Style vs. substance and the Edmonton Oilers

Jonathan Willis
March 11 2013 02:55PM

There’s a school of thought that suggests playoff hockey is war, and the team with the biggest, strongest players will carry the day every time. Is that kind of team necessary to win in the post-season, and if so what do the Oilers need to do to get there themselves?

The Ducks and the Red Wings

In 2006-07, the Anaheim Ducks won their first Stanley Cup, and they did it with a team that any old-school hockey man would love. They took 71 major penalties; the second-place team in the league took just 47. George Parros alone had 18 majors, more than three full NHL teams. They had more players with a fight than Detroit had fights. Hits are a notoriously finicky stat, due to things like home bias, but no team in the league recorded more hits on the road. Their top-six had skill, but it also had grit – the “nothing line” of Pahlsson, Niedermayer and Moen got heavy minutes – Pahlsson played more than any Ducks forward not named Ryan Getzlaf – and even a lot of their skill players were massive. It was a take-no-prisoners, dominate-physically style of hockey, and it worked.

The next season, the Detroit Red Wings won it all. They did it playing a style of game that would be anathema for many hockey men. Fighting was up league-wide in the wake of Anaheim’s win, but Detroit finished last with 21 major penalties – half of them coming from a player (Aaron Downey) who would not dress for a single post-season game. Four different players had more fights than the entire Detroit team. They didn’t hit much, either – the Red Wings were a bottom-five team in road hits – and they were small, too – the team’s five most-used forwards in the playoffs that season were all 6’ or shorter, as were seven of their top-nine (though strength was clearly not a problem, with the top six all listed at 195 pounds or more). This was a team that played against type - their forwards were not overly big by NHL standards, they didn't fight, and (comparatively) they didn't hit. They won anyway.

It would be difficult to imagine two more dissimilar Stanley Cup Champions, stylistically. The two teams placed entirely different priorities on the importance of traditional physical play – Anaheim emphasized it; Detroit all but ignored it. What both teams shared was competence: both the Ducks and Red Wings dominated the shot clock in the regular and post-season, and ultimately both ran up a crooked ratio of goals for versus goals against.

The Edmonton Oilers

Grit is a funny thing. We tend to define grit as physical play – a big (typically North American) guy who hits a lot fits the sterotype. But few would argue against Pavel Datsyuk as a gritty player – because he’s hard on the puck. He doesn’t lose it often and he’s a constant threat to take it when he doesn’t have it. Datsyuk’s a small European who rarely hits, but I can’t think of a single player in the Western Conference who plays a tougher possession game.

Looking at the Oilers’ personnel, I just don’t see them as an Anaheim-style team. With Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle, Nail Yakupov and Sam Gagner as four of the top-six forwards long-term, they aren’t built for it. Even with only three of those guys in the top-six (imagining, for instance, that Gagner is dealt for a bigger player), they can’t mimic the wall of size that the Ducks played with in 2007. But as Detroit showed, they don’t necessarily have to – if they can play a hard puck-possession game (something that they remain a significant distance from mastering) they can still win.

That, to me, is where the emphasis should lie. All else being equal size is always better than a lack of size, but the primary emphasis should be on players that do a good job of maintaining possession. Big guys like Nathan Horton in Boston and Ryane Clowe in San Jose – both pending unrestricted free agents as of this writing – fit the bill. Big guys like Ben Eager do not. And if the choice comes down to a big, flawed player or a mid-sized guy who rarely surrenders possession and never does without a battle, the team should take the latter player each and every time.

