Effort Level Vs. Tangible Problems

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.

      • Here's a direct quote from Shawn…. again FWIW:

        "I changed my sticks and went to a sports psychologist a few times a week. The psychologist helped me focus and visualize things to enhance my game. As a result, I feel I have more of a shooter’s mentality, whereas I used to think pass first. I have the confidence to get into position and find the open ice and it has resulted in more goals."

        • On the other hand, also FWIW, remember that year Raffi Torres was going to blow us away because he was in a stable relationship and spending a lot of time with a sports psychiatrist?

          Meanwhile, in Montreal, the partying is destroying Carey Price, and it's a total coincidence that his play dropped off at precisely the same time as he had his injury.

          I know personally that mental focus matters; but for the most part people don't dramatically change their personalities, and for the most part the tangible matters a lot more than the intangible.

          Also, many times the "new approach" doesn't change anything. Look at San Jose – new coach, new veteran defencemen – and what happened?

          • For the most part I agree, but the main point I'm trying to get accross is that we really don't know exactly why Horcof went from 16 goals to 21 in 53 (rough #'s). Was it the sticks? mental focus? improved conditioning? lucky bounces? better opportunity? No one really knows for sure.

            Now for the most part you can spread that same line of thinking over a whole team.

            Why did the Caps go from competeting for a lotto pick to competeting for the division? (after Boudreau was hired). Why did the Bruins go from 8th to first in one year, or the Habs from 1st to 8th… with basically the same rosters?

  • Greg MC

    @Jonathan

    Statistics can give a lot of insight into players, but you can't graph what's going on in their heads.

    It looked like the Oilers hated to come to work last year (for whatever reason). We have a new coach, with mostly the same team. There are obvious holes, but the team will perform better than last year, in my opinion.

  • I agree. Take away the crazy bounces on either side: Phaneuf's "goal" off Smid, Moss' GWG for Calgary and Gagner's goal for Edmonton. Without those, we at least get a point out of a shootout with one of the teams that is supposed to be fighting for the division title this year. At the very least, there is room for optimism. Even more so, when you compare the level of compete with last year's team like I assume Ethan was doing. Yes there is work to do, and holes from last year that have not been addressed yet, but we can still smile after watching that game on Saturday. That is not something I was able to do very often last year.

    • BarryS

      Have to disagree with your assessment of Gagner's goal as being a lucky goal. The bounce was lucky, to be sure, but he made a real hockey play to score the goal. he made the goalie open his legs then shot it between them. it did not bounce off his a$$ and in, he did not shoot it into the goalies body, he did not shoot it over the net, he did not miss the net on either side, he did not try to pass to someone else, he did not freeze until the defenceman knocked him on his a$$. now having it hit your stick when you did not see it coming, did not glance off a defencemans throat when going wide,

  • Jonathan – with respect, an "objective observer" could see that Saturday's game was a step in the right direction. Brain cramps aside, we played them to a standstill. Yeah, that's right, we traded shots with a team that some think will challenge for the division. Do we have holes? Absolutely. But we're making progress and I think its a bit early in the process to discount small steps, even if you can't quantify them on a spreadsheet.

  • Librarian Mike

    The Rangers are also in the market for a seventh defenseman since the contract they recently signed with Alexei Semonov was nixed by the blueliner’s wife

    I laughed when I heard that. I mean, if you don't want to live in New York then where the Hell DO you want to live? Atlantis?

  • BarryS

    Hey how about this news to give us all a little lift.

    Lyle Spector from The Hockey News reports that – The Rangers are also in the market for a seventh defenseman since the contract they recently signed with Alexei Semonov was nixed by the blueliner’s wife.

    While Semonov is not a big deal (The Oilers gave up on this guy) it is nice to see other markets with the same issues. It likely happens more often than we think but is not reported.

  • Regardless of what Tambo might want (wanted) to do, he's handcuffed by Lowe's inflated contracts that were signed after the run.

    Instead of locking up Smyth, Torres, Stoll, Samsanov, and others who could have stayed (ie no chance with Peca, CFP), Lowe rewarded the guys who laid down in front of the puck, with the exception of our captain who has since retired a Senator.

    I don't expect much difference in our team for the next couple of seasons to be honest, but I'll still show up in my Laraque jersey, double fist $8 beer, and scream 'til my heart stops because I love this team.

    Go Oilers.

  • Eddie Shore

    A pretty good game by the Oilers; More hustle, more determination, more "crust" and you pick out a negative aspect to write about. Why didn't you write about the areas of improvement instead of the one area that wasn't even that bad? Why the negativity?

    • I didn't get into Khaibublin, did I? Plus, it was a loss, wasn't it?

      The real reason is that I get irritated every time I hear how it was effort level that killed the Oilers last season.

      I'm sure that was part of it, but they had some very real, legitimate on-ice problems that haven't been fixed and based on one game look like they'll resurface again.

      There seems to be a mindset that the major problems scan be fixed via the magic of positive thinking. It isn't that simple.

