EDMONTON — When Edmonton head coach Ralph Kruger benched a pair of veterans recently he sent a clear message to the entire Oilers roster: it doesn’t matter who you are, if you don’t perform to his expected standards, don’t expect to stay in the lineup.
Not only did defenceman Ryan Whitney and forward Ryan Smyth get the point when they spent time in the press box for sub-par performances, so did the entire dressing room.
“You start to realize everyone is accountable,” said forward Sam Gagner, who leads the club in scoring with 13 points in 13 games, on Friday. “It doesn’t matter how long you’ve played in the league or how much you’ve done for the team, it’s about winning games now.
“If they feel like you’re not helping, you’re going to sit out. That’s the accountability we need to have in here.”
Smyth, the longest-serving Oiler on the roster and a player often referred to as “bleeding blue and copper” was benched Tuesday after two weekend games that saw him take a number of penalties Kruger deemed unnecessary.
Both Smyth and Whitney are expected to be back in the lineup for Friday’s home game against Colorado.
Smyth said he was not happy with the decision to sit him but admitted the message from Kruger was clear: perform or get benched.
“That’s what he’s shown. Maybe that’s a statement for all of us,” the 17-year NHL veteran said. “The last two games I played I took some penalties that put the team in jeopardy.
“I have to play harder and smarter.”
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the No. 1 draft pick in 2011 who has only two assists and no goals in 12 games, said benching veterans lets everyone know they will be held accountable
“When guys like that are getting sat we definitely have to pick up our game and make sure we’re playing as well as we can to earn our spot,” said Nugent-Hopkins.
Asked if he ever worries that he may be next, Nugent-Hopkins, one of only three Oilers on the positive side of the plus-minus rating, said he simply tries not to think about that possibility.
Kruger wants to make it clear that “yesterday doesn’t count.”
With four home games in the next eight days followed by a tough nine-game, 24-day road trip, Kruger wanted his players to understand this next week is critical to their playoff aspirations.
“We all know what’s going to happen to the pace starting next Tuesday when we go into the most intense part of our season,” he said. “We now have 13 forwards so players will be going to be in and out and it’s not always going to be about what they did.
“Defencemen are being taken out of the lineup, and not after horrible games. There’s a rotation back there, we want everybody to stay involved.”
He also wants his defencemen, who have scored only four goals — all by Justin Schultz and all on the power play — to become more involved in the Oilers offence with the team struggling to score five-on-five.
“Offensively, even from our zone through the neutral zone, I think we’re getting a lot more disciplined. The risk that was in our game early in the season is gone,” Kruger said. “Now it’s the finishing. We need to simplify and uglify and get into those areas in front of the net with the puck, with the body.
“It sounds like a cliche but it is truly, not only the final piece but the most important in our puzzle to be a complete team: to create more gritty scoring chances, more second chances.”
Kruger said the team’s defence is improving but the offence obviously needs work.
“It’s a consolidated effort of five players a who create these opportunities and that’s not strong enough yet,” he said. “We need to work on our team offence, we need to get together on this and it’s something we could not speak about until last week in the coaches’ room, we were so focused on the defensive side of things so hopefully we’ll see the fruits of this pretty soon.”