THE TEAM TODAY: Chemistry Test
Oilers hold off-ice workout in Jasper, return home to Edmonton early Thursday
CHEMISTRY TESTWith eight days in between the pre-season and Sunday’s home-opener vs. Pittsburgh, the Oilers opted out of a fourth consecutive on-ice session this morning, and instead chose to hold a dry-land workout in the early-morning hours.
Heading into Sunday’s Thanksgiving clash, Head Coach Tom Renney has concocted a balanced mix, highlighting the club’s speed, skill and veteran experience.
Right-winger Jordan Eberle will play alongside Eric Belanger and Ryan Smyth, while fellow sophomore Taylor Hall will anchor the team’s ‘2A’ line next to Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Ales Hemsky.
PLAY YOUR GAME
“I think our practices have been pretty up-tempo,” Hall said. “It's nice to know that we have some solid lines now, and this is going to be the team that we're going to play with.
“We don't get to play until Sunday, so building chemistry early on has become especially important.”
“I need to go out there and play my game,” Eberle added when asked about his line’s contributions.” I thought [my line] gelled pretty well in practice and I'm excited to finally get the season going.
“When you've got enough players like we do and have such depth, you can mix the lines up. Anyone can play together and when you play in this league, anyone's good enough to play with anyone.”
Eberle scored 18 goals and 43 points in only 69 games in his rookie season. The 21-year-old is looking to improve upon that this year, and certainly doesn’t enter the new campaign with any reservation about a potential sophomore slump.
“No, not at all,” he said. “This is my second year. I know what to expect, I know what the season will be like and I know the pace. I expect to be a key contributor for this team.”
Renney thinks so, too.
“He was important to us all year long (in 2010-11), but as guys started to drop out of the lineup, he became even more important and became a marked man; a guy that had to be circled by the opponent in trying to stop him.
“[The young guys are] more enlightened. I hope they feel that they can continue to press the issue, play their game and attack the opponent.”
LET ‘EM PLAY
By the time the Penguins roll into Rexall Place on Sunday, they will have played a pair, while the Oilers will still be sporting a 0-0-0 record.
“We have to make sure we're ready,” Renney explained. “[Pittsburgh] will certainly be game-ready and we won't be. I think we'll have done enough good work, and we have certainly done that here in Jasper with the type of practices we've held.
“We’re back at it again tomorrow on the ice to prepare ourselves; and then three more days where we sit around and wait (the Oilers’ next game will be on Oct. 13 in Minnesota).
“We'll be ready. I would have liked to have played sooner, but that's the way it goes.”
The Oilers reported for medicals back on Sep. 17 and have since been going hard in preparation for 2011-12. Prior to, the team skated in lengthy two-hour sessions at the Kinsmen Arena and Perry Pearn’s 3-on-3 Camp in late August.
Somehow, it seems as though it’s been a long season already.
“I'm sick of practicing,” Eberle laughed. “Let's get this going.”
BALANCING THE BLUELINE
Both Ryan Whitney and Ladislav Smid are progressing and could potentially shock Oil Country by playing vs. the Penguins, but Taylor Chorney is certainly ready to go.
No. 41 removed the baby blue, light-contact sweater at yesterday’s practice, emphatically declaring his clean bill of health. Chorney’s knee was tweaked during the Oilers’ 4-3 shootout win over Minnesota last week, but as the smooth-skating blueliner describes, it was nothing more than a “little scare.”
“I hurt my knee last year and hadn't had any problems when I was back and healthy late in the season,” he said. “It was good throughout the summer, but I twisted it in Minnesota and initially thought I may have sprained it again. It settled down and maybe busted up some scar tissue, so the knee feels good.
“I'm ready to rock.”
With Cam Barker, Corey Potter and Jeff Petry in the mix, Chorney may not get the opportunity to play on opening night, but he’ll be ready to lace ‘em up should he get the coach’s call.
“I'm healthy enough, but I haven't really heard anything about getting into the lineup or what the plan is regarding that,” Chorney explained. “I'm sure it will get sorted out soon. Either way, I'm ready to go.”
