EDMONTON – Take away all the pre-season hype born out of three consecutive No. 1 draft picks and head coach Ralph Krueger says the Edmonton Oilers finished just about exactly where they deserved to be.
Krueger, a first-year NHL coach, admitted the Oilers “ended up with the result we deserved” on Sunday.
After winning their final two games the Oilers finished 24th in the league, 12th in the Western Conference and out of the playoffs for a seventh straight season.
Despite yet another disappointing ending—the result of a late-season six-game losing streak that dropped them out of playoff contention—Krueger said the season does give him confidence in the future.
He said the team’s character and ability “showed up multiple times during the season when you had a feeling we were going to fall off the map and we came back, and then we came back again and we came back a third time.
“A fourth time wasn’t in the cards, which showed we still don’t have the team to be a playoff team.”
Now, he said—and most players speaking Sunday agreed—the team has to start making a difference beginning immediately. Krueger said that more importantly that anything the new season starts today with what he termed “a four-month-plus training camp.”
He said among the numerous needs of the team that finished with 45 points in 48 games, five below Krueger’s projection, is the necessity to get stronger, physically and mentally.
To that end the team has “a very strong summer program in place to either take a player 100 per cent under control or to supplement what he already has in place. We’re going to be attacking that with a passion.”
The team will definitely undergo roster changes. It has a number of free agents to deal with and newly appointed general manager Craig MacTavish has already indicated changes are coming.
Although Ryan Whitney is a left-handed shooting, puck-carrying defenceman, which Krueger listed as one of the team’s priority needs, the veteran player said he will not be back next season.
Forward Ryan Jones, another unrestricted free agent, said he isn’t sure of his future but hopes to return to Edmonton.
“I’ve been here four years,” said Jones, who played only 27 games because of injuries. “Be nice to reap the rewards of the sacrifice and all the hard work you’ve put in. That being said it is unrestricted free agency and you don’t know what will happen.”
There’s also questions surrounding the future of goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin, veteran forwards Ryan Smyth and Ales Hemsky and a number of defencemen.
Captain Shawn Horcoff said no matter what changes management makes in the next five months the onus will still be on the players to perform.
“Drastic changes is what, three, four players?” said Horcoff, who had only 12 points in 31 games. “There’s still going to be 15, 16 of the same guys, so it’s going to be up to the individuals in the room to take their game to the next level.
“Going forward there’s a skill level on this team we haven’t had in the past, that’s the most important thing. But with talent you need leadership, you need veteran players, you need some grit.”
Plus, he said, the youngsters forming the team’s core are not kids anymore.
“They’re going to be four-year pros next year so it’s time to take that next step.”
Taking that next step will depend largely on the continued growth of their young forwards like Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov, the team’s top draft picks the last three years.
Hall led the team with 50 points and Yakupov, with three goals in the final game, was the leading goalscorer with 17. Nugent-Hopkins struggled offensively and missed the final few games after undergoing shoulder surgery.
Nugent-Hopkins said the surgery went well and now it’s a summer of recovery and rehab.
“We’re all a little sick of talking about the future we have,” said Hall. “We’re all just looking forward to coming back next year and having a better year and taking that next step.”