EDMONTON – If Edmonton’s young guns are to lead the Oilers into the NHL playoffs in this shortened season, they’ll likely have to do it by beating the neutral zone trap.
Edmonton head coach Ralph Kruger said this week he expects to see more of the devious defensive system designed to stifle offensive hockey.
He said scoring could be down in this 48-game schedule and “there could be a lot of trapping out there.”
“A lot of teams are probably going to (trap),” he added. “We’re expecting there’s going to be some difficulty. It’s all the more important for us to stick with our game plan.”
During the 2004-05 NHL lockout, the league took steps to address the trapping issue. The NHL ordered officials to get tough on obstruction calls like hooking and holding, elements that slow the progress of faster players and make the trap easier to execute. It also made the two-line pass legal, one method that could be used to break the trap.
Most teams in the NHL use some version of the trap, but the Oilers are confident they can break the defensive strategy simply with their speed and passing.
“Every team plays some form of a trap and we’re going to have to work around whatever they throw at us and whatever they give us,” said sophomore forward Taylor Hall, who firmly believes they have the speed and skill to break the trap. “If we can keep the puck in our hands we’ll be good.
“Every team will have a game plan and they may think that’s what’s going to help them succeed. We re-iterate that it’s more about what we do than what other teams do. If we can play with a lot of passion and a lot of determination and a lot of pressure that’s going to be good for our young skill set.”
Hall’s linemate, Jordan Eberle, said the key is for the Oiler forwards to worry about how they’re playing and not concern themselves with what the other team is doing.
“If teams want to trap against us I feel we have enough speed and enough quickness in this locker-room we’re going to be able to get it by them,” said Eberle, the Oilers first-round draft pick in 2008 who led the team in scoring last season with 34 goals and 76 points.
“The identity trait of our team is how fast we are and how quick we are in transition. If we can play that way to the extent we’re doing the right things with the puck and we’re not turning it over we’re going to have success.”
One advantage the Oilers may have early is that their top two lines—Hall, Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Sam Gagner, Ales Hemsky and rookie Nail Yakupov—go into the season in game shape, having played through most of the 119-day lockout.
The plan of the coaching staff to encourage offensive creativity, as long as it’s not at the expense of the players’ defensive responsibilities.
“We always want that as coaches,” said Kruger, who begins his first season as head coach. “That we’re going to be exciting offensively is a given. That we don’t want to restrict the players is also a given. They need to be able to play their game offensively. But when we don’t have the puck that’s where we still have a lot of growing to do and we have a lot of evolving to do.”
Kruger said the coaching staff has developed a system that fits the skill set of the players.
“We have adapted and adjusted and come up with a system we think will give us the opportunity for an exciting attack game but also team defence and being responsible without the puck is something everyone is aware of,” he said. “You have to be flexible as a coach. You can’t come in here with a system that works with a completely different skill set.”
That’s welcome news to the Oilers young creative forwards who are well aware the team’s problems last season were largely due to defensive shortcomings.
“The biggest thing for us is going to be keeping the puck out of the net,” said Eberle, one of only two regular forwards who had a positive plus-minus last season. “We have a lot of offence, but the big thing is going to be defending and worrying about our D-zone.
“It’s a matter of playing without the puck. We’ve got some young guys…and we have to understand every guy in this league can score and play so you have to sure you’re doing the right things with the puck, especially at the two bluelines we don’t want to turn it over. If we can do that we’ll have more success.”
The Oilers open their season in Vancouver on Sunday.