Edmonton Oilers head coach Dave Tippett is as excited as fans, media and players to start the 2021 season. An abbreviated training camp, with no preseason games makes this coming 56-game season even more unique. Tippett is looking forward to the challenge of ensuring his team is ready on January 13th.
Tippett joined Jason Strudwick and me on our TSN 1260 radio show to discuss training camp, line combinations, defence pairs, the new taxi squad and more.
**My thoughts are in italics.**
Jason Gregor: How different is your approach without pre-season games to ensure your team is ready for puck drop on the 13th?
Tippett: Well, it’s good to be back Jason. We’re getting thrown into a mock situation, but you have to make the best of it.
The hardest thing from the coaching standpoint…We’ve been meeting for a few days here without the exhibition games and trying to integrate your new players in, trying to see how all of the parts fit and so there is a lot of those things that were’ going to have to figure out in a hurry. We will do some with scrimmaging in camp, just try to get a feel for things. But it’s going to be some read and react on the fly, and you’re going to have to try to find where all of those parts fit the best and you’re going to jump into it and play back-to-back to start the season. So we will find out what we have in a hurry.
Jason Strudwick: What about getting guys from off-season mode to game-one mode without any exhibition games? Is that a player thing, is that a coach thing, how do you get that going?
Tippett: A little bit of everything because you try to ramp up the intensity in practice where you know they have to get to a battle situation. And even when they are scrimmaging right now, I know Connor [McDavid] and Leon [Draisaitl], our leadership group have talked about it, when they are scrimmaging, they are trying to do the little things right. Instead of just changing, you try to change as you would in a game, with that charge. Trying to do little things that get your game face, or your game mode in place. You try to do those as much as you can.
We’ll push that in scrimmages, we’ll push that in lots of one-on-one battles. And you know that Struds, it’s when you’re in summer mode, backchecking is optional (laughs), all of those things that just make the game easy, you’ve got to get those out of your system early.
The good things about it is that it’s such a crazy time. The players recognize that, so they’re pushing themselves right now a little more than they would be in a normal summer situation. So, I think that our guys will be ready to go. Talking to a bunch of them, their fitness level will be good, it’s just getting into the game action. We’re going to work our best to get up and ready as quickly as we can.
Gregor: Dave, a lot of the players didn’t hide their disappointment after losing to Chicago and felt like they can learn from something from that moving forward. You’ve talked about it as well: this team improved scoring goals five-on-five, but there hasn’t been a lot of improvement in lowering the amount of goals against at five-on-five. Do you sense this group is better suited to lower your goals against this year?
Tippett: That certainly is an area that we’re looking at. You get a lot of time in the summer to go through things. I look at the four games in the play-in round. The first game we didn’t play very well, we didn’t start very well. The second game we played very well. The third and fourth games I thought we actually played well in the games, but we did some things that we didn’t find ways to win in the one goal games. In fact, we found ways to lose. Those are some detailed stuff, coverage stuff, those were hard lessons learned, but our guys have really taken notice of that. Those are the things that we’re really going to stress. The details of winning and finding a way to win a game by a goal and hold leads when you are in those positions.
I think our team has to take those lessons that we learned and use them appropriately. But there are parts of our game, five-on-five, that have to improve that we discussed this off-season. I really like the added depth that we have had at forward because part of defending is having the puck. When you have the puck, you’re not defending. And we had times last year where we were chasing the puck too much — we didn’t have enough puck play or smart puck play. And with the added skill on forward and adding (Tyson) Barrie I think that helps our group that way. Hopefully we can defend better by defending less.
Now that being said, when we do defend, we have to do a better job. We talked about how we were a good big ice team, our power play was good, we’re good off of the rush, but the small ice game, net front winning battles in corners, those are areas that we have to improve, so that will be a big focus of ours going into camp.
*No doubt Edmonton has more skilled forwards in the lineup. Expect few wasted dump ins this season. This group will make more plays in the neutral zone, and I could see them resetting instead of just dumping it in, with no one chasing, which happened too often in the bottom six last season.*
Strudwick: Dave, you talk about some of those details, in front of the net, along the walls, getting those pucks out — will it be an approach of just a blanket statement — ‘Hey guys, this is what we got to do better,’ or do you focus in on specific players and their weaknesses and strengths in some of those areas?
