Ryan Whitney was there in the beginning, when Sidney Crosby became a Pittsburgh Penguin, when Jordan Staal and Evgeni Malkin joined the mix and all that talent became something greater than the sum of its parts.
Now, the 29-year-old defenceman sits in the Edmonton Oilers dressing room and sees Jordan Eberle, Nail Yakupov, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to his left, with Taylor Hall and Justin Schultz across the way, and is asked: How does it happen?
How does a collection of prized draft picks transition into a winning unit?
There’s little doubt the Oilers are the NHL’s new “it” team. Their jaw-dropping array of talent has made them a popular pick to reach the Western Conference playoffs, a possibility made even likelier given a 48-game regular season that began last Sunday for Edmonton with an impressive 3-2 shootout decision over the Canucks in Vancouver.
In that game, the Oilers fell behind 2-0, only to rebound with a pair of eye-fetching goals before winning in a shootout.
Tuesday night, against the San Jose Sharks, the Oilers make their home debut and perhaps take another stride in their development.
Whitney knows what needs to happen from his Penguins days.
“My rookie year [2005-06], we struggled; we finished 29th. That was Sid’s rookie year,” Whitney said. “The next season, we got Staal and Malkin and we finished fifth in the East. Sure, it had a lot to do with having Sid and Malkin, but at the same time the other rookies were Rob Scuderi, Colby Armstrong. Brooks Orpik was in his second year; Ryan Malone was second year.
“Everyone made a commitment to improve and we really did make that big jump,” added Whitney, who was traded to Anaheim three months prior to the Pens’ Stanley Cup win in 2009. “How? We changed our style to be better defensively.”
This is what the Oilers talk about in practice: creating offence off their defence; not turning the puck over at centre ice; not allowing odd-man rushes; being in the right spot on the ice.
It doesn’t sound like glamorous stuff for a group with plenty of shootout mojo. But it’s essential talk as the established players and newcomers alike adjust to heightened expectations and a head coach who has stated his preference for “focusing on execution.”
“Look at the champions: they have the ability to execute all the time,” Ralph Krueger said. “It begins with off-ice work, then we need to carry it into games. I’m going to hold guys accountable. The winning will eventually come.”
With and without the puck, the Oilers are going to rely heavily on their skating prowess. Over a short season, they believe they can tire out opponents, then jump on their miscues. Their overall speed is a major consideration why so many observers believe the Oilers are on the verge of something good.
You can include Carolina Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford as one of those believers. Rutherford said, given some reliable goaltending, a shortened season plays to Edmonton’s strengths.
“A 48-game season helps them. They’re a young team and they’re going to have that energy. They have the legs,” he said, “and I think they’re going to be a team in the thick of it.”
That’s the hope and the plan. The sentiment in the Oilers dressing room is that several of the youngsters – Eberle, Hall, Nugent-Hopkins – have learned to lose together and know how that feels. What they’re embarking on now is the understanding that winning games matters more than scoring pretty goals. It’s a point being repeated by those who need to appreciate it the most.
“I look at our squad and we shouldn’t have a problem scoring goals,” Hall said. “But we can’t always be run and gun. We did that a lot last year when we didn’t concentrate on defence and it wasn’t good for us.”
So can the Oilers adjust their style? Can they skate the thin line between exuberance and execution, be dangerous offensively while being diligent defensively?
Like Whitney, veteran Ryan Smyth is convinced he’s seeing and hearing the right things as the Oilers embark on their team-building journey.
“They went through some growing pains here the last few years. But it seems to me they’re getting back to the old Oilers: high-intensity skating, the depth, the emphasis that everyone is accountable,” said Smyth, who added some advice: “You don’t have to be great. You just have to be good. If everyone does that, we’ll win our share of games.”