THE TEAM TODAY: The Waiting Game
Oilers discuss opening night, Whitney & Smid update their status
THE WAITING GAMEIt’s been 180 days since the Oilers last played a regular-season game and even longer, 182, since Rexall Place played host.
Now we’re close, but not close enough. Another 54 hours stand in the way, as the Oilers anxiously prepare for the team’s home- and season-opener on Sunday vs. Pittsburgh.
The Oilers held an up-tempo, one-hour and 45-minute practice this morning at Rexall Place. Head Coach Tom Renney pushed the pace, preaching energy, physical play and communication throughout the team’s spirited skate.
The Penguins’ 2011-12 campaign opened yesterday with a 4-3 shootout win over the Vancouver Canucks at Rogers Arena. The rink was rocking there and across the league as the NHL’s regular-season got underway.
When Pittsburgh arrives at Rexall Place, Sunday’s home-opener will be charged, and the wait will have been well worth it.
“It's almost surreal,” Theo Peckham said. “You're 22-23 and some guys are 18 [years-old] in here. You go out, they're announcing your name and everyone is cheering for you. It's an awesome experience.
“Who would have thought that when you're kid playing House League that you'd be here some day. Opening night is very special.”
“It's going to be electric out there,” Ryan Jones added. “We've got the greatest fans in the league, by far. They’re going to be crazy-loud.”
Ladislav Smid, who has been medically cleared to play, is questionable but could get the opportunity to suit-up in Sunday’s matchup. Having participated in three home-openers with the Oilers, the 25-year-old is understandably pumped to make this one happen, too.
“I've done everything I could to be in this game,” he said. “There’s going to be great energy with Ryan (Smyth) being back and getting another No. 1 overall pick, I think the fans are really anxious for the beginning of the season, and so are we."
Along with Taylor Fedun and Taylor Chorney, Smid had to leave last Thursday’s game in Minnesota. It was suspected to be a long-term problem at the time, but Smid’s rehab schedule has helped him improve much more quickly.
“We were worried about how serious it would be, but I had a couple x-rays and nothing is broken,” he said. “There were some strained ligaments, but nothing that serious.
“I’m mostly pain-free. I had a couple battles today and it was strong; the strength is there. In my mind, I'm good to go. Now it's the coaches' decision. I'm recovering well, and the rehab and exercises have helped me out big-time this past week.”
Head Coach Tom Renney is pleased with No. 5’s quick recovery, but is in no rush to pencil him into the lineup so soon.
“We'll see,” he said. “He's been medically cleared. We'll give him some contact again tomorrow and then make a decision based on that.”
Edmonton’s other hobbled rearguard, Ryan Whitney, is also nearing a return. Limited to only 35 games in 2010-11, the 28-year-old has been extremely disappointed in his ankle’s stubborn healing process.
It’s coming along, but at a snail's pace.
“My strength is getting better,” Whitney said. “It's getting stronger each day.
“[Pain] comes back and it gets sore, it's just not as strong and the pain isn't as bad, so that's good. It's not a sharp pain right now either, and that's what's important.”
“Maybe, I don't know yet,” he added when asked about playing in Sunday’s season-opener. “I haven't talked to Tom (Renney) yet. Probably not, but you never know. We’ll see.”
Whitney last played on Dec. 28, 2010 when the Oilers endured a 4-2 loss on home ice. His 3:48 TOI that night put the brakes on a commendable campaign in which he’d scored a pair, adding 25 assists (second-best in the NHL, at the time) and a team-high +13 rating.
When Whitney is slotted back into the Oilers’ lineup, the smooth-skating D man will have missed over nine months; and without a pre-season tune-up to help guide his early-season return, Whitney is expecting a challenge.
“It's not ideal,” he laughed. “No one would really choose to do that. Other guys are in the same boat and it's something you sometimes end up having to do.”
Missing Game 1 of 82 may be a necessary swallow, but Smid and Whitney need not be rushed back in, assuming they’re not ready to skate at the league’s highest level, so says the Oilers' bench boss.
“I'll sit down with him and T.D. (Forss, Head Athletic Therapist), and we'll talk about where he is and how he feels and start to draw some conclusions, at least.”
PREDICTION TIME - WHO WILL SCORE THE FIRST GOAL?
Ryan Jones, Ladislav Smid, Theo Peckham and Devan Dubnyk all weighed-in:
Jones: “I'm going to go with Jordan Eberle. He's been hot in the pre-season. Ryan Smyth will score the second goal, I think.”
Smid: “I hope Ryan Smyth or Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, because the building would go crazy.”
Peckham: “I'll go with Smytty, Ryan Smyth. A wildcard, a 'blackhorse,' so to speak, will be me. I'm going to be up in the play; I'll be up there like lightning.”
Peckham scored three times last season, including a miraculous marker on Jan. 4 vs. Detroit at Rexall Place. No. 24 leaped into the corner-glass, celebrating his tally with equally as excited teammates.
Can we expect a similar celebration?
“They put some extra supports in the corners for me this year,” Peckham laughed. “In all honesty, I've been waiting for about three years to do that. It was something I always wanted to do. I saw guys do it all the time and wanted to know what it was like.”
Dubnyk: “Hallsy's got it. He's been buzzing all pre-season. It might go in off Jonsey's face, actually. I’ll go with Jonsey's face or Hallsy's stick.”
We'll reveal more opening-night predictions tomorrow, right here on edmontonoilers.com
-- Follow me on Twitter | @ryandittrick
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