DEFENCE FIRST: EAT YOUR BROCCOLI

Robin Brownlee
October 21 2011 06:14PM

Coaches preaching defence-first hockey to their players aren't the exception, they're the rule. Tom Renney of the Edmonton Oilers isn't different or odd or out in left field by insisting on that approach.

Whether it's Renney or Craig MacTavish before him, defence-first hockey makes sense. It's the right thing to do. Sort of like when mom used to insist you eat your broccoli or peas before even thinking about that big slab of pie you were eye-balling. Reasonable. Boring. Necessary.

As is often the case, the issue of defence-first hockey and the ability to sell it to a group of players, particularly a group of youngsters like Renney has on his roster now, comes down to a matter of degree.

Players will accept the dutiful teachings of a coach, they will choke down their veggies, if it means getting that pie. In hockey terms, it means ice time and a chance to get down to the other end of the rink once in awhile and have some fun with the puck. Snap it around. Score some goals.

Finding the balance is the trick.

WALKING THE LINE

As I watched Renney dole out his ice time -- the only real currency an NHL coach has these days -- on the way to a 2-1 shootout loss to the Minnesota Wild at Rexall Place Thursday, I couldn't help but wonder if he'd stepped over the line. Too much broccoli.

With Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and rookie Ryan Nugent-Hopkins getting more pine time than ice time against the Wild -- a team capable of inducing coma among fans like no other with defence-first hockey -- it brought back memories of the stifling, "eat your veggies" days of MacT.

"We started placing a premium on playing defensive hockey a couple of years ago," Renney said. "We've really tried to create a defensive foundation that we can build our whole game from.

"I think we're in a good place this early in the season, but we still have a lot of work to do. In no way, shape or form should it distract at all from offence."

Sounds good, in theory.

ON THE CLOCK

At the end of the night, two-way veterans Shawn Horcoff (23:52) and Ryan Smyth (22:30) had played a whole lot more than any of the kids -- Hall (14:21), Eberle (13:24) and Nugent Hopkins (13:22).

Horcoff and Smyth had some PK time thrown in there at 3:33 and 2:21 respectively, while the kids had none. Renney gave Hall (2:41), Eberle (2:39) and Nugent-Hopkins (2:39) more looks on the power play. Horcoff had 2:18 and Smyth just 48 seconds.

For even minutes, the breakdown was: Horcoff 18:01, Smyth 20:21, Hall 11:40, Eberle 10:45 and Nugent-Hopkins 10:43. While I've liked what Smyth and Horcoff have shown, I'd have preferred to see the kids coming through the gate a little more often. A lot more often, actually. Judging by the call-in shows Thursday night, fans agreed.

Renney, of course, has games to win. After five straight years out of the playoffs, that's no small consideration. He obviously liked his team's chances better Thursday with Horcoff and Smyth on the ice.

Today, and as an aside that has generated some buzz, Renney talked about the possibility of sitting out Nugent-Hopkins against the New York Rangers Saturday, in part to make room for the return of Sam Gagner. On the face of it, not a big deal, really.

Then again, that, like Renney's choice of who he sent over the boards against Minnesota, would likely be about as appetizing to many Edmonton fans -- those longing for excitement and something to yell about -- as more broccoli when they hunger for pie.

I'm with them on both counts.

GREAT ONE SAYS . . .

As part of a wide-ranging interview with Darren Dreger of TSN, Wayne Gretzky weighed in on Nugent-Hopkins.

"I really believe he's one of the best young players we've seen come into the game in a long time," Gretzky said.

"And the great thing for him is he has two other young guys in Taylor Hall and [Jordan] Eberle that are really outstanding players and really good young men and they are in the right scenario."

Sound like somebody ticketed back to Red Deer?

JOB OFFER?

As part of his interview with Dreger, Gretzky suggested he'd had offers of front office jobs from both the Oilers and the Kings, but pointed out he's not interested in jumping back into the grind full-time. Gretzky told Jason Gregor and I the same thing weeks ago before he came to town.

Given Gretzky's ties to Edmonton, I'd suggest the Great One has a standing offer, as opposed to being pitched a specific job recently -- the message being that anytime he wants to get back in, he'd be welcomed by Kevin Lowe and owner Daryl Katz. That's been discussed more than once and it remains on the table.

