wonderful for me.

We had Mark Messier speak, we had some
really neat things go on and I really enjoyed it. We got to know each other, we
really got to talk about those small details that make the difference in
systems play and offence and defence and how things will work within the Oilers
organization and it was one of the best things I’ve ever done.

POWERPLAY FORMATIONS

Gregor:
You’ve  had a lot of success in your
previous coaching stops on special teams. When you look at the skill that you
have in Edmonton is there a certain formation that
works to the skill set of the players or do
you think these guys have enough skill that you can use any formation, be it
the umbrella, one-three-one, or a traditional two guys low? Is there a style
you prefer on the powerplay?

Ramsay: It’s interesting because the new, I
don’t know how new it is, but the one-three-one that has one man up top and
then three guys across and one at the net, that is the most popular formation
right at the moment. I like to bring three high; I’ve run some four high power
plays with just one guy down in front of the net. You have to continue to work
different formations. You have to have some flexibility and the players have to
understand that probably two, three, four different formations that you might
use at any given point in time.

But overall, I like to get people away from
the net so that the two penalty killers struggle a little bit, yet pull the
defenceman away from the net when you do that and then attack down and shoot
the puck. You have to start off by shooting the puck. If you don’t shoot the
puck, it’s nice if you have the big one timer, you have the big shooter out
there, but you just need to get the puck moving towards the net and all of the
information you’ve received nowadays is about shooting the puck, getting pucks
on net leads to goals. There is no doubt in my mind, I’ve always felt that way.

If you get it back to the point, you shoot
it, the penalty killers want to first move out to block it, now they’ve got to
turn and find it, we’re not sure where it is. Often your players are screening
the goalie, but they’re not sure where it is. Often your players are screening
the goalie but they’re closer to the rebounds, they’re moving towards the
rebounds or they clear out away from the net. So we’re going to start off a
shot, and even though you’re going to maybe have some highly skilled players
who want to be fancy, you still start off shooting the puck and then that leads
to other things. You go high, and you go down low, then you try a half-wall
shot. You just have to keep changing the concept.

**The Oilers PP was too predictable after the first 20 games. Too often they wanted to make the pretty play down low. Nikitin has a cannon of a shot, and I’d expect we will see him often on the PP. Perron and Pouliot should have a great opportunity to get significant PP time if they show they can be a provide a consistent net-front presence.**

Gregor:
So you want your players to be a bit selfish? Is that the way to say it?

Ramsay: That’s exactly the way to say it. I
told players I don’t know how many times [that] being unselfish is a good
thing, but being a selfish guy who wants to shoot the puck that can be really
good. And guess what? If you shoot the puck on the net and your buddy scores on
the rebound, he doesn’t care that you didn’t make a perfect pass to him, he’s
quite happy to tap in the rebound.

So many times players try to make that soft
pass through two people, when if they just banked it off of the goalie from a
bad angle, he kicks it out where they want it anyway. The D have to turn and
now your buddies are banging in rebounds. I know as a player I should have shot
more. People told me, and I knew it, but I wanted to pass the puck and I scored
twenty goals a few times, but often I would be giving the puck to somebody else.
It is hard to change, but you have to be selfish because if you’re selfish in a
positive way, in a good way, then your team is going to be very happy to play
with you.

Gregor:
You said that you didn’t watch much film to avoid having any biases heading
into camp, but have you thought about potential defence pairings?

Ramsay: We’re going to try to put some
people together, but we have to experiment. We’re not [positive] with where
we’re going with this. The players will sort that out I think fairly quickly
and then we’ll try to get them in a grouping that we think is positive but you
know, we’re not entirely sure of anything at this point in time and we’re going
to give everybody a chance to show their stuff which means that they get to
play with everybody. They have to move around a little bit for the first few
days, but we’ll sit and talk over some ideas on who might end up with who and
we’ll try them off and on.

I think it’s very important that everybody
understands that they have to earn their job with the Oilers. There are no freebies
and I don’t care because I’m new. I don’t care who you are or who you were; I
want you to show me what you can do. So no, I haven’t made my mind up on
anything or anybody, I’m really open to watch these kids and let them show me
their stuff.

Gregor:
The one player on your team who has a reputation for being a very good
defenceman in his own zone and relishes all the tough matchups is Mark Fayne.
When you look at his ability what type of partner do you feel would fit best
with Fayne?

Ramsay: It depends whether we want to put
more of a shutdown pair together, or we want maybe more of a two pairs that we
think we can play. One of the things that I really believe in is at some point
in time you’ve got to play all six defencemen that are dressed. You’ve got to
put them out there and you can’t be afraid if they end up against the top line.
You can’t be. They have to understand that they now must play against these
people, they’ve got to be able to do the job, and they have to learn to do the
job.

