There’s no whistle in his mouth and he’s not drawing up drills for his new players on whiteboards, but to say Dave Tippett’s kicking back this summer couldn’t be further from the truth.
Tippett has been crisscrossing the western half of the continent – going from Arizona to his summer home in Minnesota to his most recent dwelling in the state of Washington – all to ensure he has everything he needs for his new place in Alberta’s capital.
Sure, he’s relaxed a bit. But the Oilers have been front of mind, too.
In recent days, he finalized his coaching staff and saw his general manager acquire a player he previously coached. So, even in the sweltering desert heat, with hockey weather nowhere in sight, Tippett is ready to talk about the Oilers.
Tippett spoke to The Athletic about his new assistant, some former-turned-current players, ways to fix that ailing penalty kill and how he’ll deploy Connor McDavid.
Brian Wiseman was just hired to round out your coaching staff. What should we know about him and how will he fit in with Glen Gulutzan and Jim Playfair?
I think he’ll fit in very well. I wanted somebody I was familiar with and there wasn’t a break-in period with each other. This season is gonna be very, very important. I wanna be up and running early.
Brian is somebody I had as a player, a captain of a championship team in Houston. I had him as a video coach in Dallas. I’ve stayed in contact with him and watched him grow as a coach. When I was looking at a few different people here, I kept coming back to his name. I had a couple conversations with him. He was an excellent fit.
He was a high-skilled player when he played. He really sees the offensive side of the game and loves skill development. He’s a really good person. He’s spent the last seven or eight years recruiting in college, so he really knows how to work with young players. All those things were intriguing to me. We had to talk him into leaving a real good job in Michigan. He did and he’s excited to join us in Edmonton.
So will Glen Gulutzan be in charge of the offensive side, Jim Playfair the defensive side and Wiseman will be the eye in the sky?
Yeah, that’s the way it’ll work.
As for you, is there anything you learned from your time as a senior adviser in Seattle that you can apply to coaching?
You know, it’s funny. When you’re coaching a specific team, you’re really dug in on that team. Before every game you go and look at the team you’re going to play against, but you don’t spend a week looking at another team. Being away from the game for a couple years allowed me to look at some other teams more than just a casual glance. I started to dig in with what’s going on around the league.
In Seattle, as much as the building infrastructure was a big part of what I was doing and putting together a hockey organization, I was also watching a lot of games. You get a good feel for different teams, different players more than just a casual flyby, which is what you do when you’re coaching your own team.
It sounds like you kept your coaching mind fresh over the last two years.
Yeah. I watched a lot of games. Probably more than my wife likes. (Laughs.)
I know you said you watched some Oilers games last year. How much tape are your poring over now from last year’s team and what stands out?
I have watched a lot. There are two sides to watching. I’ve watched some structure stuff – not just 5-on-5 play but both special teams – and then I’ve watched individuals, just to get familiar with what you see in them and to try to envision roles they may play moving forward. Those are all things I’ve spent a lot of time digging into this summer.
You mentioned special teams. Edmonton’s PK has struggled for years. To what degree will new personnel address deficiencies there and how can you fix it?
That was part of our focus heading into the offseason with Ken (Holland). The goals against is something that has to be reduced. A big part of that is the penalty kill. We’ve added some players that can really help us there. (Markus) Granlund is a good penalty killer. (Josh) Archibald’s a very good penalty killer. We’ve added some personnel that can help us in those ends.
But there are some simple parts that are easy to say, but they’ve gotta get done. The first part is our goaltender’s save percentage on the penalty kill has to improve. Faceoffs can alleviate a lot of pressure by winning the draw and getting (the puck) down the ice early. Things like that will be real focal points of the penalty kill. That’s an area that certainly has to improve.
Jim Playfair will take the head on that. Like all staffs, will collaborate on the schemes we’re gonna use. But I feel like we’ve added some personnel that are gonna help it. Goaltender-wise, we’re enthusiastic about the two guys and making sure they’re both playing fresh all the time. I think we’ll get excellent goaltending, so hopefully that helps the PK.
