Tag Archives: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins

Oil Change bids farewell: only to the season? Or to its viewers, too?

Did you know 83 players dressed for the Edmonton Oilers during the last four seasons?

A shocking number or proof that the club’s management has been trying their darndest? Proof they’ve been working hard to find and assemble the best group of people to return the team to the heights it had enjoyed more than two decades ago?

Almost four full rosters, come to think of it!

That’s the question that pops into one’s mind as the last minutes of this season’s Oil Change documentary series roll by. It aired on Sportsnet Sunday, and will see its first series of repeats Monday, with more re-runs to come.

The final minutes show each of the 83 players get a few seconds of fame, with each player’s name and number of games in Oilers’ uniform in subtitles, with music featuring hints of Auld Lang Syne sounding in the background.

If this doesn’t move an Oilers fan’s heart, nothing will.

Except it raises a question. What is it, after all, this elusive chemistry the Oilers’ architects have been trying to find? What is this something that changes a sports club from an also-run into a contender, a champion, even? Is it really chemistry or, Heavens forbid, alchemy? You know, alchemists, the guys with strange beards, wearing extravagant hats, who keep trying to convince their kings and other nobility that they can change worthless raw materials into gold, develop elixirs of love and create potions that would enhance humankind’s longevity beyond any reasonable limits.

Oil Change does not ask these questions openly, but they are there.

This season’s finale begins with a visit with Ryan Smyth in his own, private and personal, trophy room. It contains all kinds of awards he’s won, And he’s won almost everything there’s to win in professional hockey, with one exception: he only got very close to the Stanley Cup once, but never touched it.

As it follows the last few weeks of the season that was, Oil Change’s subjects (players, coaches) see a bit of silver lining in the final weeks’ results and, especially, style of play. Habits, as head coach Dallas Eakins likes to call it. Whether they are right or whether it’s just another round of grasping for straws, only future will tell. And Oil Change deserves praise because it does not succumb to the temptation of becoming a clairvoyant. It only documents what those who should be in the know say and it accompanies it with pictures of what is actually going on even as the words are spoken.

What does it say? Words are nice but they aren’t worth much until and unless action makes them right.

There’s one interesting segment that might deserve a psychologist’s trained eye. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Taylor Hall, two of the team’s brightest-shining stars, have been trying to find similarities and differences that exist between themselves. A fascinating exercise. Whether the two players’ judgments are on the money or not does not matter. What does matter is we can see how they perceive themselves, each other, and the team.

And that’s what Oil Change has been all about since its inception four long seasons ago. It documents who the people behind headlines (and frequent angry speech on Edmonton’s talk shows) are. To use a cliché: what makes the team tick? What is actually behind the infatuation Edmonton Oilers’ fans feel toward their beloved stars? For crying out loud, the fans must feel like jilted lovers again and again. Season after season lacks success, using a milder expression instead of the straightforward failure.

Considering that psychologists have defined infatuation (and early love) as temporary insanity, one can’t but wonder at the Edmonton Oilers fans’ perseverance.

As has been their habit all along, Aquila Productions’ creative crews have again come up with a gem of documentary filmmaking. They use narration words sparingly, depending much more on pictures, in a fast-paced show that reflects to perfection what kind of game hockey is at its top professional level, and who are the people behind it.

This season’s finale ends, as has become traditional with all Oil Change episodes, with the subtitle line: To be continued …

Will it? Should it?

There are several schools of thought.

One that believes that the creators have covered most of the topics that they could cover, and what they would be doing next season would only be repeating what they had been doing the previous years. Differently perhaps, but nothing new under the sun.

And, besides, people who support this grim school of thought would say, it’s always best to quit while you’re still on top.

A jaded view, that. Ask Edmonton Oilers’ fans whether they want the show to continue. Come to think of it, ask fans of good hockey programming, and fans of good documentary filmmaking, too.

If the Oilers continue struggling, only the fact they are struggling would be old. How and why they struggle still, that would be something new.

Another school of thought holds that a hiatus of about a couple of seasons might be worth the wait. This school’s students hope that, following this summer, the Oilers’ roster will be settled for some time to come, with only a bit of space for minor adjustments. Adherents believe that the real change will happen once the Oilers move to the new arena downtown. And that is, they say, when Oil Change should come back.

Yes, physically speaking, it would be a change. Whether it would be as major as some anticipate remains to be seen.

So, what is the answer? What should it be?

