David Backes Crosby

On yesterday’s podcast, which you should almost certainly listen to, Scott Lewis and I were talking about the Edmonton Oilers (starting at 23:40) and picking apart the multitude of reasons for their lack of success so far this season. (Goaltending is obviously a big one, but we were looking beyond that easy answer.)

I mused a little bit on a feeling I have, which frankly, I hadn’t really fleshed out before the show, so I figured I’d give it a try in print today: the Oilers don’t seem to have many heavy-lifters outside of players whose sole role is to lift heavy. Ideally, you’d like the guys who get the most minutes to be tough to play. Skill as a priority of course, but a lot of players are able to provide both. Edmonton doesn’t seem to have many of those.

There’s a line with skill guys where you don’t have to do a damn thing but be impossible to defend, and you can do whatever you want otherwise. I’m thinking Pavel Datsyuk, Patrick Kane types. Those guys could put eggs in their pants, play 60 minutes without breaking one, and they’d still have insane value.

But if you’re not at that level… you better scramble some eggs occasionally. This isn’t me scratching my dude parts and grunting about fighting, this is me acknowledging that hockey is a constant physical confrontation and guys who punch (metaphorically) before being punched make life more difficult than those who don’t. “Sandpaper” may be annoying hockey jargon, but it kinda does matter.

(When speaking specifically about the Edmonton Oilers, I should acknowledge that their core is young – that’s an asterisk to this whole “no heavy lifters” thing. They will eventually become men.)

I’m not knocking a specific player, I’m knocking the current collection of a certain type of player. Taylor Hall is tough to play in a thousand ways, but after that, the guys who get the most minutes are not.

Eberle? Crazy good, but not tough to play.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins? Crazy good (underrated in my mind), but not tough to play.
Yakupov? Currently a non-factor outside offense.
Ales Hemsky? The perfect example of great offensively, not tough to play.
David Perron can occasionally get dirty, but in the NHL he’s a comparative lil’ guy.
Sam Gagner‘s hurt, but he’s not exactly a mucker either.
Mark Arcobello? 5’8″ of talent. Not tough to play.

The Oilers have recognized this and tried to plug the holes with meat, but ended up with a bunch of meatheads. Gazdic, MacIntyre, Jones, Eager… those guys are annoying to play because they’re gonna hit (and possibly punch) you, but they’re not tough to play for a different reason (the not being great at hockey one).

I recently saw Brian Burke speak about the US Olympic team, and he discussed their top-six being “heavy-lifters.” Consider:

David Backes: probably the biggest combination of skill and “tough to play” in hockey.
Ryan Kesler: runner up?
TJ Oshie: killer, goal scorer.
Dustin Brown: see above.
Zach Parise: might be the toughest “pound for pound” guy out there.
Pavelski, Ryan, Callahan...you get the point – the US team is going to be a goddamn force, and you’re crazy if you think otherwise. They’re going to be hell to defend.

Being “tough to play” can mean a million things, but I’m referring to the level of engagement required to stop someone. When I watch the Edmonton Oilers play, I can’t help but think “boy, that’s a skilled group of players who would be really easy to play.”

Boyd Gordon is probably their best crossover player. He can play, he’s a capital M Man, and he’s tough to battle. Ryan Smyth used to be that, but is probably past his best before date. If I’m Craig MacTavish and trying to fix the Oilers, I’m looking for a defenseman or two, hoping my goalies unf**k themselves, and I’m in the market for some legitimate “heavy-lifters.”

Comments (13)

  1. D is the biggest problem, their goaltending isn’t great, but it’d be fine with some D. Definitely missing that grit/sandpaper, that’s probably the second biggest need. Unfortunately, the team was built on a “just grab the best player available in the draft” philosophy, and they’re missing the “intangibles”. Unfortunately, those guys that are hard to play against and have skill are a fairly rare breed…it might cost them a bunch to get them. They may be able to get some less skilled guys who are hard to play against, but their stars need to be more dominant than they are for that to work (they’re young, it may work out that way).

  2. This is why I think Canada needs to put Jamie Benn on their Olympic roster. Razor calls him a dainty barbarian and that’s a perfect description of how he plays. He hits, he backchecks he’s fast and he’s got great hands, as his goal and 5 assists last night show. If Canada is serious about a gold medal they have to put him on the team.

    A Benn-Getslaf-Perry line could be the toughest to play at the Olympics.

  3. One of my favorite things about Datsyuk is that even though he COULD get by just on his moves (and possibly his sense of humor), he chooses to bust his tail on D, too. He’s got like 3 Selkes.

  4. This is how I feel watching Jaromir Jagr play for the Devils this season, and also watching guys like Patrik Elias, Travis Zajac, and Dainius Zubrus. They’re not 30-goal scorers, but it just seems so damn hard to get the puck away from them, and keep them out of your zone when they’re on the ice.

    • I’ve contantly been amazed at hoe well Jagr uses his body positioning to protect the puck. That combined with his hands make it damn near impossible to take the puck away from him, even though he’s a lot slower than he used to be. He’s exactly the type of player that the Devils need for their posession game.

    • Elias may be one of the most underrated players in hockey. He does everything the right way.

      • If you’re well respected around the league as an underrated guy, are you actually underrated?

        Anyway, I know what you’re saying – he’s going to finish at or close to a thousand points – great career – still going.

        • I think he gets credit for his offense, which is great, but I don’t think a lot of non-Devils fans don’t realize just how many of the little things Elias does. He’s a player that can play any forward position, play on the PK or the PP, backchecks and plays a good positional game – and does all of these things very well. There aren’t many guys in the league like that.

  5. Ironic that they just traded Mike Brown to the Sharks (can we send him back? Please…?), given that, though he is pretty terrible, he can’t be that easy to play.

    • He is just another in the vein of Gadzik, Macyntire, Eager, etc. Guys who are tough but suck at hockey. Not the solution.

  6. Those US players named in the article are tough and very good but won’t fit the bigger ice surface that well. If the Olympics were held on the smaller NHL ice, then the US team would have been impressive. Now, not so much.

    • Actually, the larger surface should suit those players decently. None of them are huge and all of them are known for their speed. I mean, did you see Kane when he played in Biel? Flew around the ice and no one could touch him. Pavelski was the same way in the KHL. Watch some of those players on 4-on-4 and you’ll get a better idea of how they’ll handle more open ice. Now whether they’ll have defensemen that can be as mobile is the bigger question. Most of the D prospects for USA are stay-at-home guys which will be at a disadvantage to Canada and Sweden. They might have the best set of goalie options, though, after Finland.

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