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 Managing Editor of the Nation Network. He also currently writes for the Edmonton Journal's Cult of Hockey, Grantland, and Hockey Prospectus. His work has appeared at theScore, ESPN and Puck Daddy. He was previously founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue. Contact him at jonathan (dot) willis (at) live (dot) ca.
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#51 Wäx Män Riley
March 11 2013, 06:20PM
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Taylor Gang wrote:

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.

Jamie Benn would look great in an Oilers uniform. I have a total hockey crush on him.

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#52 Taylor Gang
March 11 2013, 06:28PM
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Wäx Män Riley wrote:

Jamie Benn would look great in an Oilers uniform. I have a total hockey crush on him.

Big center who is arguably on par with the kids in skill level and he's willing to be nasty? Lucic looks overrated now if you ask me

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#53 justDOit
March 11 2013, 06:30PM
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Taylor Gang wrote:

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.

Keep dreaming then - if you're going to dream, dream big, because after letting Neal go, I doubt the Stars will repeat a mistake like that.

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#54 Taylor Gang
March 11 2013, 06:33PM
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We are talking about the organization that signed two 40 year olds when they'd be lucky to make the playoffs

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#55 justDOit
March 11 2013, 06:39PM
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Taylor Gang wrote:

We are talking about the organization that signed two 40 year olds when they'd be lucky to make the playoffs

Whitney and Jagr would be an upgrade on a lot of 30-something players.

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#56 godot10
March 11 2013, 06:40PM
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I have another theory:

Anaheim won the Cup because of Scott Niedermayer, Chris Pronger, and Francois Beuchemin.

Detroit won because of Nik Lidstrom and (Brian Raflaski, Brad Stuart, Nik Kronwall)

At some point, enough super-competent NHL defensemen becomes balance tilter.

Niedermayer and Pronger on one team was sort of unfair.

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#57 Taylor Gang
March 11 2013, 06:42PM
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justDOit wrote:

Whitney and Jagr would be an upgrade on a lot of 30-something players.

for one year, then when their hips go...

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#58 TonyT
March 11 2013, 06:54PM
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You know who was a small player who rarely ceded possession and could control and make a play off the wall? Linus Omark. Just saying #FTNF

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#59 A-Mc
March 11 2013, 07:50PM
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TonyT wrote:

You know who was a small player who rarely ceded possession and could control and make a play off the wall? Linus Omark. Just saying #FTNF

Hah. Its funny because its true. Omark is a keep away specialist!

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#60 Wäx Män Riley
March 11 2013, 07:51PM
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TonyT wrote:

You know who was a small player who rarely ceded possession and could control and make a play off the wall? Linus Omark. Just saying #FTNF

You mean the Omark that played the second worst competition on the team next to Milan Kytnar, and still had an on ice shooting percentage of 3.9, and Hordichuk had a better CorsiRel?

That Linus Omark that couldn't make a 30th place team?

He had good hands but was not a good NHL player.

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#61 washed up
March 11 2013, 08:16PM
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What about Peter Muller???? The Panters seem to be in dire straits and looking to shake things up! Maybe Hemsky Straight up???

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#62 JSR
March 11 2013, 08:19PM
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godot10 wrote:

I have another theory:

Anaheim won the Cup because of Scott Niedermayer, Chris Pronger, and Francois Beuchemin.

Detroit won because of Nik Lidstrom and (Brian Raflaski, Brad Stuart, Nik Kronwall)

At some point, enough super-competent NHL defensemen becomes balance tilter.

Niedermayer and Pronger on one team was sort of unfair.

Agreed! Defense wins you hockey games......everytime! While I'm thinking about Pronger, K-Lowe should have been fired over that one! You don't trade the best defenseman in the league until you get what you want for him! Lowe would have had much more bargaining power by making him come to camp in the Fall, and trading him somewhere around December! Still mad about that one, even though we got Eberle with the pick!

