EDMONTON — New Edmonton Oilers coach Ralph Krueger promised a plan to get inside the heads of his young scoring phenoms to keep them loose and make them believe.
“We are not going to be focusing on winning, winning, winning to the point that it suffocates us and we squeeze our sticks,” Krueger, the Oilers associate coach last year, told a news conference to announce his promotion Wednesday.
“We have skill in our room that’s so exciting and I need to find ways that their instincts can play freely. We want to be known as a hard-working team on and off the ice, a very disciplined team. And then, naturally, the winning will come as a byproduct of that.”
The Oilers signed Krueger to a three-year deal. He replaces Tom Renney, who was let go as the team’s 10th head coach last month.
Oilers general manager Steve Tambellini said he was impressed by Krueger’s work on the Oilers power play last season (taking it from 27th to third overall) and Krueger’s transformation of the Swiss hockey program.
From 1997 to 2010, Krueger coached the Swiss National Team program, taking it from 15th to seventh in the IIHF World Rankings.
Tambellini said it was Switzerland’s stunning 2-0 win over Team Canada at the 2006 Olympics that impressed him. Krueger, he added, had found a way to take a young team and make it believe, truly believe, it could beat the mighty Canucks.
“For hockey that was an incredible moment, but I know why that happened,” said Tambellini. “When you speak to the people that work with Ralph, when you speak to the players who have played with him, they talk about leadership, they talk about clarity, they talk about motivation.”
Tambellini said Krueger has not only mastered the Xs and Os, he is “someone that matches the energy of what this group has now and where we want it to go, who could communicate and motivate and inspire.”
Besides coaching, the 52-year-old Krueger is also a motivational speaker and author of the book “Teamlife — Over Setbacks to Success.”
Fielding questions from reporters, Krueger spoke of discovering the potential in each of his players and finding ways to get veterans to accept changing roles.
When asked if he felt “surreal” to finally land his first head-coaching job in the NHL, he said no. It happened, he suggested, because he’d prepared for it to happen.
“It’s been a natural, healthy 23 years of growth as a coach and I’m ready for this situation,” said the native of Steinbach, Man.
Krueger has his work cut out for him.
The Oilers have finished last, last, and second-last in the last three years in the NHL while the coaching position has become a carousel. Krueger is the team’s fourth head coach since 2009.
The Oilers have not made the playoffs since 2006 and have missed the post-season in 12 of their last 19 campaigns.
The weaknesses are many, notably a poor defence, inconsistent effort from veterans, and young players simply overwhelmed at times with life in the NHL pressure cooker.
But that lack of success has brought highlight-reel talent to the forward ranks, including Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle, and this year’s No. 1 overall pick Nail Yakupov.
Krueger said he’s still evaluating the team but stressed there are no absolutes. If the best fit for the squad is to move the kids around, he will.
“Nail may be playing on the left (wing) side, not only the right. Taylor possibly in the middle,” he said. “These are things were excited about experimenting with as we find the best possible combination for the team.”