Here’s hoping fans (using all kinds of social media) will tell Aquila, the Edmonton Oilers and Sportsnet that they can hardly wait for the new season of Oil Change.

And, here’s hoping, too, that Aquila, the Edmonton Oilers and Sportsnet will not only listen to what the fans are saying, but hear them, too.

Meanwhile, Oil Change, have a wonderful summer vacation, get some much-needed rest, and come back refreshed, tanned, strong, with your batteries recharged and whatnot, for the delight of your fans.

Was October a month from hell? Oil Change lets you be the judge

If the Edmonton Oilers ever become as good as the documentary series, Oil Change, that has been following them for the last four years, they’d be sitting pretty on top of NHL standings.

The second episode of this season’s show aired on Sportsnet Sunday night. As has been the network’s habit, we can expect repeats throughout the month, till time for the next episode comes in December. Viewers south of the 49th parallel can catch it on the NHL Network. Come to think of it, it airs on NHL Network in Canada from time to time, too.

October was a month from hell for the Oilers, and Oil Change doesn’t sugarcoat it. But its behind-the-scenes looks do give us a key to a more detailed understanding of what does and what doesn’t ail the club. After all, most Oilers’ fans had known for a fact that their beloved team has turned the corner, at long last. Not that we should begin sketching Stanley Cup parade routes right away, but the optimism was palpably there, and pre-season games seemed to confirm it was well-founded.

Guess what: it wasn’t, and experts who warned in their pre-season assessments that the Oilers still had a ways to go must have noticed something that the fans haven’t.

What was it?

Oil Change lets head coach Dallas Eakins try his own explanation. Whether it is really valid, Oil Change wouldn’t say. It is a documentary, after all, not a soapbox for commentators.

In any case, according to Eakins, some of the system changes might be difficult to adjust to as it is, and players’ muscle memories might encounter hard times trying to do the coach’s bidding. As he put it, a player might be trying as hard as he can to do what his coaches told him to do, but – from time to time – he might slip to old and tried habits whether they used to be successful or not. That, says Eakins, is quite understandable. Changing muscle memory simply takes time.

To the show’s credit, not all is doom and gloom.

Joey Moss celebrates his 50th birthday, and Oilers’ players prepare a celebration in style: they gather in Ryan Smyth’s house and surround a wrestling rink where two professionals fight, much to Moss’s enjoyment: professional wrestling is his second-most popular spectator sport.

Much laughter and joy. So much laughter and joy, in fact, that a viewer might ask: are these guys whistling as they walk past the graveyard?

Not really: they go out and deliver a present that Joey Moss must be enjoying the most: down by three, on home ice, to boot, they end up defeating the New Jersey Devils, vanquishing Martin Brodeur in the shootout.

It is most unfortunate that they do not continue winning on a more consistent basis.

All the nibs are in agreement that what ails the Oilers at the moment is inconsistent defence and even more inconsistent goaltending. Oil Change investigates whether the U.S. Marines are coming, and if so, when and whence. Its Aquila Productions crew visits the Oilers’ AHL farm team in Oklahoma City just in time to witness how its group of young defencemen is settling down, signing living quarters leases, practicing and playing. The Barons’ GM Bill Scott is of the view that some of his club’s defencemen are getting quite close to being ready for the show, while head coach Todd Nelson provides further details.

Young defencemen Milan Marincin and Oscar Klefbom tell us what the Oilers’ coaches have asked them to do to get ready for the show.

An almost forgotten name pops up: Oil Change visits with goalie Tyler Bunz. He is now playing for the Bakersfield Condors of Bakersfield, California, an ECHL affiliate of the Oilers. The 2012 Del Wilson Trophy winner for the best goaltender in the WHL (Medicine Hat Tigers), picked 121st player overall by the Oilers in the fifth round of the 2010 NHL draft, is even more removed from the NHL than his colleagues in Oklahoma City, but he’s fighting hard, with his eyes firmly set on his life goal: making the Oilers.

One trend where this season’s Oil Change differs monumentally from its previous three seasons: its crews spend more time with individual players outside of the rink, telling us their stories.

Many might have heard of Andrew Ference’s obsession with the environment, but watching him work in his basement, preparing the right mix for compost to be used in his backyard next spring, now, that’s a sight. And spending time with him and school children, with whom he shares a presentation on what happens to our garbage after it’s been taken away by garbage trucks, as enlightening a scene as can be.