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#63 David S
March 11 2013, 08:24PM
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Wäx Män Riley wrote:

You mean the Omark that played the second worst competition on the team next to Milan Kytnar, and still had an on ice shooting percentage of 3.9, and Hordichuk had a better CorsiRel?

That Linus Omark that couldn't make a 30th place team?

He had good hands but was not a good NHL player.

With the exception of the year he was bounced around by the Oilers in 11-12, he's done pretty good wherever he played. Just kicked the crap outta the Swiss league too.

http://www.hockeydb.com/ihdb/stats/pdisplay.php?pid=94565

I recently read his NHLE this year would have been north of 40 points. ~Not like we could use a third-liner like that or anything.~

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#64 justDOit
March 11 2013, 08:28PM
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@David S

It seemed to me, that whoever Omark was on the ice with, had no idea of what he was going to do - leaving him alone during some critical plays along the boards. Sure he turned the puck over a good number of times, but it's difficult to pick out who should have been in position to help, so it's easiest to just blame O!.

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#65 Rama Lama
March 11 2013, 08:38PM
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I agree with your definition of toughness......Craig Simpson was tough. He rarely lost possession of the puck in the dangerous areas......and shot the puck any chance he could.

What our top two lines need is slot toughness........what our bottom two lines need is size and speed toughnes, guys who can actually carry a speed with an edge.

we need a Lucic type of player.

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#66 a lg dubl dubl
March 11 2013, 08:56PM
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washed up wrote:

What about Peter Muller???? The Panters seem to be in dire straits and looking to shake things up! Maybe Hemsky Straight up???

the way the Panthers are you might be able to get Muller for a 2nd rounder. Use Hemsky to get a top 3 dman imo.

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#67 Saytalk
March 11 2013, 08:57PM
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Those aren't rose-coloured glasses Willis, those are rose-coloured beer goggles. I thought only the Tambo apologists were still fawning over how every one of our lottery picks is the next Datsyk/Zetterberg and Crosby/Malkin.

A lot of these youngers guys don't look like "possession players" as you so label them. If they had any fight to regain the puck, why aren't they backchecking hard and preventing the high shots against? If they had the skill to keep the puck, why are they getting dominated at even strength? Why can't they even battle for the puck in the faceoff circle or in the corners? So they're young, I get that, but where is the progress? Run a stopwatch on how long these guys hold onto the puck in the offensive zone at even strength and tell me they know anything about possession.

Right now I see six flashy powerplay specialists (Nuge, Hall, Ebs, J.Schultz, Yak, Gags) who are not receiving the kick-in-the-pants scream-and-throw-sticks coaching or the Cup-winning-veteran-on-his-line mentoring that would develop some substance to go with the style.

Welcome to year 7 of the Kevin Lowe infini-build.

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#68 DSF
March 11 2013, 09:13PM
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a lg dubl dubl wrote:

the way the Panthers are you might be able to get Muller for a 2nd rounder. Use Hemsky to get a top 3 dman imo.

Florida won't give up Mueller.

He's one of their young guns on a value contract. ($1.75M/year)

A second round pick wouldn't even start the conversation.

24 year old 6'2" 205 centres don't grow on trees.

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#69 Oiler Al
March 11 2013, 09:38PM
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justDOit wrote:

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.

JDI... Oilers have 9 forwards and 1 defense that under 200 lbs. Montreal has 10 forwards and 2 defense men under 200lbs. So really close in the weight category. Height helps a bit, but really if you are 5'9" or 6'1" there is no great advantage. Weight and some muscle make a difference, plus some technique. There are /were a lot of short guys that play hard on the puck , tough to move hockey. [ look at Marchand @ Boston] etc.

Its fighting for and not giving up the puck.\. plus finishing your checks that makes teams tough.

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#70 washed up
March 11 2013, 09:40PM
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@DSF

While I agree that you won't get Muller for a second round pick as I belive he went in the top 10. I do think that this is the type of guy on the type of team the Oilers should go after. Maybe it take's Yakapov and something else, I'm not sure. But it's a trade I'd make.

