As NHL practices go, it was a humble beginning to the Edmonton Oilers season: Three skaters and a goalie, with no coaches in sight, struggling to execute whatever drills they could.
But it was enough for forward Eric Belanger, goalie Devan Dubnyk and defencemen Ladislav Smid and Corey Potter. The quartet were on the ice Monday, for an informal skate, as team operations lurched into gear following a tentative deal to end the NHL lockout.
They return to a fan base steeped with some frustration. Few stopped to watch Monday’s skate at a south Edmonton recreation centre, and local radio call-in shows have had no shortage of callers upset at the second labour stoppage in a decade – one that coincided, here, with bitter negotiations for a deal on a new arena, one Oilers ownership wants taxpayer money for.
It’s a frustration the players understand, and one some set about Monday making amends for.
“I don’t blame ’em. I was put off by the whole thing,” said Belanger, who, at 35, is a rare veteran on the young team. “We just hope the fans can forget this whole mess, and come back and see us play.”
The few players who spent the off-season in Edmonton said they didn’t meet any with any anger on city streets.
“I didn’t really get any negative things from fans. It was always, ‘When are you going to start?’ ‘We miss you guys’ and, ‘Hopefully, we’ll see you guys on the ice soon,’” said Smid, 26.
Potter was more direct, confident there would be no problem wooing fans back: “I think the true fans will stick behind us, and we’ll come out on top.”
Meanwhile, the rest of the Oilers roster is, slowly, en route.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the top-pick in the 2011 draft and a world junior tournament standout, is in Vancouver, waiting to hear when he’s needed back in Edmonton. Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and lauded free-agent defenceman Justin Schultz are all returning from Oklahoma City, where they played for the Oilers’ AHL affiliate. Russian sniper Nail Yakupov, this year’s first-overall pick, is expected this week.
It’s a roster overwhelmingly identical to the one that finished second-last in the league last year, though it hasn’t dampened optimism about a squad loaded with young talent. Odds makers had the Oilers as high as 22 to 1 to win the Stanley Cup, leading every Canadian team except Vancouver.
Spurring the optimism is the number of Oilers who’ve played during the lockout, including Nugent-Hopkins, Hall, Eberle, Schultz, Smid, Potter, winger Ales Hemsky and centre Sam Gagner.
Those who haven’t been playing face a long road back to NHL-level conditioning.
“It’s steep, it’s steep. For a lot of us that haven’t played, it’s going to take some time. But we have to be patient and [not] get down on ourselves, because there’s going to be some tough days,” Belanger said.
Dubnyk returned to the ice last month, in the Spengler Cup in Switzerland, playing three games. “I was happily surprised with how good I felt.”
One major change is behind the bench: Ralph Krueger, a former assistant and long-time Swiss national coach, takes over for the departed Tom Renney.
Tasked with turning the team around (the Oilers finished 29th in the 30-team league in 2011-12, 30th in 2010-11 and 30th in 2009-10), Krueger has prepared by scheduling a one-week training camp long ago – a schedule he’s been bumping forward and will now have to implement.
The short season will exacerbate the challenges he’s facing as a first-year head coach, but he hopes the young Oilers, whose stars have kept busy, will have a leg up.
“The regeneration, the nutrition, all those things just become magnified in a season this short, in a season this quick,” Krueger said, later adding he welcomes the fast pace. “Isn’t that great? It’s like a non-stop Olympic Games.”