ON THE ICE 161 days since the Oilers last carved the ice at Rexall Place, the team returned to begin on-ice sessions at Training Camp Saturday morning.
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TEAM A Led by Taylor Hall, Sam Gagner and Ales Hemsky at 8:15am, Team A was pushed (hard) by Head Coach Tom Renney, putting emphasis on pace, physical play and communication.
“Yeah it was really good out there,” said Jeff Petry, who will be battling for a position out of camp this year.
“It's always good to get going at the start of camp. You play all those games during the summer and there's no contact, so it's good to work the body a little and bring some contact back in the game.
“It was a pretty high pace out there, too. There are a couple things that need to be worked on, but for the first skate, I thought we did well.”
This year, Training Camp is much shorter. The players only have one day (today), to practice and develop chemistry before tomorrow’s Joey Moss Cup.
On Monday, they'll practice once more before pre-season action kicks off vs. Minnesota and Chicago.
It’s condensed, but Petry is on board.
“This is my second go around, so I experienced it last year,” he said when asked about the longer camp. “I like the idea of getting right into games and getting that game pace going; working on things against guys that you're going to be playing with during the season.”
It’s no wonder the 23-year-old is raring to go. Petry will be in tough to crack the squad this year, but is convinced that he’s got a decent enough chance to make an impression.
“I've just got to play my game,” he explained. “I need to work on the things that, at the end of last year, [coaches and management] wanted me to work on over the summer.
“Other than that, compete day-in and day-out. That's one thing that I've been focusing on this year, is that we've got to push each other, as a team, to improve and be consistent.”
BULIN FOR MORE
Another player that stood out during this morning’s session was 15-year veteran netminder Nikolai Khabibulin, who struggled last season posting a .890 save-percentage and 3.40 goals-against average in 47 games.
That, in addition to some off-ice legal issues, made for a challenging summer. Even so, the 38-year-old past Stanley Cup winner is poised to battle back.
“I wasn't very happy with last year on different levels with my game,” he said. “I think I really want to bounce back this year and I tried to work as hard as I could over the summer to make sure I'm in good enough shape.
“I'm always in good shape, but I think I had some extra motivation this year.
“Every athlete has pride,” he added. “I don't want to be the goalie that's happy with the year I had last year. I've always tried to be the best goalie and be the best in the league. I'll try with the same approach and learn from last year.”
Oilers GM Steve Tambellini commented on Khabibulin prior to leaving Penticton. Although he’s sure his goalie will rebound mentally, Tambellini was non-committal about declaring Khabibulin as the team’s starting netminder.
“I guess you'd have to ask him [about the pressure],” he said. “I can't imagine the distraction could go away, He spoke a little about that, but there's a lot on his mind.”
Tambellini also encouraged Khabibulin to take a more public approach, potentially even speaking about his DUI to help guide others.
“I think he has an opportunity also, to send a message through public announcements; he has a chance to be a good example for our team, for young people about the consequences that can happen so quickly.
“I want him to be that giving person, as far as setting more of an example through any type of help that public awareness can bring.”
WORK IN PROGRESS FOR WHITNEY
A real positive sign for Oilers fans was seeing defenceman Ryan Whitney back on the ice for the club. He was in a pairing alongside Jeff Petry. The blueliner did leave the session early as he's still in recovery mode from his ankle injury suffered last December.
"The first 20, 30 minutes it feels great and then when it gets tired, it gets really sore," said Whitney. "It's just strengthening it, endurance-wise. The pain doesn't come until it's worn down and right now that's 30, 40 minutes in. If that can be an hour-and-a-half or two hours, that's when I'm good."
Whitney reiterated that he'll be ready for the start of the regular season and will likely see some pre-season action.
"My goal is to get two or three exhibition games in. I know the last two are back-to-back so if I don't get to play those I'm sure it'll only be one. Maybe I'll get the one before those two back-to-backs (Sept. 27 against Phoenix). That's about 10 days and that's a good goal to have."
If he's unable to get into some pre-season games, it shouldn't set Whitney back too much but ideally he stated he'd like to get some games under his belt after being out for so long.
"If it doesn't happen, it's not the end of the world but after not playing for half a season it would be tough to just jump into the first game of the regular season or a week into the regular season. It would be good to have some warm-up games."
TEAM B The most eye-catching line combination from the second group was that of Ryan Smyth, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle.
For Smyth, it was his first official on-ice day in his return to the Oilers. He was quite pleased with the linemates he was given.
"Watching Nugent-Hopkins - I saw him here in the Team Canada camp, it's the first time I've seen him play - the hype and excitement of being drafted number one, it's exciting to be with him as a line. And Eberle established himself last year as a phenomenal player. I like it," Smyth stated. "They're quick. They push the pace and I do my thing by going to the net, too."
Nugent-Hopkins talked about how Smyth has really taken a mentorship role with him.
"It seems like he's taking me under his wing. He's great to talk to and a really friendly guy. So far, it's just great," the 2011 first-overall pick remarked.
Nugent-Hopkins really noticed the pace of an NHL training camp versus the WHL camps he's been in previously.
"The guys are much bigger and faster. You always have to be moving and always have to be thinking, too."
With time spent off the ice Thursday and Friday, he felt it took him some time to get back into it.
"It took a little bit to get the legs back after a couple of days off but after that it felt pretty good."
Eberle also had a spirited day on-ice.
"I feel pretty good, which is not usually the case on Day 1," he said. "I've done a lot of skating over the past month and I'm probably accustomed to that."