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#71 washed up
March 11 2013, 09:48PM
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@a lg dubl dubl

Any team picking him up is looking at making a playoff run. Most team's in the playoffs will not be looking to part with a top 3 dman. I think return for Hemsky would probaly be picks and/or prospects.

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#72 Time Travelling Sean
March 11 2013, 09:57PM
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@DSF

He is on a value contract because noone wanted him, and for good reason, he is ridiculously streaky, and consistently injured.

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#73 Time Travelling Sean
March 11 2013, 10:03PM
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washed up wrote:

While I agree that you won't get Muller for a second round pick as I belive he went in the top 10. I do think that this is the type of guy on the type of team the Oilers should go after. Maybe it take's Yakapov and something else, I'm not sure. But it's a trade I'd make.

Are you that stupid? Yakupov for some injury prone center who, at the prime age of 24 has less points than a 19 year old rookie?

Yak has 50 goal potential, Mueller has 40 point potential and is a concussion away from soaking in the sun off the Cape of Finisterre for the rest of his life.

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#74 DSF
March 11 2013, 10:09PM
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@Time Travelling Sean

And smart GM's take a chance on those guys.

Tallon picked him up for nothing and, so far, its paying off.

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#75 DSF
March 11 2013, 10:15PM
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Time Travelling Sean wrote:

Are you that stupid? Yakupov for some injury prone center who, at the prime age of 24 has less points than a 19 year old rookie?

Yak has 50 goal potential, Mueller has 40 point potential and is a concussion away from soaking in the sun off the Cape of Finisterre for the rest of his life.

Mueller scored 22 goals and 54 points as an 19 year old rookie on a bad team in Phoenix.

Yakupov is on pace for 19 goals only 43 points as well as being one of the worst defensive players in the league.

Put down the crack pipe buddy.

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#76 Time Travelling Sean
March 11 2013, 10:16PM
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@DSF

12 points, -5 in 26 games. Real amazing.

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#77 Time Travelling Sean
March 11 2013, 10:22PM
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@DSF

What has Mueller done since? He peaked at 19, it happens.

If you can't see the rawness in Yaks game your not very smart. He has speed, and a lethal, lethal shot, and I can see the awful defense, but defense you learn, harder to teach a guy to score.

Also, to clarify, if you were Tambi would you trade Yak for Mueller?

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#78 DSF
March 11 2013, 10:22PM
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Time Travelling Sean wrote:

12 points, -5 in 26 games. Real amazing.

Yeah.

13 points and -13 is so much better.

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#79 Gazmort
March 11 2013, 10:23PM
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@DSF

But Yakupov is on a similar pace on a worse team in Edmonton.

Actually, they seem to be tracking similarly in performance. When you consider he's in his sixth NHL season, wouldn't you have to favour Yakupov?

No argument that he's a defensive boondoggle though. Kid needs some lessons in a big way. Playing with Horcoff?

On a tangent, where is everyone/anyone to rip on Horcoff these days? Shouldn't the Oil still be trying to trade or buy him out?

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#80 DSF
March 11 2013, 10:24PM
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Time Travelling Sean wrote:

What has Mueller done since? He peaked at 19, it happens.

If you can't see the rawness in Yaks game your not very smart. He has speed, and a lethal, lethal shot, and I can see the awful defense, but defense you learn, harder to teach a guy to score.

Also, to clarify, if you were Tambi would you trade Yak for Mueller?

He was injured.

It can happen to anyone.

No, I wouldn't make that trade because of the injury situation but Yakupov is NOT a better hockey player.

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#81 Gazmort
March 11 2013, 10:24PM
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@Gazmort

It's unclear. My bad. When I refer to "his sixth NHL season" I mean Mueller.

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#82 GVBlackhawk
March 11 2013, 10:29PM
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DSF wrote:

Florida won't give up Mueller.

He's one of their young guns on a value contract. ($1.75M/year)

A second round pick wouldn't even start the conversation.

24 year old 6'2" 205 centres don't grow on trees.

Horcoff is a perfect target for a Florida trade.