Tippett: You can throw it out there as a blanket statement, but you have to recognize that there are some players who do it very well and there are others that don’t. But when you get a team focus, that is part of your identity that you’re going to do these little things right and there is a feeling that everybody has to do it, it’s not optional for some players and not optional for others.
It’s very similar, everyone talks about Connor and Leon are great scorers but that doesn’t mean that your third and fourth line guys can’t score — I’d love to see them score a lot more but the reality is that everybody has a role. Connor and Leon are going to get their points and we need them to score for us to be a good team, but those guys, just like your players that are defenders and they score less, they have to try to score more. Connor and Leon and people that are expected to score, they can check well too. So, it’s a balanced game that you have to have throughout your lineup if you expect to win in the playoffs. Those are all lessons that we have to continue to learn.
Gregor: Tyson Barrie is going to get the opportunity to play on the first unit power play in place of Oscar Klefbom, but what about your pairings five-on-five? Bear and Nurse played a lot and they played a lot together last season. Adam Larsson is healthy, Barrie comes in, so your depth on your right side is infinitely better than it was last year. What is your plan of attack for the minutes amongst your blueline and do you have a rough idea of pairings you would like to see day one of camp?
Tippett: Well, we talked about it a lot through our coaching staff and all those things are to be determined. And a lot of those will be determined by who is playing well. And situations in the game. Larsson is a very strong, heavy defender. Barrie, I think he’s a very good puck mover. He’s a guy that for me is a high-end offensive player. But positionally he’s very sound. He’s not a poor defender by any stretch. And Bearsy is just a guy, he’s a real in-between. He’s a good defender, smart player, we like our depth on the right side. And Bouchard is going to push hard coming in.
We have a good mix of players that bring different attributes to the game, but you need all of those attributes in the game to be successful. I like where our D is right now. Obviously, we will miss Klef, but it’s an opportunity for a guy like Caleb Jones to come in, play well. An opportunity for a guy like [William] Lagesson, and a Slater Koekkoek who I thought played real well against us in the play-in rounds. And you look at that schedule, you’re going to need eight or nine defencemen if you’re going to play in this league. There’s going to be injuries and there is going to be some fatigue. Our depth is better than it ever has been and I’m sure that we’re going to use it all.
**I’m more intrigued by the D pairs than I am the forward line combinations. I think we will see different pairings at different times in the early games, just to see how they look. I don’t expect Bear and Nurse will play 92% of their 5×5 time together this season like last year.**
Strudwick: Dave, teams evolve with their rosters and Riley Sheahan is gone. How do you plan to fill his spot on the penalty kill, which was very good, where he played with Josh Archibald?
Tippett: Well, you know, we talked about that for a long time. We feel like we’ve added extra depth. I think you will see [Kyle] Turris come in and get some penalty kill. [Gaetan] Haas who came on in the second half of the year, I think that he could get some of that. We’ve got Josh Archibald here still, so our penalty kill, I like the structure. Jim Playfair does a nice job with our players.
Having the two right-handed centreman options, instead of Riley who is a left hander, helps and we have JJ Khaira to take face-offs. So having the right hander there I think will help us. The one thing in the NHL is the team who goes on the power play gets to pick the side of the faceoff that you’re going on. The majority of teams pick our right corner, their left corner, so having a right-handed faceoff guy to start there as many times as you can, will benefit us.
I think Turris will do a good job for us. I had him in the same role in the World Championships about five years ago. He was a good penalty killer there for us. He hasn’t done much the last couple of years, but we’re going to push him into that role more. So I think the penalty kill will be fine. We know it was a big part of our game last year. Same with our power play. We have to try to balance that out. Who knows if we finish top two on special teams, but we need to be a top-five team on penalty kill or power play, whatever it may be to help you win, but we also need to balance that out with a better five-on-five play.
**It was interesting to me how he mentioned Haas and Turris first, before Khaira. Even though Khaira was on the ice for the fewest PP goals (among PKers with 100 minutes TOI), he is not guaranteed a spot. Khaira needs to be engaged from day one of camp if he wants to be in the opening night lineup. The one advantage he has over Haas, is that Haas will miss the first few days of camp in quarantine after he arrived late to Edmonton due to being quarantined in Switzerland.**
Gregor: Dave, how much does continuity matter for you in the blueline, especially with no preseason games? Bear and Nurse played a lot of games together and when Klefbom went down, Jones played with Larsson. Would it be safe to assume that it would start there or do you need to see where guys are at in training camp, based on scrimmages, to move things around?