Skating with Nugent-Hopkins, Eberle felt that the duo complement each other quite well on the ice.
"You can tell he's got a lot of smarts in his game and he's got a lot of skill. I'm excited to take a look at him in the next couple of days."
With both players coming from the WHL, Eberle remarked that he's familiar with the style of game of Nugent-Hopkins.
"I played against him a little bit in junior and watched him in Penticton (at the Young Stars Tournament). He looks like he's got a knack for finding people around the net and that's perfect," Eberle noted. "When you look at both our games they're similar. We try to find spots where we get open."
Following the second group, Oilers GM Steve Tambellini addressed the media on a number of different topics.
He first remarked about the injury status of Colten Teubert, who was supposed to skate with Team B today. The GM stated that Teubert has a concussion, in addition to the broken nose he suffered during the Young Stars tournament.
"Colten got into quite a scrap there in the Rookie Tournament. He has shown some concussion-type symptoms. As with any player, you want to make sure and take the required time," Tambellini began. "We expect him back soon. He's feeling good. He's eager to get back."
Teubert himself said he could have been out there but the team wanted to take all the precautions necessary.
"We're just starting camp here. We want to make sure by the time he's ready he feels his 100% and can start again," said Tambellini.
The GM was also asked about the injury statuses of Ryan Whitney and Ales Hemsky. Both are very close to returning.
"They've both come off major surgery. One in his ankle/foot and Hemmer with his shoulder. My goal here is to make sure they're ready for opening night."
Tambellini added that he'd like to see them each play a couple of exhibition games ideally but there's no rush to get them back. He did note that he was happy with how Hemsky looked.
"He looked good out there," Tambellini added.
He was also asked about camp tryout defenceman Kirill Tulupov, a one-time draft choice of the New Jersey Devils who has fallen off the NHL radar the past few seasons.
"Igor Larionov had called me a few times talking about this player, that he was just looking for a chance to come to camp and show he has the ability to play pro over here."
Tulupov was a player who had played in North America before. He originally came over in 2004 to play for the Toronto Varsity Rattlers Touring Team for a couple of seasons before moving on to the QMJHL. He returned to Europe after three seasons split between Chicoutimi and Victoriaville.
"He played in the Quebec League for three seasons, played in the Slovakian league, a little bit in the KHL. He's a big man with a heavy shot, competed hard over there," said Tambellini. "I've known Igor for quite some time and I trust his assessment that he'd be a person that we may wish to take a look at in training camp."
TEAM C With a new season comes new opportunity. For Ryan O’Marra and Linus Omark, there’s a common theme heading into 2011-12.
Both players were sent down to the AHL’s Oklahoma City Barons in September. Each had a strong camp, but were victims of the numbers game, particularly with Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Magnus Paajarvi all stealing the pre-season show.
As the season progressed and injuries mounted, both got their chance in Edmonton. Omark played in 51 games, while O’Marra appeared in 21.
Following the season, both were returned to OKC and played in the team’s inaugural post-season series vs. the Hamilton Bulldogs (and were subsequently eliminated in six games).
But now they’re back, ready to show Head Coach Tom Renney and others where they intend to play in 2011-12 – right away.
“In Oklahoma City, I played a lot in certain situations that I have to excel at to have success at the next level, assuming I can prove my worth and get a chance up here,” O’Marra said.
“It really was an amazing experience. I’m going to take away everything I possibly can. OKC taught me a lot, especially when we played Hamilton in the post-season. The intensity is something else, too. I haven’t played in a situation like that before, so I’m hoping to bring what I learned into camp this year.”
Omark also got the opportunity, posting one goal and three points in six post-season contests vs. Hamilton. He, too, couldn’t say enough about the invaluable lessons that only up-tempo playoff hockey can teach.
“I learned a lot in Oklahoma City,” he explained. “The ice and systems are a lot different than they were in Sweden. I think it was good that I got the opportunity to play in the post-season there as well.
“We didn't go very far, but the experience was really good and I think I'm a better player because I got that chance.”
Omark had an up-and-down campaign, stepping up early with a brash, sometimes cocky attitude. Over a season cut between the AHL and NHL, he settled in and became a valued contributor on the Oilers' roster.
EARNING A SPOT
Renney, who balanced Omark’s ice-time last season in certain situations, said that he’s still got his work cut out to earn a spot this time around.
“We're Day 1 into the camp, so I don't know,” he said when asked about Omark’s role this season. “It will be what he does over the next three weeks that help us determine where they're going to play this year; and Linus did a lot of good things for us last year for us.
“He's got courage with the puck, he's got great instincts, he's not afraid of the rough-going. That certainly bodes well for him, but now there's a little bit more competition for jobs and that's the way it should be.”
It shouldn’t be considered a challenge by the Oilers’ bench boss, but rather an honest assessment, considering the number of skilled forwards battling tooth-and-nail for a sniff.
Omark, however, is poised to earn a role.
“I can only do my best and push it every day and take bigger steps than last year,” he said. “Hopefully I can start the season here and have a good year.
“I have to be one of the best players.”
As everyone understands, there are no guarantees. O’Marra is in a similar boat, knowing that he needs to produce early in order to earn a longer look and, potentially, a spot on opening night.
“I need to show some more quickness,” he said. “I cut some weight and I'm down almost 10 pounds from last year. They want to see my strength on both sides of the puck as well.
“I’m going to show that in the Joey Moss Cup and pre-season games.”