His cap hit of 5.5M, salary of 3.5M is very favorable for cost-conscious Florida ownership.

Weiss is likely going to leave UFA; Horcoff will be able to replace his minutes on the cheap.

Mueller is RFA this off-season. You could offer sheet him if interested. He could be had for Horcoff and a 2nd.

Another Oiler potential target could be Goc. He is a reasonable, affordable guy who could play 3rd or 4th line minutes. Wouldn't give up Horcoff straight up, though.

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#83 Dog Train
March 11 2013, 10:30PM
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I'm a believer in having an identity and then playing to that identity. It's clear that the Oilers' strength is speed and skill. It would be nice to have a bigger player or two who can play with that skill but we should not acquire size just for the sake of getting bigger.

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#84 DSF
March 11 2013, 10:36PM
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GVBlackhawk wrote:

Horcoff is a perfect target for a Florida trade.

His cap hit of 5.5M, salary of 3.5M is very favorable for cost-conscious Florida ownership.

Weiss is likely going to leave UFA; Horcoff will be able to replace his minutes on the cheap.

Mueller is RFA this off-season. You could offer sheet him if interested. He could be had for Horcoff and a 2nd.

Another Oiler potential target could be Goc. He is a reasonable, affordable guy who could play 3rd or 4th line minutes. Wouldn't give up Horcoff straight up, though.

That's not Tallon's M.O.

He'll wait to see who gets bought out and pick them up without giving up any assets.

I'd wager he re-signs Mueller long before he reaches RFA status.

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#85 washed up
March 11 2013, 10:40PM
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Time Travelling Sean wrote:

Are you that stupid? Yakupov for some injury prone center who, at the prime age of 24 has less points than a 19 year old rookie?

Yak has 50 goal potential, Mueller has 40 point potential and is a concussion away from soaking in the sun off the Cape of Finisterre for the rest of his life.

Typical poster on this this site. Always overvalueing oiler players, always talking about potential, always compareing goals and points. You just can't see the big picture. Yakapov as less value to the oilers now then the #1 overall pick did last year.

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#86 DSF
March 11 2013, 10:42PM
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washed up wrote:

Typical poster on this this site. Always overvalueing oiler players, always talking about potential, always compareing goals and points. You just can't see the big picture. Yakapov as less value to the oilers now then the #1 overall pick did last year.

Huberdeau is stealing Yakupov's lunch money.

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#87 GVBlackhawk
March 11 2013, 10:50PM
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DSF wrote:

That's not Tallon's M.O.

He'll wait to see who gets bought out and pick them up without giving up any assets.

I'd wager he re-signs Mueller long before he reaches RFA status.

Depends on Mueller's agent actually. Tallon has a tight budget now.

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#88 GVBlackhawk
March 11 2013, 10:54PM
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DSF wrote:

Huberdeau is stealing Yakupov's lunch money.

Only leading by four points. 25 game sample. Don't be so dramatic.

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#89 GVBlackhawk
March 11 2013, 10:56PM
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washed up wrote:

Typical poster on this this site. Always overvalueing oiler players, always talking about potential, always compareing goals and points. You just can't see the big picture. Yakapov as less value to the oilers now then the #1 overall pick did last year.

Are you for real, yo?

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#90 The Other Ron Burgundy
March 11 2013, 11:12PM
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TKB2677 wrote:

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.

Softer than the butter on Penner's pancakes - he and D-Train are great examples of why size doesn't (always) matter. There are far better ways to spend 4 million a year.

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#91 washed up
March 11 2013, 11:15PM
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GVBlackhawk wrote:

Are you for real, yo?

U bet! That's how I see things. No big deal if people disagree. I'm just of the opinion that the oilers should deal some potential for real NHL players and that it's ok to trade a player that has 40pts for a player that has 25pts if it fills a real need on this team.

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#92 Oil14
March 11 2013, 11:19PM
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DSF wrote:

Mueller scored 22 goals and 54 points as an 19 year old rookie on a bad team in Phoenix.