Other things that might help is to take fewer penalties. The Oilers have struggled in that area, meaning penalty differential.
That goes without saying, too. That’s another good way to kill penalties. Don’t take them.
Is there anything you can do on the coaching end to change that?
You can instill hard discipline at the start, so everyone gets the message early. You can’t take bad penalties. They can be game changers. Why would you do that? You’re putting the team at a deficit.
Let’s be realistic, it’s gonna be tight. There are a lot of teams vying for playoff spots. If we wanna be one of those teams and get one of those spots, discipline is gonna be a big factor in how we do it. There’s discipline in how you play and discipline in staying out of the box.
You mentioned at your introductory press conference that you intend to start the season with Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid playing together. Does the acquisition of James Neal change your thinking at all?
Well, it opens up some more possibilities. Ken and I have talked that we have to let things play out over the rest of the summer and then we’ll see how things play out in camp. The good thing about James is he has the ability to play either side and he’s comfortable on either side.
I’ve watched some tape and known him since he was a young player. There’s some areas I think he’s better in. We’ll see how it all pans out. As it stands right now, my thoughts are still to have Connor and Leon together, but we’ll see how things work out in training camp.
It’s been a decade since you last coached him. What are you expecting from Neal after a down season in Calgary?
First and foremost, I’m expecting a very motivated player. I think both those players in that deal were looking for a change a little bit. It’ll help both of them.
I’ve known James for a long time. I coached him early (in his NHL career) and I’ve bumped into him along the way. I’ve pretty familiar with the assets that he has. We’ll try to put him in places where he can use those assets to help us win. He’s enthused.
I think he was embarrassed with his season last year and wants to improve. He’s putting in a lot of work this summer and he’s excited to get back up and going again. Hopefully he can come in and have some success with us.
Another forward you know pretty well is Sam Gagner. In your experience, what makes him valuable as an NHL forward?
Sam is a smart offensive player and he creates chances. He a versatile player, too. In Arizona, we played him at centre; we played him at right wing; we played him at left wing. We played him all over the place. He’s smart enough to adapt to situations and adapt to his role.
I talked to him a couple weeks ago. He’s very enthused about his work this summer and wants to get in and find himself a spot on the club and help the team try to win. I’m looking forward to getting to work with him again.
Do you see McDavid playing the full two minutes on the power play? What do you think about him playing the PK?
I would venture guessing he’s going to play less PK this year. I would like to see him more at 5-on-5 and on the power play.
As for the power play, that’s an interesting one. There are times when your power play goes out and you’ve got them hemmed in that end. You’re not using as much energy as when you’re going up and down the ice four or five times. Then there’s time for a change. That one’s a hard one to say. If your top players aren’t tired and they’re creating chances and creating momentum for you, you let them play.
But for the PK, my goal to start here is to have both Connor and Leon play less penalty kill than they did last year and have them fresher for 5-on-5 and the power play.
The one combo that was seldom used last season at 5-on-5 was Draisaitl with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. What are your thoughts about those two playing together?
We’ll see how it works out. I know from coaching against Connor and Leon, that’s a pair that works. I haven’t seen enough of Draisaitl and Nugent-Hopkins yet. Those are all things that’ll play out. I’m not ruling anything out. I’m not setting anything in stone.
In terms of the bottom two lines, do you envision them playing a different style than your scoring units and starting them more in the defensive zone?
I’d like to get it to where we have one real reliable shutdown line, a line that can play in a lot of situations. A lot of times those end up being defensive-zone situations. We’ll have to see how all the personnel plays out here and where we get to.
I think our top two lines have some good skill. I think we have the capability of building another line of skilled players and one line with penalty killers and for shutdown situations. Those are ideas I have in my head right now.
