October 05 2009 11:11AM
Joanne Ireland’s column this morning focuses on the Oilers’ new motto: “Anything”. Given that I think mottos help players about as much as mission statements help my commitment to my day job, I brushed past that bit and got interested when the column started talking about effort level.
For example, Ethan Moreau supplied this gem:
“There wasn't a lack of effort. We haven't had a game like that here in a while."
I know that it’s fashionable to chalk last season’s disastrous finish up to a lack of effort, a narrative which allows fans to pick on whichever goat they dislike the most. It’s great fun. Don’t like Shawn Horcoff? Well, it’s too bad he didn’t try last year. Perhaps you aren’t a fan of Tom Gilbert – if only he’d been more intense. It’s easy and it doesn’t need to make sense – everyone knows that the underdog can win if only he’d try just a little bit harder.
Let’s take a moment though and step away from the tremendously easy "he didn't try hard enough" game and try looking at the problems from last year.
Last season’s penalty kill was among the worst in the NHL; something that perhaps isn’t overly surprising given that Craig MacTavish had exactly three forwards who played regularly (Horcoff, Brodziak, Moreau) and one of those was often in the box himself. The rest of the minutes went to Fernando Pisani (who missed more than half the season), Erik Cole (traded at the deadline), and minor-league call-up Liam Reddox.
Let’s just say that even if the coaching had been superb, this wasn’t going to be an elite group.
That penalty killing group allowed 76 goals against, and had they been even average it would have saved the team 13 goals. How much difference would 13 goals have made in the standings?
Of course, that weakness remained unaddressed during the offseason; Brodziak was sent away, nobody was brought in to take his place. Pisani is out (again) and on injured reserve, and in Game One Pat Quinn responded by giving ice-time to guys who have never killed penalties much in the big leagues – Andrew Cogliano led all forwards with 1:31 in ice-time, Ryan Stone played more than a minute and both Gilbert Brule and Jean-Francois Jacques filled in at times. The unit responded with a two-for-four night, and while it’s still too early to declare the experiment a failure, would it surprise anyone if that trend continued?
Another problem was the lack of qualified players to take defensive zone draws. Craig MacTavish generally doubled up on centres, sending out Shawn Horcoff and Kyle Brodziak with a winger (generally one of Moreau, Stortini or Reddox, given that Pisani was on the shelf or playing at less than 100% for most of the season). That decision was certainly a factor in crippling the offensive game of both players.
Again, the weakness remained unaddressed during the off-season (worsened actually, given the departure of Brodziak) and Quinn responded by sending out Gilbert Brule in the defensive zone and Shawn Horcoff everywhere. While Brule was good on the draw in the defensive zone (three for five) vs. Calgary he was a miserable 36% overall on the night, and has no track record of being an effective NHL faceoff man. How long can his luck in his own end hold out, and how much will it hurt the team if it doesn’t?
Yes, yesterday I said that it was far too early for one game to change anyone’s mind. These problems though are items that any rational observer would be concerned about – and no shift in effort level is going to fix them. There were encouraging signs last night – Moreau talks about physical intensity but both the shot clock and the faceoff count show that the Oilers also dominated territorially – and barring a goaltending imbalance that will help them win games.
The point here is that the problems last year extended well beyond effort; and even assuming that the team’s slogan remains fixed in mind and they continue to play with a physical edge through all 82 games, that won’t solve those underlying problems. Unless Pat Quinn can mold young and as-of-yet unqualified players to fit those roles, and do it quickly, this team will lose games and points in the standings because of it.
Just like they did against Calgary.