Yakupov is on pace for 19 goals only 43 points as well as being one of the worst defensive players in the league.

Put down the crack pipe buddy.

Haha. It's so amusing reading couch potato GMs and their unrealistic trades. Trading Mueller for Yakapov would get you fired in an instant. Mueller who is now playing for his third team in 6 years has not played more then 54 games since 2008/09. Yakupov plays bad defense on a bad team so I wouldn't read too much into that, and we all know he is going to score a lot of goals in the next couple years. I'd love to have Mueller on our team but does he play hard and hit? Also, he's not playing center this year as he can't win a face off consistently.

2nd rounder or a 3rd plus prospect for mueller

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#93 Todd
March 11 2013, 11:25PM
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DSF wrote:

He was injured.

It can happen to anyone.

No, I wouldn't make that trade because of the injury situation but Yakupov is NOT a better hockey player.

BahahaaahhahAaa

Ha. I have no words for how dumb this comment is. I dare you to find 1 hockey analyst in the world who agrees. Any. Even a kid in his basement with a blog from Florida. Even Muellers mom is allowed.

Hahaaaa.

Haa. Can't stop laughing

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#94 unknown666
March 11 2013, 11:34PM
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JSR wrote:

Agreed! Defense wins you hockey games......everytime! While I'm thinking about Pronger, K-Lowe should have been fired over that one! You don't trade the best defenseman in the league until you get what you want for him! Lowe would have had much more bargaining power by making him come to camp in the Fall, and trading him somewhere around December! Still mad about that one, even though we got Eberle with the pick!

we were offered dan boyle,martin st.louis(had a down year) and either a pick or prospect for pronger. we went with lupul because he had a 4 goal game in the playoffs and smid because they said he was the next chris pronger.

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#95 The Beaker
March 11 2013, 11:39PM
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washed up wrote:

U bet! That's how I see things. No big deal if people disagree. I'm just of the opinion that the oilers should deal some potential for real NHL players and that it's ok to trade a player that has 40pts for a player that has 25pts if it fills a real need on this team.

Yes if the goal is to put a team together that can win for one year that might make sense.

I'm not saying Yak is the best ever or anything but the potential is limitless. You dont say "well the other guy has one more point this year therefor he must be more valuable" That is the stupidest thing ive ever heard.

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#96 washed up
March 11 2013, 11:45PM
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@The Beaker

I was implying that the oilers would be trading away the 40pts player. Just using those number as examples.

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#97 2004Z06
March 11 2013, 11:49PM
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The problem with continuing to build through the draft is that by the time the players we are waiting for a couple top D men and som sizeable, gritty forwards develop into consistent NHL'ers, the top six will be long gone or we won't be able to afford them all. The window is not as large as many think it is.

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#98 Old Retired Guy
March 11 2013, 11:50PM
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Oiler Al wrote:

JDI... Oilers have 9 forwards and 1 defense that under 200 lbs. Montreal has 10 forwards and 2 defense men under 200lbs. So really close in the weight category. Height helps a bit, but really if you are 5'9" or 6'1" there is no great advantage. Weight and some muscle make a difference, plus some technique. There are /were a lot of short guys that play hard on the puck , tough to move hockey. [ look at Marchand @ Boston] etc.

Its fighting for and not giving up the puck.\. plus finishing your checks that makes teams tough.

yeah.......but taking a guy on the opposing team and smashing his face in makes a team tough too..... it's really hard to go top cheese with a detached retina.....

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#99 Old Retired Guy
March 11 2013, 11:53PM
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I'm trying to be a patient Oiler fan......but MAN it felt good when Brown pummeled those last couple of guys.......did more for me than any of the goals we've scored in the last 4 games....

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#100 Old Retired Guy
March 11 2013, 11:55PM
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washed up wrote:

While I agree that you won't get Muller for a second round pick as I belive he went in the top 10. I do think that this is the type of guy on the type of team the Oilers should go after. Maybe it take's Yakapov and something else, I'm not sure. But it's a trade I'd make.

Not to be rude but.......I think your washed up.

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