Whatcha gonna do about it? While that’s a standard bully-boy schoolyard taunt—I know because I handed over my share of lunch money near the monkey bars before a growth spurt kicked in—it’s also a legit question to ask the Edmonton Oilers going into this season.
Specifically, how and when will Kevin Lowe and Steve Tambellini address the need for a tough guy—a need glaring enough the team put $6 million over four years on the table in a bid to get Georges Laraque back before he signed with the Montreal Canadiens.
Joe Fan wants to know. Likewise, after spending some time shooting the breeze with him in the rink this morning, I can assure you Ales Hemsky, the Oilers most offensively gifted and often-abused forward, has more than a passing interest in the answer as well.
- Is willing but much-maligned Zack Stortini enough of a deterrent to prevent ruffians from taking liberties with Hemsky, Sam Gagner, Andrew Cogliano and Robert Nilsson if he can get some back-up from newly acquired Jason Strudwick or veterans Steve Staios and Ethan Moreau?
- Would a tag-team of Stortini, who dropped the gloves 23 times last season, and J.F. Jacques do the trick if Jacques can overcome wrist and back injuries and finally deliver the physical and fistic contributions expected of him?
- Is there an NHL-calibre enforcer in the bent-nosed bunch of minor-leaguers the Oilers have invited to camp who’d be ready and willing to throw down for 500-large on 30 or 40 nights this season?
A hammer for Hemmer
“Zack will do the job. He’ll fight anybody,” shrugs Hemsky, who is in town and skating in preparation for camp. “I still think we need somebody to get more respect, you know? But that’s not my job, so…”
Hemsky, 25, who ends up blowing snot bubbles more often than any skilled player should have to because he never backs down and doesn’t avoid traffic, didn’t finish the sentence. He didn’t have to.
After repeated muggings by Calgary’s Robyn Regehr, who knocks Hemsky around like he owes him money, Minnesota’s Derek Boogaard and the like, it’s become obvious since Laraque left the Oilers don’t stack up when things get goofy in a Western Conference that’ll be loaded with toughness and tough guys in 2008–09.
“We have team toughness,” offered Hemsky, not sounding altogether convincing after leading the Oilers with 71 points in 74 games last season despite getting run, mauled and harassed too often.
“We have guys who will step up and fight for other guys, but I don’t think we need Ethan Moreau and Steve Staios and those guys fighting. We’ll see what happens in camp.”
Yes we will, but while invitations to the fistic foursome of Hans Benson, Sean McMorrow, Guillaume Lefebvre and former Vancouver Giant light-heavyweight Garet Hunt will make for flying saliva, it’s a long shot any of them turn out to be more than minor league muscle.
If appearance counted, the tattooed Benson would have a shot. Having seen him this morning, I can tell you he’s got bad-ass covered. Benson is listed at six-feet and 253 pounds, and he’s all of that. Still, even with 59 games with Peoria in the AHL over the past two seasons on his resume, I don’t see it.
Maybe it’ll be Lefebvre, who is the best skater of the bunch and played 38 NHL games with Philadelphia and Pittsburgh before joining the St. Jean Chiefs in the Gong Show that is the Quebec Senior League.
If there isn’t a nasty SOB at camp who can guarantee Hemsky will spend less time on his ass and more time tormenting opposing goaltenders, rest assured the Oilers will look outside for help.
“We’ll certainly be watching once camp starts,” said assistant GM Kevin Prendergast. “If one of the guys we’ve invited impresses us and shows he can play, there’s an NHL contract there.
“We’ll bide our time at this point. We’ll see what we’ve got and assess. If the need is there, we’ll look at it.”
—Listen to Robin Brownlee every Thursday from 4 to 5pm on Just A Game with Jason Gregor on Team 1260.