"It's uncomfortable," Ralph Krueger admits. But, "uncomfortable is necessary as you grow."
Those words were spoken after practice earlier today, ahead of tomorrow night's game against Colorado in which both Ryan Smyth and Ryan Whitney will play. On Tuesday, neither man played against Dallas, and neither man hid his feelings about that. The feelings, by the way, aren't taken into account by the head coach, who very clearly delivered that message publicly this week.
Now, let's be clear: Ryan Smyth and Ryan Whitney are valuable members of this team. Specifically in Whitney's case, we've often talked on 630 CHED about the fact that they're going to need him making a reasonable contribution if they want to be a playoff team. He provides an offensive savvy and puck-moving ability that they're really desperate for, though not at the cost of a lack of adherence to the puck-pressure system they've put in place. Up front, on a team of younger and more skilled forwards, Smyth is valuable as a guy who understands the defensive nuances of the game and, let's face it, provides about as much grit as they have amongst the forward unit.
Sitting out one game or a few doesn't make those positives any less positive and certainly isn't a road sign that reads "Next Stop: Pasture". What it does mean, is that the team is growing. Getting younger is a part of it, but getting deeper is the bigger thing. Lennart Petrell and Ben Eager deserved those spots on Tuesday, so Smyth came out. It wasn't just about Hartikainen and Paajarvi and the rest of the kids. On the back end, Mark Fistric is capable of playing regular minutes and provides a different specialty than Whitney, which might be more tempting against some opponents.
Once upon a time here, if you were a healthy veteran, that was s ticket into the lineup. Those teams weren't good enough to win. This team is, or at least is getting there, so things are going to feel a little...uncomfortable, for those not used to it.
On the white board, Ryan Smyth isn't Captain Canada, and Ryan Whitney isn't the highest paid defenseman on the team.
On the white board, Ryan Smyth isn't a legend in this town who has quite literally bled for this team on numerous occasions, and Ryan Whitney isn't a former 5th overall draft choice.
On the white board, Ryan Smyth is #94 and Ryan Whitney is #6 and that's the way it has to be.
This team has options and that means the players on the team will, maybe, be looking over their shoulder a little bit. There's a fine line between understanding that there's accountability but also needing to feel confidence from the coaching staff in order to not play scared.
I asked Ralph Krueger about that balance this morning, and probably shouldn't have been surprised that he didn't care to indulge feelings in his response.
"This is the National Hockey League," Krueger said after a brief pause. "You have to be able to deal with that kind of pressure. That's part of being here on a consistent basis, to understand that what you've done last game, last week, last month, last year isn't going to count any more. It's what you're doing today."
Today, Ryan Whitney and Ryan Smyth were on a powerplay unit together at practice and will play against Colorado tomorrow night trying to earn the chance to play against Los Angeles on Tuesday, just like everyone else on the team.
Dan Tencer is the host of 630 CHED's Inside Sports which can be heard weeknights from 6 to 9 pm.