Basically, it’s the old ‘the size of the fight in the dog matters, not the size of the dog in the fight’ adage. If the Oilers have a team of players willing and able to do whatever it takes keep possession, to generate chance after chance while limiting the opposition’s opportunities, they can win. And maybe I’m looking at it through rose-coloured glasses, but a lot of the guys on the team seem to have those qualities, though a lot of them are still well back of their prime years right now. As they gain in maturity and experience, I think they can form the core of a contending team. The trick is to augment those players with others – big or small – who don’t give up on the play, who dominate possession and show equal ferocity on the fore-check and the back-check. That kind of grit sometimes shows up in hit counts or fighting majors, but it always shows up in shot totals and goal totals. It’s that substance, regardless of the style of the team, that won championships for Detroit and Anaheim.

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Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, Sportsnet, the Edmonton Journal and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.
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#1 yawto
March 11 2013, 03:04PM
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Hopefully the Oilers can take beating Chicago at home for the fist time this season and lord forbid, put together a winning streak.

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#2 Phixieus666
March 11 2013, 03:05PM
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Thats the type of fight Brown brings, not the biggest or the most skilled but he never seems to give up.

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#3 TayLordBalls
March 11 2013, 03:08PM
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Oilers need confidence and to get that they need to do the simple things right, then expand on that

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#4 Rhino
March 11 2013, 03:22PM
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Having the best defensman in the world didn't hurt Detroit either

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#5 westcoastoil
March 11 2013, 03:34PM
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Prudent article JW - I think another example from the "Detriot" model is Chicago themselves. The bus drivers there are Kane, Toews, Hossa, Sharp, Bolland, Keith and Seabrook. All strong on the puck with excellent possession skills + speed, but not based on a "run you through the glass" system. Their complementary players are of the larger with skill variety, and one could (I think) reasonably assume that a guy like Harski could find a role on that team.

Seems to be working there...although maybe it's the Ice Girls in Chitown - real and spectacular!

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#6 VK63
March 11 2013, 03:38PM
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@Rhino

Or the ducks for their chosen style of play..... for that matter.

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#7 David S
March 11 2013, 03:40PM
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You mean, like this tough little bastard?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R9-y8w33vmY

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R9-y8w33vmY

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#8 Minister D-
March 11 2013, 03:41PM
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"Big guys like Nathan Horton in Boston and Ryane Clowe in San Jose – both pending unrestricted free agents as of this writing – fit the bill. Big guys like Ben Eager do not. And if the choice comes down to a big, flawed player or a mid-sized guy who rarely surrenders possession and never does without a battle, the team should take the latter player each and every time."

This, all day long, as the kids are fond of saying nowadays. I think the 'grit' problem highlighted here once again turns the spotlight squarely on management's inability to find decent support players for our top two lines. Guys like Eager and Petrell seem fundamentally incapable of carrying the puck, taking or receiving a pass, or keeping possession once they have it. There's been long stretches of hockey where the Oilers don't seem to touch the puck at all, and it usually has to do with the third and fourth lines being out there. This simply *HAS* to be addressed in the offseason this year if anything like progress is going to occur.

JW: What's the likelihood that the Oilers will be in on Horton and Clowe? Any other UFAs fit the bill?

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#9 MAC962
March 11 2013, 03:41PM
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Thats all fine, but you need a mix of both and the current edition of the Oilers has very little of it on either side. Hemsky has played better for sure but he will never have that combative trait Hall Does. Sam Gagner lacks size but he is willing to get dirty, so has Taylor Hall, Eberle i think is fearless but lacks at least right now some get to the dirty areas mentality but that aside i would not trade him - perhaps ever. RNH is Gretzky like, will never intimidate anyone, he is passive but brilliant, 29 other teams would take him in a heartbeat.

IMO- We need the guys like Curtis Glencross, and i am ticked to this day we let him get away. The Cal Clutterbuck Darcy Tucker type, Doug Gilmour, Smaller of stature but absolute bull dogs. Toss in some size with decent skill. its got to be a mix, easier said then done but damn it, we have the pieces to move to get there. And i am sorry DD is not EVER going to win you anything.

