New coach. New phenom. Is it the dawning of a new era for the Edmonton Oilers?
General manager Steve Tambellini certainly hopes so after selecting Russian wing Nail Yakupov with the No. 1 pick in the 2012 NHL Draft on June 22 and hiring Ralph Krueger to be the 11th coach in franchise history five days later.
Along with the signing of defense prospect Justin Schultz as a free agent on July 1, those were the major offseason moves by the Oilers, who chose to stay the course with their rebuild rather than make a big trade or chase an established player on the open market.
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Instead, Edmonton will look to a nucleus that includes No. 1 picks Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, up-and-comers Jordan Eberle and Devan Dubnyk, and veterans including Ryan Smyth to snap a skid of three straight last-place finishes in the Northwest Division and six consecutive seasons missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Krueger, who worked wonders with the Swiss national team before joining the Edmonton staff two years ago as an associate coach under Tom Renney, will take his crack at leading the franchise back to prominence.
"[His] teaching ability, obviously his technical skill is elite," Tambellini said in describing Krueger's attributes the day he hired him. "The leadership of this group is so important right now. Our young people need the right message, one that's instructive, inspiring, motivating -- and I can't think of a better person to do that than Ralph Krueger."
The Oilers have holdovers Smyth, captain Shawn Horcoff and Ales Hemsky from the 2006 team that went to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final. But a significant portion of the roster has never tasted postseason action. Krueger has been tasked with taking the young talent the front office has assembled and molding a new generation of champions.
"A winning culture grows out of a culture of excellence," Krueger said. "We're going to be extremely detail-focused. ... We'll communicate with the players as much as possible to support them. We want to be known as a hard-working team on and off the ice -- a very disciplined team. The winning will come as a byproduct of that.
"Our natural ability will lead us to winning. The winning is a byproduct, not a focus. The focus will be excellence; it will be our execution, our practices. You won't come to a practice where you see us, in any way shape or form, compromising our quality. Every practice, on or off the ice, will be at the highest possible level and winning will naturally be a byproduct of the time we put it in."
Edmonton took a step in the right direction last season despite finishing 21 points out of a Western Conference playoff berth. After consecutive seasons with an NHL-low 62 points, the Oilers improved their record to 32-40-10 for 72 points -- and ended up winning the draft lottery, moving ahead of the Columbus Blue Jackets (65 points).
Though there was speculation the Oilers might pick a defenseman this time around, they went for the consensus best player on the board and drafted Yakupov, who like Hall and Nugent-Hopkins before him is expected to jump straight to the NHL. That decision appeared even more astute when the Oilers ended up winning the sweepstakes for Schultz, who was drafted in 2008 by the Anaheim Ducks but never signed, then became a free agent after leaving the University of Wisconsin.
During the work stoppage, Schultz excelled while playing for the Oklahoma City Barons of the American Hockey League. In 32 games, Schultz had 17 goals and 45 points -- second-most in the league high for a blueliner, four fewer than teammate Eberle overall. Hall was sixth in scoring with 33 points (13 goals, 20 assists) in 24 games.
The Oilers concentrated on keeping their own free agents. Smyth, still a scoring threat at age 36, received a two-year contract. Goalie Dubnyk and defenseman Jeff Petry, restricted free agents, also got new two-year deals. The team avoided arbitration with forward Sam Gagner, who lit up the Chicago Blackhawks for a four-goal, eight-point night on Feb. 2, by agreeing on a one-year contract.
"There's a ton of excitement around this team and there's good reason for it," Dubnyk said in the Edmonton Sun.
Along with that excitement comes the knowledge the Oilers will be expected to start living up to their great promise and produce results on the ice. The Vancouver Canucks remain the favorites in the Northwest, but the division becomes more wide open after that. It will be up to Krueger's charges to prove they can play like a contender on a night-in, night-out basis.
"There has to be some extra pressure on everyone," Gagner told the team's website. "We haven't done as well as we would have liked in the past couple years, so we have to add that internal pressure where we're trying to get better and push each other to new heights. We need to be pushing for a playoff spot and getting back to that level that we should be at.
"That has to be our goal. We can't be in a situation where if things go wrong this year we're saying, 'There's always next year.' It's happened too much and it has to be a case where we put pressure on ourselves every day to avoid it."