Also: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins meets his brother Adam in Montreal. Adam is five years older than the Oilers’ young centre. He studies kinesiology (some describe it as treatment by movement) at Concordia University. He also became a regular defenceman on the school’s hockey team, Concordia Stingers. As a walk-on, too.

The older brother helped his younger sibling with his rehabilitation practices over the summer, trying to help him recover from a shoulder surgery. But, they both agreed, laughingly, other than that, they’ve always competed. And Ryan says it was his older brother’s example that made him the player he is today.

Many a fan is asking: what’s wrong with Nail Yakupov? This segment features the two games that his coach sent him to watch from the press box, but Oil Change found Slava Malamud, a Russian journalist with the Sport-Express newspaper who attended a few Oilers’ games. Malamud has been watching Yakupov since the young phenom’s junior years, and he offers some precious insights.

This episode is, again, a fast-paced production, filled with the sounds of the game, including the chatter on and off the bench (sub-titled, on occasion, so we know precisely what is said), great music selection, only a few words of narration, sharp camera work and editing.

Great entertainment, not only for those who love hockey in general, and the Edmonton Oilers, in particular. A fascinating teaching tool to help us understand what makes a team tick (and what doesn’t, too).

Oil Change’s second installment this season features October from hell

The first month of this NHL season was a month the Edmonton Oilers would rather forget, and that’s putting it mildly.

Oil Change, the television documentary that has been following their ups and downs with unique backstage looks, for the last four years, will provide us with more insights Sunday, Nov. 17, on Sportsnet.

Here are the times as provided by Sportsnet: 9 p.m. Eastern time on the East and Ontario regions, 7 p.m. Mountain on the West region, and 9 p.m. Pacific on the Pacific region.

Write these times down as this upcoming episode promises a lot for Oilers’ fans to frown upon. But it promises moments to enjoy, too.

Of the 14 games the Oilers played in October, nine took place on the road, six of them in the east, a region where the Oilers have traditionally had difficulties.

Why?

Who knows?

In any case, their head coach Dallas Eakins has maintained throughout the ordeal that his club is better than its October record seems to indicate. Whether he knows something the rest of us don’t, only future will tell. It would be good, not only for the Oilers and their fans, but for Eakins, personally, too, if he is right.

As is the tradition of Oil Change, we’ll see in this episode scenes mostly hidden from general view when and as they happen.

For example: a morning off in Montreal, with top centre Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and his brother Adam, a student at Concordia University. Or the Oilers celebrating their beloved, long-time dressing room attendant Joey Moss’s 50th birthday with a laugh-filled pro-wrestling show at Ryan Smyth’s house. Or a group of the team’s young stars having some four-wheeled fun in the parking lot outside Rexall Place during a TV commercial shoot for Ford. And a glimpse of some young prospects on the Oilers farm teams in Oklahoma City and Bakersfield, as they are chasing their NHL dreams.

Many fans could be forgiven if they ask: who are these guys? Mark Arcobello, Will Acton and Luke Gazdic, classic underdog success stories, all of them. Or fellow rookie Anton Belov, who passed up much bigger money in Russia’s KHL this year to try to make a name for himself as an NHL defenceman. That he might earn himself an invitation to join Team Russia at the Sochi Olympics in February would be an added bonus.

And what’s wrong with Nail Yakupov? The first overall pick in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft has been struggling as an Oilers sophomore, ending eventually as a healthy scratch for the first time in his starry career.

Edmonton’s award-winning Aquila Productions has created the entire Oil Change series that has developed a healthy, cult-like following across the entire North American continent.

If previous seasons and installments are any indication, we have great television to look forward to.

Who’s out when Ales Hemsky returns to the fold?

Now what?

With Ales Hemsky’s imminent return to the Edmonton Oilers’ lineup, who should draw the short straw?

The original deal saw Hemsky playing alongside Shawn Horcoff and Ryan Smyth, an old-line revival that was expected to click forthwith and help the club along to new heights.

Then came the unfortunate shoulder strain, and a pretty wise decision to give it time to heal and rest: it was the same shoulder that underwent a bit of major surgery just a few months ago, after all.

So, in drew Ryan Jones, and guess what? The line hasn’t missed a beat. Yes, yes, yes, some fans might be saying the line would be scoring more with Hemsky on it. At the same time, there might be another school of thought that would say, no, Hemsky would only slow this line down, they wouldn’t have been as successful as they have been with him as they are without him.