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#10 Oiler Al
March 11 2013, 03:43PM
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Would you be talking about the Montreal Canadiens? Probably smaller than Oilers, certainly less talent [?], but they play hard on both sides of the puck, finish their checks,, back and fore check , crisp passes most of the time.can skate etc. Pretty much basic stuff a player should have when they pull on an NHL jersey.

I see very little of that from the Oilers!

Fault: Krueger and the coaching staff.! You play what you practice.

PS I am a Oiler fan, I only bring up Montreal,because I marvel who hard they play every night. Ya I know they have a better goalie,but the best goalie in the world wont help you if do play hard.

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#12 Will
March 11 2013, 03:45PM
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Speaking of puck possession, I think whatever line Hall is on is pretty solid with "possession" in that there are ton of stats out there that demonstrate the play goes one way when Hall is on the ice.

As for the second line, or any line Gagner is centring, they seem to have some trouble. And I think this is where the argument to add size comes in. Having said that, the Magnus Gagner duo looked pretty good. And even if they don't have possession, Magnus is responsible enough defensively to cover.

If I may, I think Kruger should try a top line of Horcoff, Hall, Hemsky to line up against the tough competition. Your second line of Nuge, Eberle, and whatever winger with size you want to put on the left is your next line, as getting the sheltered minutes should help the Nuge break his slump and get back to his scoring ways.

The second, 'second' line then has Gagner, Yak, and Magnus.

With a fourth energy line. That makes a top line that is going to fatigue by the end of the game, but is likely not going to let a lot of shots go in, and has shown can be dominating. A second line with the defensively responsible nuge, and someone there to dig a puck out of the corner. And a third line that is young and possibly prone to mistakes, but with one of our more defensively minded players, and all three can play at a blistering pace, against softer competition. They'll have a hard time getting and keeping the puck, but once they get it, they are dangerous with it.

Thoughts?

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#15 justDOit
March 11 2013, 04:05PM
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Oiler Al wrote:

Would you be talking about the Montreal Canadiens? Probably smaller than Oilers, certainly less talent [?], but they play hard on both sides of the puck, finish their checks,, back and fore check , crisp passes most of the time.can skate etc. Pretty much basic stuff a player should have when they pull on an NHL jersey.

I see very little of that from the Oilers!

Fault: Krueger and the coaching staff.! You play what you practice.

PS I am a Oiler fan, I only bring up Montreal,because I marvel who hard they play every night. Ya I know they have a better goalie,but the best goalie in the world wont help you if do play hard.

While the Canadiens have 4 players listed at 5'9" or less, two of them (Gallagher and Gionta) play with a lot of grit and energy. Of course, they might grow an inch or two on the ice when they play with these guys:

COLBY ARMSTRONG 6' 2"

RENE BOURQUE ** 6' 2"

LARS ELLER 6' 2"

ALEX GALCHENYUK 6' 1"

TRAVIS MOEN 6' 2"

PETTERI NOKELAINEN 6' 1"

MAX PACIORETTY 6' 2"

BRANDON PRUST 6' 2"

That the Habs can play well with a small team is about as accurate as the Oilers roster being Krueger's fault.

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#16 Will
March 11 2013, 04:06PM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

So basically what Krueger did vs. Chicago?

Exactly!!!

I listened to the game and had little attention to specific lines. I know the HHH line was out, and I know Magnus played with Gagner, I did not know about the Nuge line. Who did they have? Harti? And a follow up is how did the Gagner line do on the defensive side of the puck with Yak on the right wing? Better? I hope it was better?

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#18 Spydyr
March 11 2013, 04:16PM
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Rhino wrote:

Having the best defensman in the world didn't hurt Detroit either

And Anaheim won with Pronger.

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#19 StuckOutHere
March 11 2013, 04:21PM
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David Clarkson for NJ? UFA this year I think.

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#21 OilClog
March 11 2013, 04:32PM
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Horton - 22gp 7g 5a 12pts +5 4pm 62shot 17:38toi 27yrs 6.02 229lbs Concussion Concerns

He'll get atleast 5 on the open market, he's a beauty other then those concussions.

