EDMONTON — The Edmonton Oilers have the horses up front. The problem is, they’re all thoroughbreds, no Clydesdales. They need to learn how to work as a team, or the team won’t work.
That would make assistant coach Craig Ramsay Edmonton’s Horse Whisperer, arriving here having taken on a few projects that were very similar to this during a coaching career that began in 1986 — before all but five of these current Oilers were born.
“Tampa was like this,” Ramsay said, referring to a young Bolts roster he joined in 2001 that had a pair of 21-year-olds named Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards. “And Martin St. Louis as a young player, trying to find his way. Not as a high pick, but as a guy who had to struggle to get his opportunity to play. Ottawa was like this as well. I had (Daniel) Alfredsson, (Alex) Daigle, (Alexei) Yashin, Wade Redden came along… They picked first (or Top 3) a whole bunch of times.
“There’s a learning curve, and we can shorten it. But we can’t end it. We see steps, and then falters. Then another step…”
The Oilers are proof that it is impossible to win in the National Hockey League when all your best players are 24 or less. And it is a further fallacy that the skill accrued when drafting high translates directly to goals at the NHL level.
Last year Edmonton ranked 25th in offence, and they surrendered more goals than any other club. The three Oilers forwards who led the team in ice time were sub-24-year-olds Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle. Nail Yakupov would join that trio, if he weren’t such a disaster defensively, ranking 883rd among 886 NHL players last season with a minus-33.
Enter Ramsay, a veteran, steady hand whom success has followed throughout two decades behind NHL benches.
“The key issue is for them to understand that the fact they were so dominant as a young player doesn’t exactly translate into the NHL,” said the 63-year-old. “They have to adapt some of the things they used to get away with, that were wonderful in junior and college, to the NHL level. You have to be quicker, and the thing is when you get the puck is to keep it.
“As a (junior), you’re better than everyone else. You get that one chance, you take it to the net, you score goals. It’s wonderful. It just doesn’t work that way (in the NHL). You’ve got to work with teammates. You’ve got to keep the puck. That’s the next step — being part of a team concept,” he said. “You’re not expected to carry the weight of the world every night (like in junior). But you are expected to participate with those players around you. You’re job is to help them be better, and they’ll help you be better.”
Hall, when he arrived, had a tendency to bury his head and bolt down the wing like a spooked horse. He’s much better now, but today it’s Yakupov who becomes the project. He is entering his third NHL season and still has miles to travel to become a player you would describe as even remotely responsible defensively.
But really, it’s not Yakupov’s fault. Or Hall’s. Or Eberle’s.
You show Ramsay a star player in junior, and he’ll show you one who isn’t learning much about being on the proverbial ‘right side of the puck.’
“Because you were better than everyone else,” he said. “You had more time, and could dominate because you were bigger and stronger, or you were quicker.
“I’m not asking you to be a checker,” Ramsay said. “ I’m asking you to participate with your teammates in getting the pucks back.”
Hall is well aware of his team’s need for a more stern defensive posture. And the theory that they need to let the kids loose and be creative? Well, the Oilers were pretty loose last season, and they finished 25th in scoring.
It’s about Corsi today, and that bears out the obvious statement that you can’t put the puck in the other team’s net, if it’s not on yours — or a teammate’s — stick.
“Skate. Play (both ends). Be smart,” recited Yakupov on Monday. “If you do those three things you have more chances to shoot the puck, and (have) some offensive chances.”
The message is getting through, slowly. But the Horse Whisperer’s work is only beginning in Edmonton.