Another dawn for Nugent-Hopkins, Oilers as training camp opens

Calgary Flames' Michael Frolik (67) chases Edmonton Oilers' Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (93) during second period NHL action in Edmonton on Saturday, Jan. 19, 2019. (Jason Franson/CP)

“Nobody should be walking around like our s*** don’t stink. We haven’t accomplished what we wanted. We’ve let ourselves, the team and the city down. We’re coming in here ready to compete.” — Edmonton Oilers winger Zack Kassian.

EDMONTON — Over the years, the optimism that accompanies the opening of an Edmonton Oilers training camp has taken on various forms.

There is the gruff, mea culpa by Kassian (above), issued as the Oilers players completed their medicals on Thursday morning. Or this, more logical take by Taylor Hall, at his first pro camp back in 2010 for an Oilers team had only missed the playoffs for four years running when he arrived on the scene.

“Whatever goes down must come up,” Hall said that day. “There’s a lot of excitement in this city, in the dressing room. Talking to players you can tell they’re very excited for the youth to come in, just get a new vibe in the dressing room. Us kids, we want to get in and make the biggest impact that we can.

“There are going to be some growing pains at the start, but as we go on we should be fine.”

Ah, yes. They should be fine.

Four years later, the shine had worn off of Hall somewhat.

“When you look at the standings in November, and you see that the mountain in front of you is almost insurmountable, … it certainly takes a toll on you mentally,” Hall said of 2013-14 season, where Edmonton finished 28th. “It feels like this year expectations are tempered, realistic, and I feel like that’s a good thing for our team and for the new players on our team. (We) look forward to exceeding those expectations.”

Today, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is the last man standing as the longest serving Oiler. On Thursday he danced through another media scrum, opening his ninth training camp in Edmonton. It is a two-step he knows well.

“You always come in with expectations, and optimism,” said Nugent-Hopkins, who greets Dave Tippett as his ninth head coach, and Ken Holland as his third general manager.

“When you don’t have success, changes start out as a positive experience. Then you’ve got to build off that,” he said. “Ken is a guy who will provide stability up top… With Tipp, first thing first with him is his structure … and that’s going to go a long way with our team.”

In Nugent-Hopkins’ defence, there is clearly no point in succumbing to negativity. It only breeds more of the same, and any decent leader needs to project a positive attitude.

For instance, Dallas Eakins, on the first day of his first training camp here in 2013, made this promise: “You will either compete hard or you will … not … play,” he spelled out. “I do not care how old you are, how much money you make, how much term you have left on your contract.

“You will compete, or your minutes will be cut until you buy in. That’s how it’s going to go.”

Eakins lasted 31 games into his second season before he was let go. The Oilers, it turns out, never bought into his plan, which included a defensive system called “The Swarm.” Nugent-Hopkins readies now for Tippett, a respected, proven coach who gives the Oilers centreman reasons to remain positive.

“It’s important to stay positive,” he said. “You can learn from the bad, and that’s what we’ve had to do over the past few years. We need to learn from the negative things, and in a losing season, there ARE negative aspects. But looking forward, you’ve got to see the positives and have the right mindset going in.”

There is a common focus among the offensive leaders here, many of whom had career seasons last season yet watched the team miss the playoffs yet again. That is…

Well, we’ll let Leon Draisaitl tell you.

“If I score 20 less goals and we make the playoffs, I’ll be so very happy,” said Draisaitl.

“What would be a successful season?” he was asked.

“Make the playoffs,” he answered.

“But what about…?” Draisaitl cut off the question.

“Make the playoffs,” he said.


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