Clowe - 22gp 0g 8a 8pts -4 72pm 51shots 16:45toi 30yr 6.02 225lbs Wearing Down

He'll get money from someone for a good long term, I frankly hope it's not the Oilers.

If I'm spending money on either of the two, I spend a little more on Horton and forget about Clowe altogether. Long term, Short term stats don't compare, Horton is superior.

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#22 Next up, is Connor McJesus.
March 11 2013, 04:33PM
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Shopping on July 1st (july 5th this summer) is what makes or breaks alot of hockey clubs. Some bonehead club will offer those guys (Clowe/Horton) more than they're worth. When there's something here worth being a part of, players of this ilk will come for much less. Draft much younger versions of these type of players and let them cut their teeth/earn this type of reputation here. Pass thanks.

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#23 Spydyr
March 11 2013, 04:37PM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

And Carolina won with Bret Hedican...

But yes, it's obvious a top defenceman is a huge help, and something most teams need to win.

I think Marc-André Bergeron had more to do with Carolina winning then did Bret Hedican.

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#24 justDOit
March 11 2013, 04:42PM
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Spydyr wrote:

I think Marc-André Bergeron had more to do with Carolina winning then did Bret Hedican.

Conklin.

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#25 A-Mc
March 11 2013, 04:45PM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

No, it certainly did not, and it's a stretch to project anyone on the Oilers - or in the league, really - as being an equal to Lidstrom.

Justin Schultz is a huge addition; it's going to be interesting to see just how good he can get.

I've already shipped J. Schultz his order of steroids for this summer's bulking session.

185lb coming in? 205lb by September

#YaRight #IWish

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#26 A-Mc
March 11 2013, 04:46PM
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justDOit wrote:

Conklin.

Ya i think i remember it the same way actually.

Carolina's success came with Ty Conklin... fak

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#28 Will
March 11 2013, 04:48PM
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It seems we lack a little depth hen injuries hit, but as I think most people have said since the beginning of the year, this team is one or two key pieces away.

It's clear, as has been since the start, the team has balancing issues. These line combos demonstrate some balance, but they also expose where we need to upgrade: Big LW that can play with the Nuge and Ebs, a solid back-up for when Dubnyk goes down. Some development from our rookies Yak, and Schultz. And a top pairing D man to eat the big minutes and bump everyone on our d down one notch.

I agree Smid is good, and I really like Petry, and one day they may be a top pairing, but they are not those guys right now.

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#29 Mike Krushelnyski
March 11 2013, 04:49PM
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Next up, is Connor McJesus. wrote:

Shopping on July 1st (july 5th this summer) is what makes or breaks alot of hockey clubs. Some bonehead club will offer those guys (Clowe/Horton) more than they're worth. When there's something here worth being a part of, players of this ilk will come for much less. Draft much younger versions of these type of players and let them cut their teeth/earn this type of reputation here. Pass thanks.

Steve Tambellini account spotted

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#30 Spydyr
March 11 2013, 04:50PM
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A-Mc wrote:

Ya i think i remember it the same way actually.

Carolina's success came with Ty Conklin... fak

And what happened to Rollie?

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#31 Shredder
March 11 2013, 04:59PM
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Great article. I happen to agree with Will (and JW's response) as mixing some good defensive players with offensive ones seem to have good results.

I think the recent cup winners since the 04-05 lockout has showed that many different styles of team can win the cup. But whatever style they choose to use, they have to be the best at it. Further, that style has to be able to address playing the game at both ends of the rink. So if your style is based around a lot skill, speed and puck possession, that means you can't skate around your own end tirelessly chasing the puck. The Blackhawks are not a trap/defensive team, and they just had their way with the entire NHL (well really jsut the west), but they happen to be not just a great counter attack team but the best in the league. They've got a great core signed for a long time and great complimentary peices. Even more so, the complimentary pieces actually play to their system well, and have the right skill set to match.