Now, having said that, I’ve also been lucky
enough to have some shutdown pairs, who you fight to get matchups and Andrew
Ference can do a really good job in that situation. He and Fayne would be good
in that if late in a game, or on a particular night, you just want to have that
one pair you can really go to. But again, I know generally what the boys can do
and I was more watching, when I cut up the tape, on the willingness of the D to
jump up the ice.

That’s kind of more what I was looking for
first and I got some really good clips for the presentation I made of the
Oilers scoring some goals where their defence were up and scored. In other
cases they didn’t score the goal, but they (D-men) created the three-on- two that
led the goal. And even though they didn’t touch the puck, they made the play
happen and that’s a concept we want to get through to all of our players that
sometimes just being there is the most important thing you can do.

Gregor:
Because it puts fear into the opposing defenders thinking that there are more
guys to cover?

Ramsay: Absolutely. And it was really
interesting. One of the clips was a goal against Washington. [Mike] Green from Washington, who is a top
defenceman, he had two bad plays with the puck in the neutral zone and then on
the three-on-two he did, one of the things that I just don’t allow, he just
latched onto a guy and somebody else scored a goal. He turned over the puck
twice, but then he felt he had his man as he gave up a goal. There are the
things that you try to get out of your own team because the Oilers in this
particular situation did a wonderful job, got their D jumping up the ice to
create the outnumbered situation and when Green latched on, somebody was wide
open and shot the puck in the net. So it was a great clip to show for what the
Oilers can do and what you don’t want to do on the other end of it.

Gregor:
You said you do not want to coach your guys to just get locked onto taking
their man. Can you elaborate what’s the right thing you want your guys to do?

Ramsay: Well in its simplest form, it’s
that you own the middle of the ice. If you own the middle of the ice, versus an
outnumbered rush at any point in time, especially in your own end, if you own
the middle of the ice now your goalies are facing shots from the outside. You
don’t allow those seam passes as much as you can and the goalie now he’s
focussed more on a shot from an angle and if you can push people away from the
middle in your own zone then you’re going to force those shots, your goalies
are going to be happy, they know what they are going to face and then your
response will recover rebounds and battle after that. But if we just continue
to own the middle of the ice with our defenders, players be forwards or defence,
then we’ll keep everything more to the outside and that’s really the key issue.

PARTING SHOTS…

Ramsay’s experience should be a big boost to the Oilers. He is an excellent communicator, but I’ve heard he isn’t afraid to express his feelings. He will be patient at the start, but if players don’t listen to what he has to say he will call them out in practice or in the video room.

“He is an excellent teacher, but he also is very good at holding players accountable. He will get on you, but he does it in a professional manner. He never embarrassed guys and they appreciate it,” one of Ramsay’s former players told me last week.

Ramsay gave some great insight into how he wants the Oilers to play in both the offensive and defensive zone. The preseason will give us some insight into which players excel being smart and aggressive in all three zones on the ice.

Recently by Jason Gregor:  

    • "Frank the dog"

      Ramsay would then support Nelson in his new role as Oilers HC and he would do a damn fine job at it too.
      I think Nelson with this Coaching staff would do a better job of taking the Oil to the promised land than Eakins.
      Eakins talks the talk. Nelson, he walks the walk. Players are prepared to give Eakins another chance. Nelson doesn’t need another chance. He’ll pull it all together first time around.

    • Dan 1919

      You guys need to settle down and wait for results. Every coach from the AHL and up knows how to interview well and impress the average hockey fan with a few great phrases.

  • Wax Man Riley

    Great interview, as always, Gregor! You always ask such good questions, and ask them in a way where you seem to be looking to get certain information, but disguising it. I’ve noticed sometimes you get the info you seem to be digging for, and sometimes you get a different, equally interesting response.

    Ramsay was a great hire, and as others have said, could be the biggest difference maker of the year. I also honk it takes a lot of pressure off Eakins and is part of the reason he seems more comfortable.

    On a different note…. Why so quiet on the Ederle front? Haven’t heard anything from him.

  • camdog

    hey J.G…awesome interview to read. Thanks. Ramsay is a very classy and experienced coach/person who benefits any staff he is working with and I for one am happy to see he is with the Oilers this year.

    His explanations and sentiments as a coaqch makes me feel a heck more comfortable going into this season than that of ex-coaches – Smith and Buckberger.

    That being said, there is still a lot of work and hockey school re-training to do for several of the Oilers from last season to the new guys coming in.

