THE TEAM TODAY: The Blueline Shuffle
Oilers hold optional practice, comment on an emerging D man & more Wednesday
THE BLUELINE SHUFFLEAs much as they'd like to, the Oilers can't turn a blind eye. It's impossible to ignore the team's struggle to manage the puck.
"We turned the puck over a ton in the second period [vs. Calgary]," Head Coach Tom Renney explained following Wednesday's practice.
"So much of the damage that happens to your team is based on poor puck management; certainly in the second and third period, we were really poor at managing the puck.
"It's one thing to want to be a puck control team, it's another thing to know when and how to give it up to get it back, too, and we seem to forget that."
With 78 on the season, the Oilers lead the league and aren't seriously challenged by another NHL team. The Calgary Flames are next closest, but it's a distant-second as they've posted 18 less in 2011-12.
Having notched another 12 in the Oilers' 2-1 loss to the Flames one night ago, it was obvious who would step up to help counter those issues in puck control.
Paired with Ryan Whitney in his return to regular-season game action, 27-year-old Corey Potter has stepped up, impressing Oil Country with an excellent, intelligent two-way presence – a complement to his partner's game, which has helped No. 44 emerge as the team's go-to option.
The calm, mild-mannered rearguard didn't record a single turnover last night, has only coughed up one in his three-game Oilers career and has contributed on the other side with a pair of assists.
"I've been waiting for this," he said of his opportunity in Edmonton; Potter signed a one-year, two-way deal back on Jul. 1 and was expected to be battling for the extra-man spot on the blueline.
"It's good to come in as the nobody with no expectations, and to come in and play well, change their minds and persuade them. I can play in this league."
Potter spent the 2010-11 season with the AHL's Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, scoring 37 points (seven goals, 30 assists) in 75 games. He's played in 321 American League games and now 12 in the NHL between the Oilers, Penguins and Rangers.
He's a rookie by big-league standards, but his coach isn't surprised.
"He's an older rookie, so he has a certain maturity level that allows you to feel good about whatever the circumstance is," Renney said. "He's got good vision, good wherewithal, he doesn't get outmuscled, and he seems what to know what to do with the puck when there's nothing to do with the puck.
"That's huge to us. We're a little light there. He's a calm, poised guy."
Potter was originally selected 122nd overall by New York in 2003, but he was never able to crack the Rangers squad on a full-time basis. He did make a lasting impression on Renney, who served as an assistant and head coach for the Rangers from 2003-2009, however, while he waded minor-league waters.
"He was so good as a steady, reliable, leader-type defenceman; and obviously everybody was happy to have him in the organization, but we couldn't make room for him up top [in New York]."
Potter played 20:03 Tuesday night in Calgary, including 15:15 even-strength and 4:31 on the power-play alongside Whitney.
"He played great, he was awesome," No. 6 described. "He was really poised with the puck and solid in his own end. He's been like that the whole time and he's a good guy to play with.
"He's playing very, very well."
305 DAYS LATER
Never one to hide his honest opinion, Whitney's is as good as any. While he recognized Potter's strong assignment, the 6'3", 206-pound veteran also had a good showing in his 2011-12 debut.
"It was tough," he said. "There were times when I struggled, but there were other times when it went pretty good. It was about getting rust out and making decisions with what you're going to do with the puck before you get it, instead of waiting and that's what I was doing.
Renney wanted to keep Whitney's ice-time down, but he ended up carving the sheet for a total of 21:22 on the night.
"I think I played that much because we were down a goal at the end," he explained. "[The coaches] have a really good plan for me, and that's to ease me into it. This is my training camp. I feel good today; a little sore, but that's to be expected."
The Oilers' bench boss usually has high expectations for his stars, and Whitney was certainly no exception when it comes to the coach's post-game report card.
"I thought he needed to move his feet a little more and maybe deliver the puck sooner than he did; but he's got such a great scope of the game. He's one of those guys that can make those types of passes. He's started his exhibition schedule now.
"He's none the worse for wear today," Renney added about Whitney's higher-than-expected ice-time total. "It's about execution, too and making sure the right things are getting done and when that gets extended or stretched, maybe that gets compromised."
IN, OUT AND UP TOP
With Whitney back and Potter playing as well has he has been, ice-time has been tough to get for rugged blueliner Theo Peckham. The 23-year-old was relegated to the press box vs. Nashville and played 3:08 as a fourth-line winger last night in Calgary.
He's eager to get back in, but understands the circumstances.
"I need to be a good teammate right now," he said. "It's a tough situation when you're not playing, but ultimately the coach is doing it for the right reasons. He's doing it because that's what the Edmonton Oilers need right now. It's about being a good guy and a good teammate.
"I'm waiting until I get another chance to get in there and making sure that when I do get in there, I'm doing whatever I can to help the team win."
Renney said he'll get his chance again soon, but it will depend on how others are playing and how the opponent stacks up.
"His delivery of the puck has to be a little bit more precise and sooner and quicker," he explained. "But he's come a long way and the last couple games for him have been really good. He's a victim of numbers.