What is our style? I think it's obvious we're going to trend to a more offensive, up-tempo game. Bringing in a couple of hulksters will only deter from that as they will only slow things down and change the way the rest of the team plays the game. But bringing in a couple guys who can get the puck out of the corners and into the wingers hands, maybe add in a few blocked shots, and there you go, you're team is headed in the right direction a lot more than it otherwise would have.

We have a great core, and Horcoff, as it turns out, is a great complimentary piece. Smid too. Eager, well he needs to win a few more puck battles along the boards. Growing pains are going to continue, but I don't anticipate that they will for much longer. That being said, the rest of the team still needs to be stronger.

Also - just a warning: Gagner trade rumors are starting again.

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#32 A-Mc
March 11 2013, 04:59PM
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Spydyr wrote:

And what happened to Rollie?

Dont know. I was drunk.

The answer is Beer.

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#33 Next up, is Connor McJesus.
March 11 2013, 05:00PM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

The problem with the draft is it's slow. Outside of the first few picks, the vast majority of players are five years away - and I don't think the Oilers have five years to waste waiting to fix this particular problem.

Screw the past, trying to copy someone elses path to glory. Edmonton needs to blaze their own path. Guys like Hall,Hopkins,Eberle and Yakupov will certainly be dishing out more than they receive in the near future. Little incidents like Hall on Clutterfack, and Hopkins on Brendan Morrow (Ryan drove his shoulder into an unsuspecting Morrow last year and put him out for nearly 3 weeks) will go along way to levelling that intimidation playing field. Eberle and Yakupov are strong on their feet. If they wanted to they could be dishing it out sooner rather than later. Timing is as important as having the ability to inflict the required blow. Let them retaliate whilst the windeth is knockethed out of their lungs i say. Let these slow to anger kids stew a little more. Their desire to be on the inflicting end will shirley increase in time.

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#34 Closetgm
March 11 2013, 05:02PM
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I agree with Conklin 100 percent. But who th f$&k rotates there backup in the Stanley cup final? Conklin should never even bin in that game. MacT cost us that cup.

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#35 justDOit
March 11 2013, 05:02PM
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@Shredder

I need to know one thing: when did the Gagner trade rumours STOP?

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#36 Spydyr
March 11 2013, 05:03PM
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A-Mc wrote:

Dont know. I was drunk.

The answer is Beer.

Beer is always the right answer.

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#37 justDOit
March 11 2013, 05:05PM
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Closetgm wrote:

I agree with Conklin 100 percent. But who th f$&k rotates there backup in the Stanley cup final? Conklin should never even bin in that game. MacT cost us that cup.

If I remember correctly, they both had similar stats throughout the season before Rollie was acquired, but by my eye, Markannen was the better goalie. I still don't understand the motive to put Marks in the pressbox, but coaches get paid for hunches sometimes, and sometimes those hunches make them look like a genius.

Sometimes...

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#38 TKB2677
March 11 2013, 05:12PM
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I read that Drew Stafford would welcome a trade out of Buffalo. Anyone know much about this guy. From what I have heard, he is a guy that leaves people wanting more. He's a big body that plays both wings and has some decent offensive ability.

That being said, I don't know if he has a lot of grit to his game and the last thing the Oilers need is another forward that doesn't go to the net. That being said, big forwards that can score aren't readily available and maybe a change of scenery would help. On paper, he looks good.

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#39 Shredder
March 11 2013, 05:14PM
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justDOit wrote:

I need to know one thing: when did the Gagner trade rumours STOP?

There was an ON article within the last couple of months that stopped them for a short while. I think it was a brownlee one because I recall it referenced Gagner siutbohc (worst acronym ever by the way).