Tippett: Well obviously Nurse and Bear played together quite a bit, so you are looking for some continuity there, but there is also some situations where you want to see how players react to each other and you can do that through some drills in practice and during scrimmages. You’ll get a feel for where we’re at and especially the players you don’t know as well.
You have Barrie and Koekkoek coming in who are new, so we will see how things play out as you go through and you can get a pretty good read how guys are reading off of each other during different drills and in scrimmages. It’s not ideal, not having any exhibition games, but it is what it is and you have to make the best of it and come out with the best result you can.
Strudwick: Dominick Kahun comes in as a guy who can obviously put up some points. Were there some conversations with him regarding centres to play with? Do you have to see him with them to understand how he can blend quickly, or mesh quickly with one of those guys?
Tippett: Well, we know one guy that he has meshed quickly with, because he’s played a lot with him before, and that is Draisaitl. So that was a little bit of the thinking. He’s a good skilled player. We will see how that goes. We know Nugent-Hopkins meshes with our centremen. We know that Tyler Ennis, we got a glimpse of him last year before his injury, does as well. So, we will just see, but that’s a little bit like the defence. You have to figure out what are all of the parts to it and who is the best fit for each line and where you can use your best combination to make the group, the group as a whole, a lot better. And Kahun is one of those guys I’m interested to see what he can do. You get to know the player and once you get to know him a little better you can find the right spots to put him in where hopefully you can maximize his talents.
Gregor: Have you decided if Nugent-Hopkins is going to start day one of camp with McDavid or Draisaitl yet?
Tippett: Yes, I have, but I’m not going to tell you that. (Laughs).
Gregor: (Laughs) Well, why not Dave, we’re going to see at practice on Sunday?
Tippett: That’s good, so at least you have something to look forward to (laughs).
Gregor: Okay, how about what goes into that decision then? What is your mindset when you are trying to formulate your top-six?
Tippett: We just throw names in a hat and lucky guys come out. Good thing on our team, the lucky guys you get are Draisaitl and McDavid; those are pretty lucky guys to get pulled to play with. Naw, we’re looking at everything. I thought our team was better in the second half of the season as we continued to try to expand our depth and give us more balance in our lineup. Those are things that we are looking for.
To win in the playoffs you have to be a balanced strong team all of the way through. For the first half of the year our scoring really relied on one line. As the year went on we got a little more balanced and I thought our team played better. We’re trying to find that balance, trying to find the balance where you get into games where you need more people than the one or two guys scoring, you need some balance throughout your lineup. So those are some of the decisions that we make. You’re looking for continuity of guys, you’re looking for right, left, puck movers, or people that can make plays verses scoring, size, strength, there are a lot of factors that go into the decisions that we make.
Strudwick: You know that the taxi squad is going to be unique to this season. Have you thought of how you are going to keep those players game ready? Because I’m assuming teams are going to need players that get injured at some point.
Tippett: It’s going to be really unique situation. We talked about among our staff. If you look at the schedule and we go through it, it’s so condensed and there are going to be days where there are going to be optional days where your big minute guys to have to come out. So, it will vary. There will be days where the taxi squad doesn’t practice with you, and then there would be days where you might have five or six guys staying off of the ice so you have a full practice where the taxi squad will be there.
But it’s going to be a unique situation to keep those players all in game shape, so we go through our schedule and imagine all scenarios with the travel and the back-to-back and stuff like that. I think that we’re going to use a lot of players. I think that there is going to be an injury factor that is going to come into play for every team. Knock on wood I hope we don’t, but I think we’re going to go through more than the usual amount of players for a shortened season.
Gregor: Dave, players always like to be on one of the special teams if they can, to stay in the flow of the game. And with your number one power play unit being so dominant, the second unit won’t get much PP time. Last season you mentioned Kailer Yamamoto was somebody you might use on the PK. Is that still the plan and what about Jesse Puljujarvi? Is it too much to ask a player who has never really killed at the NHL level before, to do it with no pre-season games?
