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Krueger's long-awaited debut in sight

by Ryan Dittrick / Edmonton Oilers

- Ralph Krueger had been running this very scenario in his mind over and over throughout the League's lengthy labour dispute. With a new CBA in place and a 48- or 50-game season about to begin, the what-ifs and what-have-yous about line combinations, weeklong training camps and a breakneck regular-season pace have become reality.

As Krueger explained Monday at Rexall Place, a seven-day camp schedule has been at the ready since October. By week's end, it will be put to good use.

"As a leader, I feel that I can deal with whatever situation I'm given. I understand that difficulty and challenges are part of a leadership role," said Krueger, 52, who's eagerly anticipating his long-awaited debut as an NHL head coach. "This was a challenging situation and it wasn't easy to be planning one week at a time. For the last 23 years, I've always had a yearly plan in front of me.

"It wasn't always fun or easy, but I never felt that this wasn't going to occur. I tried to stay optimistic that there was a season coming up and wanted to be best prepared. That kept my spirit up."

Working alongside Tom Renney in an associate role before being promoted in June, 2013 will be Krueger's third season with the Oilers. Most recently as a head coach, Krueger led the Swiss National Team to an eight-spot gain in the IIHF World Hockey Rankings. He also coached Team Switzerland to a sixth-place finish at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver.

It's been a long time coming, but Krueger will soon get his chance to be the voice behind a National Hockey League bench. Considering the unparalleled wealth of offensive talent at the Oilers' disposal, Krueger can't wait to unveil his squad and serve notice to the rest of the League in next week's season opener.

Outside of those in Oklahoma City, contact and interaction with players has been non-existent due to the rules governing the work stoppage. That all changed Monday as Krueger and veteran defenceman Corey Potter met and spoke with one another for the first time since all hell broke loose on the business front.

"Since the summertime when I was able to have a lot of good conversations with the players near the end of August and the beginning of September, the energy there and the response was really positive," Krueger said. "We're going tap right back into it. I just ran into Corey Potter in the hall here -- I hadn't seen or been able to speak with him yet. If that energy goes through all the players I run into, it's going to be a good spirit right off the bat."

And quick start might just be the key to any team's success this season. Anything less than that could result in quick drop from the playoff race as others sprint off the line. Fortunately the Oilers' prized thoroughbreds have been busy working their magic with the OKC Barons -- they're in mid-season form, as their AHL-leading point totals would suggest.

Edmonton's highly sought-after free agent signing several months ago, Justin Schultz, has been ripping along at a record-setting pace. But after having been shuttled up to the bigs as the NHL season draws near, John Slaney's record for goals (20) among rookie defencemen will stand for at least another season. In exchange for the NHL, Schultz can't be complaining.

The 22-year-old is one of only two new players heading to camp -- Nail Yakupov is the other.

In total, Krueger expects five forward lines, eight defencemen and two goaltenders to report to camp. Ryan Jones (eye) and Andy Sutton (knee) will not be among them due to long-term injuries. If Nikolai Khabibulin isn't medically cleared to participate (he should be by then), chances are Yann Danis will see some pucks as well.

"I feel comfortable with all of [the players]," Krueger said. "The short camp will be challenge for all teams, but we have a continuity here. There's a foundation that was built over the last two years -- we aren't going to take the ship and turn it the other direction. We might make some adjustments with the sails and some of the things on board, but we'll keep it moving forward.

"Everything won't be going by instinct. We realize that this is going to be developed as the games are going. But overall we feel really comfortable with the short camp; we've been prepared for exactly what's happening here. More than anything since the end of June, we went through the process of preparing the staff for what was coming up and pretending there was going to be a regular kick-off."

Since being named head coach back on June 27, Krueger's message has been delivered consistently. His goal is to create an open, honest environment where the team stresses quality and reduces quantity. Particularly in a shortened season when fatigue and other factors could contribute to mental and physical breakdowns, he says to expect shorter, more intense practices and plenty of off-ice education.

Unlike any other club in the NHL, the Oilers had a significant amount of players honing their craft in Oklahoma City or Europe. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall formed the American Hockey League's most threatening line and look poised to bring it along with them to Edmonton.

Ales Hemsky, Sam Gagner, Ladislav Smid, Corey Potter, Devan Dubnyk, Ryan Smyth, Yakupov and others also saw playing time (some limited, mind you) throughout the 113-day standoff.

"Having players play together in a situation that counts, that's a positive that we can tap into," Krueger said. "Half the group might be in mid-season form and others are going to find contact for the first time in almost eight-and-a-half months. Those are completely different backgrounds. It will be an interesting leadership challenge to bring everybody to the same level. But we're going to be patient here."

Well, as much as he can be under the circumstances, anyway. While Krueger didn't dismiss the notion that keeping Hall, Nugent-Hopkins and Eberle together would likely produce success as it has in the past and in the AHL, it seems the possibilities are endless.

"Oh, [the lines] are all over the place," he laughed. "Putting them up on the board today and thinking about real colours, that was a good feeling."

-- Ryan Dittrick, | Follow me on Twitter @ryandittrick

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