Thanks for focusing on the Gagner rumors though, when clearly I was trying to see what we all thought the Oilers style of game should be. I'll chalk it up to experience though...whatever discussion is going on

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#40 Next up, is Connor McJesus.
March 11 2013, 05:15PM
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Mike Krushelnyski wrote:

Steve Tambellini account spotted

BAZINGA!

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#41 Shredder
March 11 2013, 05:16PM
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Sorry, post cut short for some reason...what I meant to say was...

whatever discussion is going on

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#42 Shredder
March 11 2013, 05:18PM
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Sorry, post cut short for some reason...what I meant to say was...

whatever discussion is going on (is less than) Gagner rumors...

Just learned that the sideways "V" to mean less than cuts off your text...interesting

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#43 106 and 106
March 11 2013, 05:26PM
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Dan Cleary turned himself into one of those valuable bottom 6 roles during that post-season. Valuable as can be during those long, spring runs.

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#44 Dennis
March 11 2013, 05:31PM
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Nice article Willis. Sadly, I don't think the faction who believes in obtaining large guys will stop demanding them. I don't think it's so much size that this team is lacking, as balance on the lines so I agree with you and Will about that point. Besides when it comes to size over skill and desire, I'll take skill and desire everytime. I'd rather have a guy like Mike Brown who has proven to be a great addition, than an Eager or Hordi, etc any day even though he's the size of Gagner, Eberle, etc. It's not so much size we need, as what Gregor termed as give a sh-t attitude and some fire in the belly.

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#45 Alsker
March 11 2013, 05:34PM
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justDOit wrote:

I need to know one thing: when did the Gagner trade rumours STOP?

Hmm lets see, did we happen to play Chicago yesterday,would be nice to have him under contract beyond this year(would make it easier to decide what to do come trade day)

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#46 Wax Man Riley
March 11 2013, 05:53PM
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Shredder wrote:

Sorry, post cut short for some reason...what I meant to say was...

whatever discussion is going on (is less than) Gagner rumors...

Just learned that the sideways "V" to mean less than cuts off your text...interesting

The sideways "V" is part of HTML code. So if you see things in bold or

blockquotes

or links in articles and comments , it is because of the less than sign that means so much more.

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#47 Wax Man Riley
March 11 2013, 05:54PM
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106 and 106 wrote:

Dan Cleary turned himself into one of those valuable bottom 6 roles during that post-season. Valuable as can be during those long, spring runs.

What is this "long spring runs" that you speak of?

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#48 DigDeepNBleedBlue
March 11 2013, 06:04PM
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The Oilers need some size. Sorry, but they do. They do not need to overhaul the entire roster but the addition of some big, tougher, energy type guys (who can play the game) mixed in throughout the lineup will, IMO, help this team immensely. Toss in a prick on the back-end who can skate, pass, hit and drive anyone who comes around his goalie crazy and we got a winning formula. JMO.

"The two teams placed entirely different priorities on the importance of traditional physical play – Anaheim emphasized it; Detroit all but ignored it."

Not sure I agree with that statement. Actually, I don't.

I would suggest that the Red Wings did not play a passive game. I think that's a bit of misconception. Yes, they weren't big, but they played physical.

Kronwall, just to name one guy who played with an edge that year.

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#49 Taylor Gang
March 11 2013, 06:17PM
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Does anyone else think that Jamie Benn would be a more welcome addition to our roster than the beloved Lucic? A guy can dream... Anyways, Matheson is throwing the name Stafford around, not bad if you ask me.

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#50 misfit
March 11 2013, 06:17PM
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Martin St.Louis is one of the smallest players in the league, but few are harder on the puck than he is.

Anyone who thinks that you can't win in the playoffs with small players should take a look at Danny Briere's playoff stats.

Size is great. As are hits. But when they aren't used as a means to gain possession of the puck, they do very little to help sway the outcome of games in your favor.

And yes, I understand the role intimidation can play in professional sports. But the puck is still 100x more important than the other guys on the ice wearing the opposite jersey.

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