And then, there’s the realistic school of thought: the Edmonton Oilers have been on a pretty good winning streak with Hemsky on the sidelines. How can you start fixing something that ain’t broken? Trade the guy? Are you kidding? Well, if, say, Pittsburgh offered James Neal and Jordan Staal, perhaps? Or if Tampa sent Steven Stamkos and Vincent Lecavalier Edmonton’s way? Nonsense on both counts.

But seriously, look at Edmonton’s forwards: do you find ANY who deserve to be sent up to the press box (or down to Oklahoma City) so Hemsky finds his way back?

Say you demote Ryan Jones by a line to accommodate Nr. 83. Ooops, can’t be done: why mess with the kid trio of Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle? One more line down? For crying out loud, there’s not enough space to accommodate Linus Omark, if only to play him alongside his countryman Magnus Paajarvi, and how about Sam Gagner? How about Anton Lander? A defensive forward gem. Ben Eager? The Oilers need the grit, especially with Darcy Hordichuk still injured. How about Lennart Petrell? Another forward who knows how to defend. The Oilers need him, a very useful guy.

See the dilemma?

And that’s not all. Once Hemsky returns and Tom Renney will have to decide at whose expense he does so, will it not upset the applecart known as emotional and psychological relationships, ties, likes and dislikes within the group a.k.a. the Edmonton Oilers? Nobody knows, not even Tom Renney.

And yet, decide he will have to, and soon.

Many coaches around the NHL might be looking at this situation with envy: what kind of riches, eh? Yet, as we know, it’s a very fine line between riches and the poorhouse in the world of professional sports. Yes, the Oilers have put together an impressive series. But now that the rodeo is in town, and the Oilers are out of town, we’ll see how they handle their newly found swagger.

Besides, remember, everybody will be gunning for them: how dare the upstarts, 30th in the league for two years running, sit on top of their division, thumbing their noses at the Vancouver Canucks, Calgary Flames, Colorado Avalanche and Minnesota Wild, making them look as also-runs? And, too, we all know that the Oilers’ record against their own division is far from perfect.

And into all this, Ales Hemsky is chomping at the bit.

It’s going to be a tough call, no doubt about that. Aaah, another few gray hairs on Tom Renney’s head. And a nose or two out of joint on the roster.

Oilers have a dilemma: what to do with their budding star?

Thursday, October 28, 2011 will be D-Day for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Barring injuries or healthy scratches, the home game against Alexander Ovechkin-led Washington Capitals will be his ninth in the Oilers silks. Will he be hopping on the charter plane right after the game, for a quick road trip to Colorado to face the Avalanche the next night, or will he be hitting the road, to drive about 150 km south of Edmonton, to rejoin his junior team in Red Deer?

It’s not going to be his call, even though his efforts between now and then will have major influence on the coaching staff’s (and team management’s) decision-making process.

The debate isn’t only about what would serve Nugent-Hopkins’s development better: remaining in the NHL, or returning to the WHL. The debate is also about what is better for the Oilers.

From the outside looking in, it seems to be a no-brainer: keep the guy. After all, what has he got to learn in junior? It’s the same situation that developed with Taylor Hall last season. Talented like nobody’s business, but … Fans met a suggestion that both Hall and the club would be better served with Hall down in junior with derision. Of course, the club’s options were limited: the Oilers couldn’t send Hall to the minors for a few weeks of learning the professional hockey ropes. The Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) wouldn’t permit it. Perhaps the NHL should try to raise this subject when they begin negotiations about a new CBA with the NHL Players’ Association (NHLPA) in less than a year.

And so are the Oilers’ options limited this year, too.

Then there is the option Craig MacTavish used during the 2002-2003 season with a player about as talented and creative as Hall and Nugent-Hopkins: Ales Hemsky. Realizing that he had a gem on his hands, MacTavish decided to ease Hemsky in, rather than throwing him to the wolves. Hemsky was a healthy scratch for a few games here and a few games there, recording 59 games played that season, eventually.

Hemsky at the time was not absolutely pleased with sitting in the press box, but he kept his mouth shut, as a good soldier.

