Q&A: Oilers’ Tippett on Keith, Hyman, turning hard lessons into playoff wins

EDMONTON — Sports history is dotted with teams who had to learn why they lost before learning how to win.

In the National Hockey League, more pointedly, teams that finally figured out how to have regular season success, only to run into the wall that is playoff hockey, booted out of the playoffs after one uninspired, disconcerting round.

Dave Tippett’s Edmonton Oilers have half of that equation covered. They have finished second in their division for the past two seasons and lost their opening playoff round both times. They’re a playoff lock in the weak Pacific Division, which would make three straight playoff appearances after having missed 12 out of 13 seasons before that.

So they can win from October to April. But are they the team that will finally graduate from the School of Hard Knocks, taking those playoff disappointments and shaping themselves accordingly?

Tippett arrived in Edmonton on Thursday, with a fresh whiteboard behind his office desk. Zach Hyman is now his top left winger. Warren Foegele his 3-LW. Derek Ryan will be Foegele’s centreman, likely.

Gone are Ethan Bear, Adam Larsson and James Neal. Signed to eight-year contracts are Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Darnell Nurse.

That much he knows.

Whether his team is ready to take the next step or not, well, that is still a mystery.

We spoke to Tippett before he hopped on the plane to Edmonton, where he enters his third season as head coach with a 72-44-11 regular season record. In the playoffs he is 1-7, and coming off a Round 1 sweep by Winnipeg.

Have the Oilers adapted? Are they ready to be graduate to the next level?

We asked Tippett exactly that.

Sportsnet: Are you ready to turn playoff lessons into playoff wins?

Dave Tippett: Well, you’re learning hard lessons. And those are lessons that usually sink in a little easier.

We’ve taken some steps forward in the regular season, but it hasn’t translated into playoff success. That’s something that we have to own. To build your team not to just be a good regular season team, but how are you going to play in the playoffs?

Those are things you learn as you learn these hard lessons.

SN: Does it concern you how the game changes come playoff time? Can your team change with it?

Tippet: There are changes you have to make in the playoffs. Some of it is the reffing. Teams tighten up. Players like Connor and Leon get focused on hard. You have to be able to win without (many) power plays; we’ve got to be able to win games as a team.

We have a saying we use all the time: Every play counts. Well, you look at (the Winnipeg series) … it might be a puck that should have got out, or maybe a lost faceoff. It turns out, that’s the difference in the game. So the more adept you are at dealing with the ‘Every play counts,’ the better percentage your chances are of winning (in the playoffs).

SN: Early impressions of Duncan Keith?

Tippet: One of the most motivated players I’ve ever seen. He wants to get back to having a chance to win a Stanley Cup. … He thinks we’re a young team with great upside. He’s been very strong with our players so far, talking to everyone. He is anxious to come here and get back to the style of play he thinks maybe he’s got away from in the past couple of years.

SN: Adding Hyman, Foegele and Ryan, how much better are you up front?

Tippet: It’s a combination. You take Zach Hyman, Foegele, Derek Ryan, the continued growth of (Jesse) Puljujarvi and Yamo (Kailer Yamamoto)… The one thing that’s different between the regular season and a playoff series is, you have to be able to score grinding goals where you create off the forecheck. It can’t all be off transition and rush and power play. You have to be able to score off the cycle. Hard goals. And those guys I just mentioned, they’re all players who will enhance our group in that part of the game.

We don’t need more scoring off the rush. We’re fine there. I’ll take all the pretty goals we can get, but you have to be able to score hard goals also.

SN: What about Nurse? Where do you see him going?

Tippet: Darnell is an amazing athlete, has the family pedigree, but the thing I don’t think he gets enough credit for is, he’s a very intelligent man. As his game has grown he is maturing as a person, so both of those are helping him become a leader.

A couple of years ago he was one of the guys I wanted to empower to get into that leadership group. Now, he has become a leader in the leadership group.

As a coach, when guys sign good contracts, you’re happy. He loves Edmonton and wants to bring a championship to Edmonton.

SN: The Oilers have looked ready before, and it turned out they weren’t. Are they ready now?

Tippet: You have to earn the right to be a playoff team, a good team. We’ve added some really good pieces, but now you’ve got to go earn it. There have been a lot of really good teams on paper, but they don’t turn out to be good. It’s our responsibility as players and coaches to maximize what we have, and be a good team.

There’s no formula that says, just because you put a bunch of good names together on paper, that it works.