EDMONTON — In his first training camp as a 30-year-old, the coming season is about more than simply restoring production for Milan Lucic. There is exponentially more at stake than that for the burly Serb, who shouldered more blame for last season’s Edmonton Oilers collapse than most, if not all of his teammates.
First and foremost, Lucic wishes to prove that he is not yesterday’s player, outmoded by the new National Hockey League. That he can still give a team 50 to 55 points, and a physical presence that has always been his bank stamp. On that front, last spring’s playoffs lent confidence.
“I know a lot of people preach skill and speed,” he began on Thursday, speaking after an informal workout at Rogers Place with many of the key Oiler players. “But ultimately, the big boys got it done when it mattered the most. Especially the big guys in Washington.
“It’s still a man’s game. It’s still a power game. I’ve done everything I can to prepare myself to bring that again.”
And so it begins, the most important season of Lucic’s career, with this promise: “It’s … getting into that Beast Mode mentality. I spent the summer focusing on my mental game, and my mental health.”
Somehow, these Oilers have become an internet magnet. Whether it’s Connor McDavid, the fact the rebuild here is pushing double digits, or the seeming delight that fans of other teams take in every perceived misstep made by general manager Peter Chiarelli, this isn’t Raleigh or Glendale, where losing means a quiet fade into obscurity.
With the pipeline announcement and an economy that is stagnant at best, Northern Albertans are waking up owly these days. It is a hungry, impatient Canadian market where fans have heard every promise in the book, and then watched that promise be broken. This winter, they don’t want to go to bed pissed off as well.
“We have to make coming to the rink fun again,” admits Lucic.
When the Oilers had 103 points two seasons ago — Lucic had 23 goals and 50 points — the pain was supposed to be over. Then they nose-dived last season, and it was like Lucy pulling the football away one more time. It hurt, bad, and people here took it personally.
As the season wore on and Lucic’s frustration became palpable — he scored once in his final 46 games — he became the poster boy for another messed up rebuild. “Chiarelli went and signed yesterday’s player,” the internet crowed. “He gave a big, bad, Bruin seven years and $42 million, while everyone else is getting smaller and faster.”
After a summer complete with reports he had asked for a trade from Edmonton, denied by Lucic Thursday, he is well aware of the need to reclaim his place as a productive left winger on a successful team.
“Everyone starts with a clean sheet. Guys have had tough years for decades. It’s about how you bounce back. How you clear your mind and move forward,” he said. “It’s havin’ fun again. Making the most of our opportunity. Love the game, love the sport.
“As Wayne (Gretzky) always says, it’s such a great game, and the game has given all of us so much. There’s that little kid in you, and you’ve got to find that again and come to the rink having fun. That’s one of the things I worked on more than anything.”
Has he lost weight?
“Well, it’s tough to lose weight when you’re already eight, nine per cent body fat,” he said. Lucic, who is a heavy player at around 235 pounds but always in impeccable physical condition, worked out with Chad Moreau this summer, the brother of ex-NHLer Ethan. “I spent more time on the ice this summer than the last couple of summers.”
Frankly, this is how much Lucic is going to weigh. Losing 12 pounds is simply not an option.
So he’ll have to find more game in other places, and listening to Lucic on Thursday, that place appears to be between his ears.
“I struggled with my confidence last year,” he said. “Just going back and watching tape of yourself making plays (helps). Carrying the puck through the neutral zone. Moving your feet with the puck in the O zone. Taking the play on your own versus waiting for everything to happen.”
Really, what Lucic represents is a microcosm of this entire Oilers roster, a group that is out to prove it is still a relevant NHL contender.
Around the rest of the league there is doubt. On both counts.
“There was probably a handful of guys who had a good year last year. I’m in the same boat as a lot of guys, trying to improve,” he admits. “Trying to get myself back on track where I know I can be.”