    I love it that Ramsay stated the forwards have to get more into the game, be more accoun table to help their defence as also the defence must shoot more and get going with the forwards. I for one never saw the forwards and defence work well consistently last year so this is great news to hear of.

    As for Eakins, I just want him to focus on the hockey more so this year than on fitness and the regime. I think this is a year finally where the Oilers show a good improvement from 28 to at least 16-20 over-all. Might not make the playoffs (which I absolutely want to see)but an improvement such as moving up 10 to 11 spots in the league is still an excellent starting point/accomplishment from the past 8 yrs.

  • ubermiguel

    Everyone needs to remember Eakins hired Ramsay, so he deserves the credit. From the interviews at the time it basically sounded like Eakins was hiring his own mentor. An amazing development move for coaches and players.

    I love the simplicity of “own the middle”. Pair that with the offensive instincts of the Fab 5 and we could have a fun year.

    And I’ll second Wax Man’s thoughts: Gregor does a great interview. My favourite interviewers: Gregor and Charlie Rose.

  • Reg Dunlop

    Wow. Attack and defend in 5-man units.Could it work here? I wonder if Fetisov is available.

    Everyone, from Yakupov to Ramsay to Hall, is saying the right things. Soon we will see if it’s just talk. There is just SO much uncertainty here. Will the half dozen young players progress or regress? Will the newly signed veterans be Gordon-good or Belanger-bad? Will our gumpers be able to give consistently decent netminding for a complete season? The only guarantee seems to be Hall. I hope that is enough.

  • Reg Dunlop

    Insightful interview Gregor. Ramsey has experience and knowledge in spades. If I remember right he was a good 2 way forward during his career. Curious as to how he became a Dman guru. I guess you learn a few things in 44 years.

    His kind words about Roger Nielson got me thinking. Nielson’s “coaching tree” must be huge. He had an enormous influence on today’s game.

    Anyway Ramsey is a very welcome addition to the team.

    • ubermiguel

      He was an excellent 2-way forward, probably Top 10 ever. There’s something about 2-way forwards that makes for good coaches. See: MacT, Lemaire, Gainey, Carbonneau, any Sutter.

  • I was able to talk to Johnny Boychuk at an event this summer. He said Ramsay will bring great positive change. The guys will love him. I also asked him if he considers Edm a good place to play. His response was that if he ever left Boston he would love to play in Edm. (Likely because of his roots). Anyway, the convo left me feeling positive about the oilers future.

    • Aitch

      I can’t find a scouting report for Wolverine, but I would it imagine it says, good edges with a great first step. He’s marvellous in puck battles, rarely losing. He’s truculent. Very truculent. Literally has fists of steel. Despite being injury-prone, he’s quite durable. Not great in the dressing room, but always has his teammates’ backs on the ice. Good in clutch situations.

  • Mantis

    Wolverine for C? Ok, but only on a 1 year deal – I heard he’s gonna die this year. (Usually the Oilers don’t die until AFTER they’ve got on to the ice…)

  • Aitch

    So, if the Oilers somehow pull one of those once-in-a-lifetime, massive, one season improvements, will Ramsey win the Jack Adams? 😉

    As someone who’s done some low level coaching I really enjoyed reading about his theories on the topic. It’s a common mistake by many coaches (myself included many times) to teach through the mistakes that lead to “coachable moments” rather than explaining the drill, situation, play, etc clearly. And not how to execute, but why you do it, when you do it.

    Oh, and I think I’m gonna cry if I see the Oilers actually employ more than one PP formation this year. Thank you, Mr. Ramsey!

  • camdog

    Nice to have an NHL quality coach with the team. I don’t fully understand how Mact thought that going into last season with that coaching staff and the Swarm was going to work?

  • Jason Gregor

    Very interesting article on a very interesting coach………read every word.

    Good to know we have a real coach for Eakins to lean on. I love the fact he has a plan in all three zones. Especially on the PP, which was so utterly predictable last year. Can’t tell you how many time I yelled at the TV for players to SHOOT.

    If Ramsay can get all the players to “be selfish” and shoot the puck, I like our chances!

  • camdog

    Yes JG, those questions did allow for deeper insight. Thanks!

    Mixed feelings here though, as Ramsey’s feedback seems to be on good track.

    However, I have in my hands “Defensive Tactics” by George Kingston from Advanced II, National Coaching Certification, circa 1994. It covers how to teach protection of mid-ice corridor, steering to outside, recognition of being outnumbered in defending attack and being more aggressive on even man rushes.

    If Oil coaching are waking up to this twenty years later, where does that leave us?

    Okay, I’ll take the positive here and approach this year with more confidence that we have basics covered.