With such movement on the backend (Taylor Fedun, Ryan Whitney and Ladislav Smid all out), Chorney is eager to get into the team’s full-time rotation.
“It's still early enough in the season where no one has really had the chance to play with any one guy in particular. We’re still feeling each other out, so when I do get my chance, I think I’ll be able to blend in pretty easily.
“We’re all excited about getting things going. There’s so much potential here. We’re all looking forward to the challenge, for sure.”
-- Follow me on Twitter | @ryandittrick
MOUNTAIN MEN“We’ve done so much,” Ryan Jones said in crisp and cool Jasper, AB Tuesday. “It’s been really awesome. Everyone’s loving it.”
The team’s three-day trip to the Rocky Mountains has, indeed, been a week to remember. From up-tempo, on-ice sessions to mountain biking, dinners and everything in between, Oil Country’s heroes have already bonded with some memorable, long-lasting moments.
And, as you’d expect, boys will be boys.
“We decided we were going to turn into elk stalkers last night,” Theo Peckham said. “I mean, I blend into the night, so I was creeping up.
“We were having a good time. It was all in good fun.”
The average elk (or wapiti) weighs approximately 500 pounds, a mere 329 more than the Oilers’ No. 1 overall pick, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
“You know what? You'd be very surprised with the guys I've seen chase down the elk,” Jones said. “There's this one guy – and I won’t say his name, but he may have been picked really high in June – who made a move yesterday.
“You’d never expect to see such a quiet, humble guy like that chase down such a big animal, but he really wanted it. There might have been a bet involved, too.”
Nugent-Hopkins’ on-ice skill is undeniable, but as Peckham explains, success in the wilderness is whole other ball game.
“It's tough, you've got to track them and learn their patterns. An ordinary man would crumble under the pressure, no doubt.”
“We have a guide, so worst-case scenario, we let them deal with it,” Jones added. “We get to rip through the woods. You don't even have to be an outdoorsy person to respect how big they are, so avoiding an attack was key. I think we did pretty well.
“The Swedish guys (Anton Lander, Magnus Paajarvi and Linus Omark) all want to see some bears. It seems like everyone has an animal that they want to catch in the wilderness.”
With the Oilers’ 2011-12 season opening on Sunday, having the opportunity to bond, build relationships and share some laughs has been an invaluable time; this comes in addition to the team’s one-hour, early-morning practices.
“We’re usually a little stressed during camp,” Jones said. “Everyone is trying to buckle down and get ready for the season. This has been an extension, in a sense. We get to relax a little, but getting to know everyone, especially the new guys, has been really cool.
“These are the guys we’re going to spending the next year with, so we’re trying to take advantage of this opportunity as best we can.”
Peckham agreed, adding that 14-year NHL veteran Andy Sutton, with whom he shares a bench in the team’s locker room in Jasper, has been a riot.
“He's a great guy, a real character and getting to know him a little bit has been awesome,” he said. “We’ve got some new faces in here, so getting to know each other some more is going to help us out in the long run.
“It’s been great. It’s been so nice to spend this time with everyone.”
The commute isn't too bad, either.
A city’s early-morning rush hour is a necessary evil, but when you’re several hours away amid mountainous hills and autumn skies, the back-to-basics approach is never a bad one.
“We get up in the morning, hop on a bike and ride to the rink,” Jones said. “It's really cool. We wouldn't normally get to do something like this, so I’m loving every minute.
“We had a little outing on the links yesterday, Ryder Cup style. My team didn’t end up winning, sadly. Even then, we had a good time.”
“We had a team-building event last night at dinner, which was pretty cool,” Peckham added. “We haven't been here that long, but it seems like it's been a week already. We've done so much together and it’s been a great time.”
Oct. 9 hasn’t arrived yet, but the 2011-12 Edmonton Oilers have already embraced passion and teamwork. It's certainly a good vibe heading into the new year.
