With 60 candles to blow out on the birthday cake Wednesday, Edmonton Oilers’ coach Dave Tippett has been around more than long enough to know the value of having experienced veterans in his dressing room and in his line-up. Sure, the old coach likes old players. Thanks for the news flash, Captain Obvious.
Yes, Tippett and Oilers’ GM Ken Holland, who put together some teams loaded with guys older than dirt in Detroit, know the value of experience, of been-there-done-that. It’s no surprise, then, that Mike Smith will be back in the blue paint at the age of 39, that 38-year-old Duncan Keith is in the fold for the next two years or that Holland and Tippett are happy about that.
What stuck with me from a chat Bryn Griffiths and I had with Tippett on the latest episode of The Outsiders is how seamlessly he moved from talking about the value of experience to high hopes for Evan Bouchard. At 21, Bouchard isn’t as old as some of the shoes Holland and Tippett have in their closets. The way Tippett tells it, he expects big things from Bouchard.
Reality is the best teams have the best mix of personnel – experience and the intangibles that come with it, talented young players like Bouchard bubbling up, reliable role players and depth. That’s the kind of team Holland is trying to build and Tippett wants to coach. It doesn’t hurt when you start with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, but enough about them.
THE OLD GUYS
So, what, exactly, do Keith, a three-time Stanley Cup champ, two-time Norris Trophy winner and veteran of 1,192 games, and Smith, who has 15 seasons on his resume, add to the team dynamic? What impact can they have on Bouchard and Jesse Puljujarvi and Kailer Yamamoto and others still finding their way in the NHL?
“As a coach you talk to players over the summer and I’ve talked to Duncan a couple of times,” Tippett said. “He is one of the most motivated players I’ve ever heard coming to a new team. He wants to come in and really make a difference, so I’m excited to see what he can bring.
“Experience to me, one of the biggest things is knowledge. The knowledge of situations, recognizing things that happen during a game, during a season, during a road trip. That experience they have can really help a group, especially when your leadership group is a little younger.
“Like Keith’s knowledge as a three-time Stanley Cup (winner), going through it with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, all young guys. They’ve been through all of those wars. That experience is invaluable . . . people see Smitty as a big goalie and he moves the puck well and he’s got lots of energy, but to see him in the dressing room and the presence he has with our team, that’s an intangible people don’t get to see, but is very needed in our dressing room.
“I know Connor and Leon and all those younger leaders, they see a guy like Mike Smith and the work he puts in, the passion he has to win still. Those things all rub off. The intangibles are things I know fans don’t see, but they’re real in how you build a hockey team.”
Bouchard, who got into 14 games last season, will likely start in the third pairing with Kris Russell with a blueline group that is drastically different from last season. Adam Larsson, signed by Seattle, and Ethan Bear, dealt to Carolina, are gone. Oscar Klefbom remains out. Keith and newcomer Cody Ceci will likely start as Tippett’s second pair with Nurse and Tyson Barrie on top.
“I think Evan Bouchard is going to be a key player for us this year,” Tippett said. “He’ll get minutes and I think he’s going to take a step forward. I said to some people, I think he could be our Jesse Puljujarvi this year where he comes in, we kind of start him down and he continues to grow in our line-up and becomes a really good NHL player.
“Evan Bouchard, he’s coming. I think last year, he’ll look back and I know he didn’t play as much as he’d like, but he’ll look back and it was huge experience for him. He played a little bit in Europe (Sweden) and got his feet wet. He understands how hard the NHL is and how hard you have to work.
“He’s trained the whole summer with Darnell Nurse down in Ontario. He’s going to come in a very motivated player but having the wherewithal to have people like Duncan Keith or Nurse or Ceci right there to help him along the way will be invaluable for his development.
“You need two things to make a great player. You have to want to do it and have the passion to do it, and you have to be willing to learn. Evan has both those things. He’s going to learn from some good people there who have been through a lot of the trials and tribulations.”