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.”