-- Follow me on Twitter | @ryandittrick
QUICK ON THE DRAWDeep in the wilderness in picturesque Jasper, AB, it’s become clear where the Oilers will build this season.
When Eric Belanger signed a three-year, $5.25 million contract with Edmonton back on Jul. 1, his value was obvious.
The Oilers’ 30th place standing was backed by an equally as disastrous run in the faceoff circle; the team proved to be the league’s least-capable, winning only 44.2-percent, while the NHL-leading Vancouver Canucks were setting the pace at 54.9-percent.
“I'm going to try and help the percentage go up,” Belanger said. “I think it's something you have to do as a team; the wingers, everyone on the ice has to help secure the win.”
Belanger, 33, will provide an enormous boost. Winning 717 draws on 1297 attempts last season, he concluded the 2010-11 campaign with a 55.3-percent success rate; which put the 12-year veteran in 19th place among the NHL’s regular middlemen.
No. 20 is also keen to pass on his wisdom to the Oilers’ up-and-coming stars, including Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Anton Lander, Sam Gagner and others.
“Everything I can, I'm hoping,” Belanger laughed when asked about what he can teach. “I hope they pick up on some of the things I'm doing. I told them, ‘I'm going to be around all the time. Don’t be shy to come ask questions or to work on your skill in practice.’”
“I'm not going to go every day and bother them, but I’ll always be around and will be eager to teach them whatever I can during practices or even in games, since I have the experience. I want to help everyone as much as I possibly can.”
Nugent-Hopkins, who starred with the WHL’s Red Deer Rebels as an all-encompassing premier pivot, couldn’t say enough about Belanger’s incredible and ever-willing mentorship.
“[Belanger and Shawn Horcoff] have both been really great,” he explained. “They've been awesome in practice and in games in helping me out. Whenever I'm taking a faceoff or am up against a guy I'm not sure about, or have had trouble with earlier, I can go to them and ask them about what I should do.
“They’ll always give me some advice; it really helps. In practice we'll go head-to-head with each other. Both have been great for me.”
“It's important,” Head Coach Tom Renney added. “When you have guys with experience and wisdom in your lineup because of what they've done in the past, it's real crucial. It's coaching that a coach can't do.”
Winning at only a 48.3-percent clip 2010-11, the captain’s campaign didn’t meet expectations. But it’s his passion and dedication to reclaim past success that’s helped preserve the 33-year-old’s expertise.
Combined, the Oilers’ best men have played 22 NHL seasons. It’s helped them develop all-star attitudes in leadership and know-how, says Renney.
“That's where teammates can really step up and help a young guy complete the loop as a player, and they’re a pair of veteran guys that are clearly trying to help a young guy get better. That’s why Horc has the ‘C’ and Belanger will, naturally, be a leader on his team.”
Nugent-Hopkins, meanwhile, is a wide-eyed rookie, looking to develop his lethal two-way arsenal into an NHL-ready skill-set across the board and within the rink’s nine circles.
“I was pretty good, probably Top 2 on my team [in Red Deer],” he said. “I ended the season at about 60-percent last year. I always thought that I was really good on draws, but that’s something you can always work on.”
The NHL’s pre-season was unique, but a steep learning curve as well.
“It's a little more challenging in the NHL,” Nugent-Hopkins added. “Guys are a lot stronger, so you've got to put more weight on your stick and power through.”
Mastering your opponent is one step, but learning the game’s unwritten rules can, as Belanger explains, “provide an edge.”
“Every linesman has their own unique style, and you know how much you can get away with, with certain guys. That helps a lot. When you have them on your side and you know what their tendencies are, you can pick up a lot over your career.”
The Oilers’ climb from 30th ought to be mirrored in every column, assuming the others donning orange and blue exact a Belanger-like approach in guiding youth through experience and desire.
“The expectations are certainly higher this year,” he said. "In bringing in some older guys and having the younger guys be another year older with more experience, you can see they want to take the next step.
“The approach is very serious and we want to make the post-season. That's everybody's goal and we know we can be there.”
-- Follow me on Twitter | @ryandittrick