What happens next is not so much about young Nugent-Hopkins’s hockey prowess as it is about his mental and emotional strength. As Jeeves liked to say, it’s all about the psychology of the individual. Thus far, Nugent-Hopkins has proven he’s got most of the tools that a top-notch player needs to survive. Faceoffs are the one glaring omission in his repertoire. Summed up: he’s got most of the tools, but he hasn’t got his toolbox yet. Granted, Nugent-Hopkins seems aware of this shortcoming and, judging by the improvement in the faceoff circle during the game against Nashville (he won 42 per cent) as compared to the game against Vancouver just a few days earlier (a measly 18 per cent), he might become quite competent in this field before the season’s done, too. Of course, he faced better opposition in Vancouver’s faceoff men, too.

This is all very well. But you can bet your last loonie that after the hattrick against Vancouver, the first one of his professional career, 29 teams around the NHL told their video people to get the tape (or DVD) of that particular game pronto, and isolate young Nugent-Hopkins so that coaches can start devising tactics how to stop this budding star. What does this mean? Nothing much, only that Nugent-Hopkins is bound to find the going to get much tougher from now onwards. Goals will stop going in in bushels, his passes will be intercepted, you name it, it’s going to be frustrating.

Nugent-Hopkins will either get nervous, frustrated, even, throwing his arms up in anger, or he will come up with solid answers.

Here’s an example: when Wayne Gretzky saw opposition figured out some of his tricks, he came up with new ones, and when he had a wide enough repertoire, he would start mixing the tricks up, to keep catching the opposition off-guard. His Edmonton Oilers’ former teammate and later, captaincy successor, Mark Messier, had a patented outlet pass from his own zone, not a bad play but, alas, one the opposition figured out. Still, Messier persisted, causing a few unpleasantly dangerous situations for his team in the process.

Of course, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is not Wayne Gretzky. As Edmonton Sun’s Terry Jones quoted Rexall Sports’ president of hockey operations Kevin Lowe, Nugent-Hopkins’s playing style reminds him more of Dale Hawerchuk. A smart player, one who didn’t mind getting his nose dirty while operating near his opposition’s goal.

Still, psychologically, Nugent-Hopkins should pick up Gretzky’s ability to creatively change his ways whenever the situation called for it. That is going to be the toughest part of his development.

Now, Nugent-Hopkins has got a smart head on his neck. Just as his last year’s predecessor Taylor Hall has. Judging just by what they said before and after being drafted No. 1, their words didn’t sound like well-rehearsed clichés. In any case, what they said sounded better than Alexandre Daigle’s infamous words, when drafted by the Ottawa Senators in 1993. Remember? He said he was happy to be going as No. 1 because who remembers the No. 2 draftee, anyway? That particular year, No. 2 was Chris Pronger (and Paul Kariya, by the way, went as No. 4). On the day following his first hattrick, Nugent-Hopkins admitted it was exciting, but now, he was looking to get ready for the Nashville game, and anyhow, he’s got this nine-game or bust deal hanging over his head as the sword of Damocles, and besides, what’s a hattrick worth if it didn’t help the team win.

Sounded like a pretty well reasonable man, wise beyond his age, didn’t it?

Still, actions speak louder than words, and – thus far, at least – we’ve been experiencing what’s known as the “novelty effect.”

Will the grind and the increasing one-on-one coverage by other teams’ best defensive crews slow Nugent-Hopkins (and his development) down, or will he use it as a challenge, coming out as the Oilers’ scoring machine for the year?

Nobody knows the future. What we do know is that Taylor Hall, in a fine effort to prove he can play with the adults and be their equal, at least, overextended himself and got injured. An ankle injury stopped his first season as an Oiler at 65 games played. The word “if” is highly unpopular in the theory of games, but: Hall was tied for second in team scoring last year, with 42 points. Could he have got more if he didn’t get injured? Would he have got more if he didn’t get injured? Absolutely yes, on both counts.

Would he (or could he) avoid the season-ending injury if Tom Renney went Craig MacTavish’s way and didn’t play Hall night in and night out? Again: who knows? But, to use simplified statistics, if Hall had played fewer games, the probability of an injury would have been lesser.

Does the same apply to Nugent-Hopkins? Yes, it does, and a full 100 per cent, too.

Professional athletes like playing (running, jumping, whatever their sport). A laudable, praiseworthy, even, approach. Hockey players are no different. And that’s why their teams employ coaching staffs: to tame these young colts to make sure they’re ready when the big race comes.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is a player who is exciting to watch. Here’s wishing for his, his club’s and, most importantly, his and his club’s fans’ pleasure that he stays healthy and exciting for as long as possible. Even after the “novelty effect” has worn off.