EDMONTON, AB - Todd McLellan runs his training camps the way he likes them.
There’s a lot of teaching, mixed in with high-tempo, high-intensity skates. The Oilers head coach also likes to split his camp roster his own way. At first glance, the early group on the ice Tuesday morning was comprised mostly of NHL veterans and sure-locks to make the roster.
Connor McDavid, Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall and other big names all skated with Group A. Leon Draisaitl, who is competing for a spot, also joined the forward group. On the back end? All the usual suspects and Griffin Reinhart, who is competing to begin the year in Edmonton as well. Absent was 2013 seventh-overall pick Darnell Nurse.
|Photo by Andy Devlin |
“You read into it to an extent, obviously,” said Nurse. “There’s nothing given, especially when you’re trying to earn a spot and you’re in my position. There’s a lot of guys in that first group that have played in the NHL or played pro hockey for a while right? I’ve got some things to prove and it doesn’t matter what group you’re in. We’re in training camp here and you’re battling no matter what.”
Skating in Group B isn’t a sentence; it’s a challenge. And according to McLellan, it might not mean much in the grand scheme of things. Those players, including and almost especially Nurse, have the opportunity to make the roster.
“There is no message,” said McLellan. “It’s basically what they read into it. If I’m a player, I’m looking and saying, ‘jeez, this group is full of veteran NHL players and this group doesn’t have any in there.’ If that’s how you’re looking at it, you think that you’ve divided NHL and American League. It can look that way, it can come across that way, but I do know there will be some players from the other group that are going to play on our team at some point and it could be as early as this year.”
When camp opened, McLellan said he addressed all of the players and let them know not to get discouraged by their group placement. The roster is fluid at this point and there is plenty of opportunity for some of the Oilers younger players to unseat their more experienced teammates.
“I told our players at the opening meeting that this would happen,” said McLellan. “I also gave them a list of about 10 or 11 players from my days in San Jose that ended up playing on the hockey club. They came from that group and they took jobs from this group. And it was a powerful thing.”
By splitting the two groups, McLellan is providing Group B with a goal and an endgame placed right in front of them. They want to move into the group with the NHL guys, so the separation creates more competition. The coach began doing this in San Jose, where he was the bench boss for seven years and he’s implementing it now in his first season with the Oil.
“Initially, when you first start with it here in Edmonton, players won’t know how to behave and it’s a little bit of a test for them,” said McLellan. “Are they down in the dumps and let themselves go, or do they push themselves into that other group and take off with it? Vice versa can be said. Am I comfortable here? Jeez this is good, everything is going well and you let your guard down. I think it creates a little bit of a competitive environment as well.”
|Photo by Andy Devlin |
Nurse knew McLellan’s system was coming and knows what he has to do to get where he wants to be.
“It’s definitely something that was mentioned earlier in camp,” said Nurse. “(Move up is) something I’m aiming to do. No matter what group I’m practicing with, everything comes into my control with the way that I work and the work ethic I bring every day and my level of execution. That’s all I’m really trying to do and when I get the opportunity to jump into games, make the most of them.”
In addition to creating competition, McLellan says having the NHL guys all together can help the team start to implement concepts and systems faster. On Tuesday, the team worked special teams with units the Oilers might deploy come regular season.
Nurse may be skating in Group B for now, but it might not be long before he gets a chance to play with those currently in Group A.
“I think Darnell would have easily fit into the early morning group today, without a problem,” said McLellan. “I think you’ll see Darnell in that group over the next little bit, simple as that. I think he has every tool that’s needed to play in the National Hockey League. Will he need some time? We’ll figure that out as we go. I think he’s going to be a very good National Hockey League player for a lot of years. It’s not even a test for him. We’re not practicing with nine defencemen. It doesn’t work that way. Don’t be surprised if you see Darnell in our group real quick for his opportunity.”
McLellan likes Nurse’s passion and focus. The players and coaches who were in Calgary on Monday night for the Oilers split-squad game said a turning point in their 3-1 win was Nurse’s fight with Hunter Smith. They were also impressed with his play outside of that fight, but the scrap shows he’s willing to do what it takes to make the Oilers this year.
“He’s willing to do whatever it takes to play the game,” said McLellan. “I think that’s a great thing. He knows what he needs to do and he’s willing to do it so it’s a positive thing for him and for us.”
McLellan noted for Wednesday night’s game against Winnipeg, the team will run two morning skates — one with Group A and one with Group B. The Oilers will then pull players from both groups and create a roster for the game. Perhaps Nurse is one of those players, and if he isn’t, he might still get his chance down the road. Including Wednesday, there are six preseason games left for the Oilers and every one of them is a chance to make an impression.