With it looking like it will be after the Grey Cup when an NHL regular season will begin, you picture Ralph Krueger sitting in suspended animation waiting to coach the Edmonton Oilers after the unusual road he’s traveled to get there.
“I’m sure it’s one of the stranger starts to an NHL coaching career,” he laughed.
Or maybe you kind of picture Krueger sitting on the veranda of a chalet somewhere in Switzerland writing line combinations on bar napkins.
“I used to,” he said.
“Now I use a computer. I look at the lineup every day.
“I do like to look at the line-up. I do a lot of thinking looking at the line-up. Different line combinations. Defensive pairings. And I go through the worst case scenarios all the time,” he said.
It’s Monday morning and today will officially begin the season for Krueger and his staff even though his first season as an NHL head coach is not likely to begin on schedule with a lockout looming.
Krueger is ignoring that.
“I’m barely following the negotiations,” he said.
“I’m ready to begin interacting with the staff preparing for the season to start on schedule. We need to go through this process just for our own preparation. It’s important we don’t get distracted.
“We need to be extremely well set up and organized so we can be spontaneous in the small picture.
“If your big picture is chaotic, then the small picture will be the same.”
Krueger, you’d think, would be all wired up in a can’t-wait-to-get-started mode. But he projects an entirely different persona.
“I don’t feel over-anxious,” he said.
“I think we have extremely good, extremely honest analysis. I’ve had contact with the players, as much as I can. I feel connected.”
Krueger says he was excited by the long-term leadership shown by Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle asking for and signing identical $6 million-a-year contract extentions to make them part of the team through to the end of the decade and challenging the top young talent in the core group of players to follow and do the same.
“It’s a winning situation all around. This commitment to the Oilers and the city is a powerful statement to our future.”
Asked for his thoughts on the timing of giving those two young leaders a ‘C’ and an ‘A’ to wear on their jerseys this season, Krueger indicated it’s a definite possibility.
“We will announce these decisions when they are ripe.”
There may be no hockey season for a while but Krueger says it doesn’t doesn’t dilute the enthusiasm he has or he thinks Edmonton should have going forward.
“I feel an excellent energy in the Edmonton Oilers organization.
“I’ve had more time with Craig MacTavish, Kevin Lowe and Steve Tambellini. I know MacT is going to be an excellent addition.
“It’s been nice to have been here a couple of times in the summer to get to know everybody in the organization.”
Asked if there might be an advantage for a young team to play, say, a 60-game season, he says he’s not taking those types of questions.
“Still not going there with my thoughts,” he said.
Just turned 53, Krueger says he feels he’s at the right stage of his coaching career to handle just about anything that gets thrown at him.
“My strength, I believe, is being able to really focus on what I can control. When I was young, I was more reactionary to everything that came across my plate.
“The energy we have is very precious. Why waste it?”
While he spent the last two seasons working here as Tom Renney’s associate coach, you’d figure the Winnipeg native, after all those years in coaching in Europe, would be a little apprehensive to begin coaching against NHL team and against NHL coaches every night.
But he makes the point.
What’s new about that?
“With world championship tournaments and Olympic Games, we were playing against predominantly NHL players,” said the man who coached Switzerland to a victory over Canada in Torino 2006 and to a shootout loss in 2007.
“In Torino we played Finland, Canada and the Czechs. Finland and the Czechs had 90% NHL players and Canada 100%. Canada’s salaries were $160 milion and ours were $13 million.
“I’ve had a lot of opportunity to coach against NHL teams. I’ve just never had one of my own.”
It’s not the chosen road to travel to an NHL coaching career, but Krueger said for him it was the right one.
“It’s not the regular process but I believe it prepared me to coach teams on a much more equal footing. And it was advantageous, at that level, because you meet the best and interact with the best coaches.
“Most coaches begin their NHL careers behind the bench in awe. If you have awe, you are in trouble. My background actually made me comfortable where I’m at today.
“But it was definitely good to have two years in a supporting role instead of the lead.”
When Krueger’s season officially begins as he begins meetings with his staff today, he said the goal is simple.
“We want to be sure we are the best prepared we can be no matter what the circumstances.
“There’s a challenge in there.”
Chances are Krueger isn’t going to see his players for weeks. But he feels he’s in touch with them.
“I’ve had some really excellent conversations with them across the board.”
The new Oilers head coach said he was delighted with their response when he was hired.
“All of them responded immediately.
“It’s been really easy and really natural. I feel I have a strong base with every player. There’s not one exception.
“I have a good feeling right now, but I also know there’s going to be tough times. It’s not going to be easy.
“I will not avoid the conflicts that will be necessary to make this a winning team. Conflicts will be part of the process.
“I am an optimistic realist. But I am a realist.”
You may have noticed that while Krueger hired back Kelly Buchberger and Steve Smith as assistant coaches, he didn’t replace himself as associate coach.
“I’m looking for simplicity. I don’t want to bring in another guy now. I feel really comfortable with this staff.”
He said if he doesn’t have a team to take to training camp he has no intention of getting his fingers into what Todd Nelson is doing with his farm team in Oklahoma City.
“No matter what happens, Todd Nelson is going to build his camp. I intend to build to build a very strong relationship with Todd and our people in Oklahoma City. We must have regular contact to make the transition for players going in both directions constructive for their development.”
If there is a lengthy lockout he guesses he’ll be attending several games.
“But I’ll sit with you guys,” he said of the press box.
While the season sits in limbo, the NHL pre-season publications are coming out now with outfits like The Hockey News picking the Oilers 13th in the Western Conference.
“I respect their analysis and opinion, but I think our potential is higher than that,” says Krueger.
“I’m not obsessed with where we need or want to end. I’m very focused on improvement. And regardless of result, one thing I want the rest of the league to see is that this team has a spirit.”
Krueger says he doesn’t make predictions or promises.
But he thinks a second and makes a statement.
“Watch out. We’re ready to take a step here.”
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