"It's about what the team needs at the moment, or what the opponent might bring us and how that might serve us to have certain people in the lineup," Renney added. "The bottom line is, it's about winning. As much as it's a team game and we really pride ourselves in our approach to that here, there's internal competition. [The players] know that and are prepared for that."
Nine players skated at today's noon-hour optional practice: Ryan Whitney, Theo Peckham, Sam Gagner, Magnus Paajarvi, Anton Lander, Ben Eager, Nikolai Khabibulin and Devan Dubnyk.
Jeff Petry also skated, but was later assigned to the AHL's Oklahoma City Barons:
Read the Press Release
It was noted by Head Coach Tom Renney that Sam Gagner was getting close and would likely play on Saturday vs. New York, with a shot of playing tomorrow vs. Minnesota. He will be assessed again tomorrow prior to the Oilers' 20-minute morning skate.
Taylor Hall did not skate or work out at Rexall Place this morning. He was having blood work done as he continues to battle illness. Hall made the trip to Calgary but traveled back before yesterday's game.
-- Follow me on Twitter | @ryandittrick
FLAMES 2 - OILERS 1Two late third period goals by the Calgary Flames led the home side to a 2-1 win over the Edmonton Oilers at the Saddledome on Tuesday night.
With a first-period marker, Tom Gilbert had the lone Edmonton goal on the night.
AT THE MORNING SKATEThe Edmonton Oilers play their second game in as many nights for the first time this season with a match-up against the Calgary Flames.
The Oilers departed Edmonton immediately after their 3-1 win against the Nashville Predators last night. The majority of the team did not skate in the morning with eight exceptions: Ryan Whitney, Sam Gagner, Ben Eager, Lennart Petrell, Anton Lander, Jeff Petry, Theo Peckham and Devan Dubnyk.
The remainder got to rest up in preparation for the Battle-of-Alberta clash. The Oilers come into the game with a 2-1-1 record through four games. They could really put a dent in the 1-3-0 Calgary Flames with a victory.
"We've got to do a lot of the things that we've been doing," said captain Shawn Horcoff. "We've felt really good about all the games we've played in so far this year. We felt (last night) that even though we were down one we outplayed them for 40 minutes and we were able to find a new gear and a new level of intensity there in the third and weren't going to be denied."
Head Coach Tom Renney agreed with the captain's sentiments.
"We have to pay attention to detail. We're not the type of team that can't ad lib our way through the game - certainly defensively," he said. "What we did last night, especially, was manage the puck a little better. We need to do that tonight. We know this team is going to come after us. Having played last night, I'm sure they're thinking 'we can go get this team.' Bottom line for us is to maybe manage the first eight or 10 minutes - use our bench to do that - and ultimately just start to play our game."
Coach Renney confirmed that Ryan Whitney will return to the lineup tonight.
"He feels good. Talked to him last night after our game and he was anxious to get going," he said. "Ryan will be coming back into the lineup it looks like."
Renney was quick to point out that expectations for Whitney should be tempered somewhat due to his 10-month layoff.
"Let's not forget, he hasn't played a game yet. This is the exhibition schedule for him now. Let's keep expectations realistic and make sure he does deliver the puck with the kind of pace that the has."
Whitney, who took part in this morning's 30-minute skate at the Saddledome, agreed with his coach's assessment and expectations.
"I plan to keep it pretty simple for a couple games," he explained. "It's been 305 days. I haven't even played a game of shinny hockey, so my plan is to get it out and get it in, over and over.
"I'm excited to get back. It's been over a year, so I'm really anxious and really overly excited. I'll be a little nervous, but I'm ready to go."
Encroaching on a calendar year since he last played, the 28-year-old blueliner expects some rust (and burning lungs), but, fuelled by adrenaline, it's all part of being a pro.
"I'm sure it will feel like playoff hockey for me out there," Whitney said. "I've scrimmaged a little in practice, but I haven't been hit in a long time. I'm sure the old wind is going to be struggling a little bit when I get bumped, but that's stuff you have to deal with.
"It's the process of getting into a groove and getting into my usual schedule."
It's been 305 days since the 6'3", 206-pound rearguard battled against the Buffalo Sabres on Dec. 28 at Rexall Place. That night he played only 3:48 before a rut in the ice and weak ankle joined forces to end his two-goal, 27-point campaign.
Although missing the season's remaining 47 games and the first four in 2011-12 may have been a tough pill to swallow, Whitney described the circumstance as "a learning experience."
"It was obviously very tough. It took me a while to become the player I was last year, but I've got it in me to return to that form. I'll just need some time to get back into the swing of things."
Several weeks ago, Whitney described his situation and slow healing process as "prohibitive pain;" something he certainly wouldn't push to return too quickly from. The Boston, MA native is now pleased with his diagnosis, 33 days removed from camp's Sep. 16 opening.
"There's going to be some time when you come back and feel stuff still; it's going to be like that for a little while, but at the same time, it's ready to go now. I'm comfortable with how everything feels.
"A little," he added when asked about feeling any pain. "It's stuff that I'll probably deal with for a little while, but at the same time, it's not slowing me down any."