Tippett: Well, we will see how it goes. He (Puljujarvi) was doing it in Finland this year, I watched some of those games. He did a pretty good job, we’ll see how it goes. Yamamoto has killed lots before in the American League. He killed a little bit for us last year, not much, but those are things that as we go along here, there are things on our team that we want to try to improve. There are players that are going to get more opportunity to do some of that stuff.
The depth that we have right now and especially on our forwards, we are going to have some people who are going to do different things. And that depth will help us to improve not just with competition, but when you do have somebody maybe go down with an injury, that depth coming in will help keep us where we can stay very competitive.
Gregor: You have to carry a third goalie for every game this season. Some goalies like a lot of rubber in practice, others want time off, so are you expecting to use three goalies more in a practice rotation or is it going to be your top two guys?
Tippett: You’re going to do everything you can to make sure your top two guys are ready. And when you are playing as many back-to-backs as we are, there are times where a guy is almost doing his preparation for the next game, the starter will get what he needs and he gets out. The good thing about it is between taxi squad and situations where you don’t want to overdo it on a practise day before a game with your starter, now you have three guys.
It’s actually a nice luxury to have because there are times during the year that you’re not carrying a third guy that you wish you did. So it will be interesting to see how it works out. Everyone will get work, but the third guy will ensure your starter doesn’t get overworked or is in for a practice where maybe rest would be better for him. So now we can throw the other guy in and you’re going to get a better starter the next day.
Gregor: I spoke with Slater Koekkoek recently for an article, and he talked openly about how he started a journal halfway through last year, on the recommendation of his agent, because he was struggling. He took it to the coaching staff and said these are my goals and they wrote down what he does well, and he believes it helped him. How much have you seen players change over the many years you been coaching? Is there more of an emphasis on being mentally happy amongst players?
Tippett: You know what, I see it, I’ve seen it. There are players that have been doing it a long time. It’s just that with media, social media, you hear about it a lot more. Players used to do that way back whether it be flash cards, players have motivated themselves or had motivation, mentors, stuff like that for a long time.
In this day and age, and probably it is, I don’t know, probably it is that people recognize it more, but for a long time way back in 1984 with the Olympic team in Canada we had different psychologists and different things and when you are playing all over the world it just, players have been doing it for a long time, it’s just that between social media and trying to get an extra edge, that people end up talking about it a little more. But I know Slater, I’ve talked to Slater a little bit, I know that his agent worked with some of his players before and that was something to be aware of coming through there. It is a good step for the players. Anything a player can do to make himself better, try to improve himself, why wouldn’t you do it? There are a lot of players that do those things and as a coach those are things that you look at and I like that because it shows that a player is trying to get better.
Gregor: Last year your power play was fourth best of all time since they started tracking power play percentage. You’ve got your three guys in McDavid, Draisaitl, Nugent-Hopkins, they know each other very well. Now you’ve got the right shot in Barrie. How much different potentially could your power play look or benefit from having a right shot at the top compared to a lefty?
Tippett: There are some different options that come into play. I think Barrie has a mindset to shoot a little more than Klef did, but the power play probably really runs through those three middle guys. Barrie is a really creative guy, he thinks the game well, makes some creative plays, so there are some situations where we might see some different looks at it. And like you said, our power play was pretty good and we’re always looking to improve on it, and I’m interested to see what Barrie can bring, because he brings a different element than we’ve had on it there before. And maybe it gives us some new options that are new and good for us coming into this new year.
Gregor: Thanks for joining us Dave. Good luck in the Canadian division.
Tippett: I think this Canadian division is going to be amazing, I think it’s going to be a blast to be involved in. It’s too bad the fans weren’t in the stands getting the emotion that the players are going to have, but it’s going to be a lot of fun. It’s like a 56-playoff game series and away you go. I’m looking forward to the challenge. Our guys are anxious to go. I think that everyone will be excited to get playing. Thanks guys. Good talking with you.
HAPPY NEW YEAR…
Thank you for continuing to read my articles and listen to our show. We truly appreciate it and I hope 2021 is a great year for you. I hope you and your family are healthy, happy, full of love and you make the most of 2021. We got through 2020 together, and 2021 will be better.
I look forward to the discussions, debates, agreements and disagreements that will unfold during this unique season. I’m so pumped for the Canadian division. I expect the games to be filled with a bit more animosity than usual.
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- We Need A Christmas Miracle