THIS AND THAT . . .

-- Will lightning strike twice? Will No. 28 hit the lottery two years in a row? Too early to tell for sure, of course, but I've liked most of what I've seen from Ryan Jones so far this season.

Jones, coming off a season in which he scored a career-high 18 goals, a feat widely panned as luck and happenstance by many advanced stats men, has scored a couple of goals and, all in all, been pretty good.

While projecting based on only six games is goofy -- Jones won't scored that 27-goal clip he's on now -- I can see him, like I said in pre-season, slotting into the 15-18 goal range again. I'm thinking 16 would be dandy.

-- I'll take substance over style on the bottom line every time, and that's why I'm conflicted about Linus Omark.

On one hand, you'd have to be dumb as a post not to recognize Omark's obvious offensive creativity and ability to play like he has the puck on a string. He's had some dazzling shifts this season.

On the other hand, Omark is without a point in the five games he's played this season. All told, he's scored 5-22-27 in 56 games. Omark's calling card is putting up points. He'd best get on with it. Close doesn't count.

-- Like I pointed out on Twitter last night, Horcoff, Eberle, Eric Belanger, Omark, Anton Lander and Magnus Paajarvi have combined for 0 goals in 35 man-games. Mitigate that with any numbers you'd like, if you're so inclined, but that's not nearly good enough.

Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TEAM 1260.

Aceb4a1816f5fa09879a023b07d1a9b4
A sports writer since 1983, including stints at The Edmonton Journal and The Sun 1989-2007, I happily co-host the Jason Gregor Show on TSN 1260 twice a week and write when so inclined. Have the best damn lawn on the internet. Most important, I am Sam's dad. Follow me on Twitter at Robin_Brownlee. Or don't.
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#51 The Beaker
October 22 2011, 08:37AM
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@michael

There is a button that says "enter" or "return" or has an a little arrow symbol on it.

It works.

No formating Required.

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#52 Slats
October 22 2011, 09:50AM
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Another good article Brownlee but I always like melted cheese on my brocoli . .

So when I look at RNH the guy's got 5 Pts in 6G - if this was Hemsky or Horcoff we'd be jumping up and down. Not really sure what bar we are trying to measure this kid at, but I think there is other reasons why they are trying to reduce his playing time.

I would disagree with Renney's approach though because if he's playing he is not on a minute clock right now - he's on a game clock. If he's in the line-up then play him if not then put him in the press box, but keeping him on the bench makes no sense if they are really considering sending him back.

To me this may be about trying to protect the kid from injury. He's 18 and the NHL schedule and all that comes with NHL is a real grind. Again give him a game rest not minutes on the bench.

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#53 keilan
October 22 2011, 11:47AM
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@Clarko

@ Clarkco -- you've got this exactly right!! Post #44 was also on the money.................

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#54 keilan
October 22 2011, 11:49AM
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Clarko wrote:

Our captain and Belanger aren't 1st or 2nd line guys either though. Not on a good team anyways and that's what I thought we were trying to become.

RNH should stay because he will improve. Hard to believe a guy with 5 points in 6 games is all of a sudden the goat and in Renney's doghouse and he is ready to say he isn't NHL ready...especially since he doesn't get nearly as much icetime as others who have produced far less. How fickle are Oilers fans as they were ready to hang his numbers from the rafters just a week ago after the game against Vancouver, and then now he isn't ready to play in the league.

I am excited to watch games this season because of the hope that RNH, Hall, and Eberle bring us. Instead, I'm tuning into the Horcoff/Smyth show as the Oilers play the trap, don't forecheck worth anything, and try to win games 1-0 and 2-1. This team has played garbage hockey over the past decade trying to grind out every win.

Oh, and putting RNH in the shootout after he hasn't stepped on the ice in half an hour was brilliant as well. I he hasn't "earned" his icetime in the last 10 minutes of the game, he hasn't "earned" the right to be in the shootout either. Renney could at least try to be consistent when sending the message.

@ Clarkco -- you've got this exactly right!! Post #42 was also on the money.................

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