As you’re writing things down on napkins and thinking about things in your head, are there any other combos, lines or defensive pairings you’re intrigued about other than McDavid and Draisaitl?
Let’s just say I have lots of napkins. (Laughs.) Those things work themselves out. I have some ideas.
I try to go a little more with pairs than I do with full lines. I think a lot about the rhythm of the game, how the rhythm will play out. Those are things I think about. I have a lot of those sketches on napkins. We’ll see which one comes out of the washer.
It looks like you’re going to break in one or two young defencemen in October. How challenging is it to do that while you’re trying to compete for a playoff spot?
We have some good, young defencemen coming. I watched a lot of there games from the American League last year. I watched (Joel) Persson play in Sweden. We have some good, young defencemen that are ready to make that step. It’s not just one or two of them. I think we have three or four of them that you could make a case for.
There’s five guys returning that are good, solid veteran defencemen. (Matt) Benning is only three years in now, but he’s played enough where he’s an NHL defenceman. There are five guys that are there. There’s an opportunity for one young guy to play or another young guy might come in and bump somebody out. We don’t know that yet. It’s gonna be good competition.
Talking to people around the organization, they really feel that some of these young defencemen are ready to take that next step. I’m interested to see how that goes in camp.
Kris Russell played the whole season on the right side as a left shot. In an ideal world, would you like to get him on the left side? Is that realistic?
In an ideal world, I would, yeah. We’ll see how everything pans out.
Do you have much of a read on Oscar Klefbom and Darnell Nurse regarding which one is better suited to playing with Adam Larsson?
I’ve got some ideas there. But that’ll be another one that we’ll play around with in camp. I like to put defencemen in roles, just similar as the forwards. I’ve watched a lot of video. Jim Playfair has watched a lot of video of the defencemen.
You said earlier you are content with your goaltending tandem. What kind of starts ratio are you envisioning for your netminders? It seems like the sport is moving closer to a split and you could have that option with two veteran guys.
I don’t have a number in my head. But both guys will play their share; let’s put it that way. If one guy gets hot, he might run a little bit.
I thought Koskinen had some spurts last year where he was excellent. Down the stretch, he looked tired. Smitty didn’t have a great start to the year, but the second half and the playoffs was outstanding. If we could get them each 41 games and they play their very best for 41 games, we’ll be in good shape. (Laughs.)
But I don’t have a number for each of them. Some of it will be dictated on play and the rest ratio that makes them the most efficient players they can be.
Mike Smith explained you reached out to him during the free agent period. I know you two have a long history together, but what made you think he’d be a good fit in Edmonton right now?
Well, he’s a very competitive guy. He’s 37 years old, but he’s one of the best athletes that I’ve ever coached. He’s a phenomenal athlete who’s in phenomenal shape. He’s a veteran guy who pushes himself. He has the ability to push his teammates.
I thought we needed somebody who was more than a 15- or 20-game backup guy. Koskinen, like I said, he played well at times last year. But it’s nice to have the option of two guys. I thought Smitty gave us more of a duo in net rather than a starter and a backup.
Are you saying he’s 37 going on 27?
Yeah, exactly. There are a lot of people who wish they were as good a shape as he’s in at 37. (Laughs.)
Finally, you must be one of the only people in Edmonton who’s looking forward to snow and colder days after two years off from coaching.
(Laughs.) I’ve lived in the south for a long time. I’m looking forward to – not so much the snow – but I’m looking forward to the atmosphere of being back in Canada.
I never played on a Canadian team other than growing up and in the Olympics. I never played on one in the NHL and I’ve never coached a Canadian team. I’m looking forward to that challenge and the passion that the fans have – just the everyday engagement that comes with being in a Canadian market. I know some people that have said they’ve shied away from it. I’m looking forward to it.
You might miss Arizona in February.
We’ve gotta road trip here in February. I can grab a couple days here. (Laughs.)
(Photo: Christian Petersen/Getty Images)