Tonight, Whitney will be tossed into the proverbial fire against the division rival Calgary Flames. While he may have established his name as one of the league's most revered puck-movers last season, the skilled D man will be driven to keep things simple in holding up his end as a pivotal impact-player.
"I'm going to focus on making the easy play, keeping things simple. If the pass isn't there, I'll put it off the glass and out. That's not what I usually look to do, but that's the biggest thing for me.
"If I see a guy open and have time with the puck, I'll be looking to make a solid tape-to-tape pass. When I'm under pressure, it's about out getting it out of my zone and getting it out of trouble.
"I'll be nervous; I think every guy is nervous to start a season. But you have no idea how excited I am."
OTHER LINEUP CHANGES
Renney added that he might even go with seven defencemen as it was revealed later that Taylor Hall has been under the weather. If he does, it will likely be Theo Peckham who gets the call as Jeff Petry, along with Sam Gagner, was skated hard in the morning at the Saddledome.
Devan Dubnyk gets the start in goal.
-- Marc Ciampa & Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com - Follow me on Twitter | @ryandittrick
OILERS 3 - PREDATORS 1The Oilers choreographed a three-goal third period, including tallies from Taylor Hall, Ryan Smyth and Ryan Jones to counter the Preds' attack and win 3-1 Monday night at Rexall Place.
Nikolai Khabibulin got the start in goal, notching 11 saves in the win.
AT THE MORNING SKATEHead Coach Tom Renney still doesn't want to give too much away. Understandable.
"Yes, they're expected back soon," he said about Ben Eager and Ryan Whitney.
Within the next 48 hours soon?
Eager is expected back as soon as can be. The 27-year-old winger has missed all but one period since Sep. 18, when he endured a concussion on an unexpected collision with Kirill Tulupov in the Joey Moss Cup, who is now with the AHL's Oklahoma City Barons.
"He's going to play," Renney remarked.
""I'm excited to get back and get going," Eager added. "It's been a long time; it's been a month now, but it seems like it's been three. I've been ready for the past two weeks and I'm excited to get back in."
Eager was signed to a three-year, $3.3 million deal in Jul. 1's early-morning hours, and was expected to bring a tough-as-nails brand unmatched by the departed J-F Jacques and Zack Stortini.
One month has passed, but he's now ready to go and will be expected to bring the same presence promised four months ago.
"I'm going to play my game," Eager explained. "I've got to get in and be physical. I feel as good as I ever have, so I'm not too worried. I get hits when I'm moving my feet, so I'm going to try and do that and maybe bang a couple goals in."
The latter is an especially important point. The 6'2", 240-pound forward scored seven goals and 17 points last season with the Atlanta Thrashers San Jose Sharks; he's a proven veteran with an ever-expanding two-way arsenal.
"Just take it easy," Renney said. "[Ben's] got to be a contributor. He's a bright player, he's a big strong man, he's a physical guy, he can shoot the puck well and he's got good hands. The big thing for Ben is to ply everything he's been watching and hearing about into a game situation. That's where he has to slow down and take it easy.
"That's why we acquired him in the off-season," Renney added, regarding Eager's physical play. "We weren't able to look at his body of work in training camp and the exhibition games, so we'll have to do a little bit of that now. He's got to keep it simple."
DON'T BE THE PREY
The Oilers went 2-1-1 vs. Nashville in 2010-11, winning once at Rexall Place and once at the Predators' home rink, Bridgestone Arena in Tennessee.
Although the Preds don't have many big-name stars on the roster, their team-game is down to a science and has helped Nashville remain as one of the league's most challenging opponents.
"They do have Shea Weber and Pekka Rinne, though, and those guys are elite players," said ex-Predator Ryan Jones. "They're a six-man unit every time they step out on the ice. They play their system well and they've played it for a long time. Couple that with being a hard-working team and that's a good recipe for success."
Jones, who played with the Predators from 2008-2010, is excited to go back at it against his former team.
"It's still a little bit exciting," he said. "But it's been almost two years. It's another game and I've got to go out there and play hard; and there's a certain amount of professionalism when you're playing against your friends and guys you know well.
"You go out there and battle hard. That's what I plan on doing. I want some good bragging rights and the two points tonight."
"We can't look at this time and think they're vanilla, because they're not," Renney added. "They're well-coached. They play the game at a high speed and they're about counter-attacking. If we want to fall into the trap of thinking that we're going to dance our way through this one, we're in serious trouble."
That's something the Oilers' bench boss is stern about. Improving on the team's 1-1-1 record is a must, but doing so is up to his 23-man squad.
"The bottom is line is to make sure we're engaged; let's pay attention to developing our own game, and that includes energy, and that includes a good forecheck, and that includes good re-loads. We need to make sure we're on the right end [of the score] this time."
Nikolai Khabibulin, who posted 34 saves, a 0.92 goals-against average and .971 save percentage vs. Minnesota and this season, will get the nod in goal.
Head Coach Tom Renney said at this morning's press conference that he may dress seven D men, as an unnamed forward has come down with an illness. That will be a game-time decision.
-- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com - Follow me on Twitter | @ryandittric