Oilers enthusiastic about impending return of NHL
From the top down, the Edmonton Oilers are ready to get going.
Management and players welcomed Sunday's announcement of a tentative agreement between the NHL and the players' association to end the lockout with smiles and a sense of relief.
Oilers NHLPA representative Devan Dubnyk woke up a lot happier man, knowing the 113-day lockout may finally be over.
"Oh, very much so," the Edmonton goaltender said. "Now I'm just trying to stay level headed until it's voted on and finished. Obviously it's a huge step and a huge relief. The next process (ratification vote) will take a few days so I just want to stay patient and let it play out."
Oilers president Patrick LaForge was looking forward to welcoming back employees who had been lent out during the four-months of no hockey and to see the stands of Rexall Place again filled with fans. He said the drop-off in season ticket holders this season was about the same as it has been any other year, with or without hockey.
LaForge said there are no plans at the moment to do anything special to welcome back fans or to offer an apology.
Meanwhile, general manager Steve Tambellini is looking forward to a training camp — which could come as early as Wednesday if the two sides vote to ratify the 10-year collective bargaining agreement — and to seeing how the young Oilers have progressed during their time in the American Hockey League and elsewhere.
Tambellini spent much of the last few months monitoring the Oilers who were in the NHL last season, especially those with Oklahoma City of the American Hockey League, including Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (until he joined Canada's team for the world junior hockey championship) and newcomer Justin Schultz.
"Just trying to assess the steps our young players, first year players and guys who have only played a couple of years in the organization, how they're doing," Tambellini said. "I loved the fact that they were playing in the American Hockey League, which is the same kind of hockey as in the NHL. It was tough for them, it was grinding for them. Their stats were outstanding and now it's time for them to get back to the National Hockey League."
Like many players, owners and fans, Dubnyk found the months without hockey frustrating, although he did play for Canada in the Spengler Cup and he can't wait to get back on the ice with his Oilers teammates.
"It was killing me before and getting a chance to go over to the Spengler Cup and practise and play for a short period of time just made it worse coming back. This last week, after coming back from Spengler, has been really tough," Dubnyk said. "It's made me miss it that much more. I just wish it was tomorrow but we will have to wait a couple more days."
Tambellini said the Oilers would bring about 25 players to camp, including the bulk of last year's team that missed the playoffs, along with two key newcomers — Schultz, the highly touted free agent defenceman they signed last summer, and Russian forward Nail Yakupov, the No. 1 draft pick last June. They will be missing two injured players, defenceman Andy Sutton and forward Ryan Jones.
Tambellini said veteran netminder Nikolai Khabibulin, who suffered a groin injury last season, is progressing well but he was waiting for an updated medical report this week.
"It's important for us to take the next step to being a better team," Tambellini said. "I'm excited to see a young player like Justin Schultz get his chance to play in the NHL, excited for Taylor Hall, who been playing real hard in Oklahoma City, to prove he's an elite (NHL) player. Looking forward to seeing Jordan Eberle, who went to Oklahoma City and the leadership he showed was incredible.
"The young people who are part of our core have been in growth areas of the game. They've been pushed, they've been asked to show leadership and they've done it well. I hope it all translate quick to the next step, playoffs."
The Oilers will head into the shortened season with Ralph Kruger behind the bench. He replaced fired Tom Renney last June and Tambellini said Kruger and his staff are eager to get the team back on ice.
"We're going to start playing right away and every game is going to be extremely important so it's going to be whoever can be ready and get out of the gate quick is going to have a huge advantage," Dubnyk said. "Depending on how teams handle it is really going to affect their season. If you're slow out of the gate in a short season there's really no time to catch up."