      • Eddie Shore

        Which problems? The fact that one guy had a tough night in the faceoff circle? It was game 1 of 82. Give them at least a fighting chance before writing them off?

        A change of mindset can go a long way. Sometimes, it really is that simple. Only time will tell.

        • Because the team, which sucked on the penalty kill last year, sucked on the penalty kill in Game One. There is every reason to believe (and no reason not to believe) that they will continue to suck the rest of the way.

          As for giving them a fighting chance, yes I have a spot in my heart for the team. But first and foremost I need to be an objective observer; and an objective observer would tell you what I just told you.

          It's going to take a lot more than one encouraging loss (is there really such an animal?) and platitudes that I've heard before to change my outlook.

          • THREE 1ST NAMES

            Are you just looking at the box score when you say that the PK sucked?

            From what I saw, the PK was very effective in keeping the puck to outside and applying pressure up top. Both of the PP goals were decent yet lucky. I wouldn'y say that they were the result of poor penalty killing.

            It was the first game of the season and they Oilers seemed to handle most situations better than they did last year. I know you have to write stuff to keep us on our toes, but the timing of this article/comment is a little perplexing.

          • I should hope the Oilers managed to keep the puck to the outside, given that Calgary had less than four minutes of powerplay time and managed four shots and two goals.

            Meanwhile, focusing on the other special team, the Oilers managed ten shots in eight minutes.

          • To my recollection, none of the Flames 4 shots were any better scoring chances than the Oilers chances. Some nights the puck goes in and some nights it doesn't.

            I was just concerned with your timing of comments on a PK that has had a chance to play one game under a totally different sytem?

            I was (and still am) totally happy with the way in which the Oilers designed their PK system. It looks very similar (not quite as aggressive) as the PK system that Carolina dominated with during their cup run (especially in the final).

            I am sure most will agree that your insight is always welcomed and usually very well researched.

            I don't believe that (in this case) you have done the leg work that you usually do??

          • Eddie Shore

            I think saying they "sucked" on the penalty kill might be a slight overstatement on your part. Sure, the one goal was a legit but Phaneuf's slapshot was going 3 feet wide until it hit Smid and directed in. I actually thought the pk looked half decent. But, the numbers don't lie right? Unlike you, who usually takes sample size into consideration, I will reserve my judgement beyond the first game of the year.

          • My article yesterday made the sample size point. It's a fair one.

            That said, please explain to me your optimism on the PK. The coach (Buchberger) isn't new, and the personnel are the same guys the team had last year minus Brodziak.

            Basically, I'm emphatically disagreeing with the idea that the intensity shown in the first game of the year (a loss) will guarantee wins even if the problems from last year aren't fixed.

      • BarryS

        A little positive thinking by certain members of the oilers who think they will get hurt in they go in the corners or go to the dot thinking they'll loose might help, though.

  • It seems a little early to start examining the face offs after 1 game. Brule could be the answer. New coach – new system – same fire drills in the defensive zone.

    Could it be that Quinn is still trying to send a message to some of the guys who have been complacent in their positions?

  • SkadderBrain

    i believe pk will get better over time, hopefully. quinn should have sillinger at every practice trying to help develop some of these guys's abilities in the faceoff, was he not a specialist?

  • blu

    The faceoffs didn't seem to be an issue. Even if we lost the draw, we ate up loose pucks all night. I think each of our 4 lines had them hemmed into their own end for lengthy periods of time at one point or another. I was impressed.

    While our special teams always seem to need to bone up, we need to also live in reality. Our PK went 2-4, and one of those 2 was a shot 4 feet wide of the net, that banked in off the "smid-guy" … if they go 1-4 we're not even talking about this.

  • While I can't disagree with your assessment, it continually astounds me that you tend to discount intangible elements in pro sports, especially the psychological side of the game. At the top levels of sport, the difference between winning and losing often comes down to mental fortitude (or lack of such). This isn't beer league we're talking about here.

    "Anything" is a mental focus point for the athletes and serves to remind them just exactly what level of performance is required for success. Maybe that's a bit abstract in the non-sports world, but it seemed to serve the team well on Saturday night as the level of effort was far superior to what we saw for the majority of last year. Whether they can maintain that level of intensity throughout the season remains to be seen, but it seems that they're off to a decent start.

    • Because I don't honestly think there's a ton of difference on the psychological side of things between one team of 20+ athletes who have worked their way to the sport's highest level vs. another team of 20+ athletes who have worked their way to the sport's highest level.

      I also don't think many players make massive, dramatic shifts in passion and commitment from year-to-year; meaning that I don't think the psychological side of things has a major impact, year-to-year.

      There are exceptions: J-S Giguere fell into an elevator shaft after his father died last year, for example. But I think those are mostly exceptions.

      Besides, all across the league teams that didn't fix their rosters are preaching that a new mindset is going to change things. It's been that way for years, and far more often than not it's just so much empty talk.

      • BarryS

        Every player who reinvents himself into a checker or grinder from a top line player in junior makes a dramatic shift in passion and commitment. Every junior who was a star in junior, has trouble adjusting for a couple years then re-emerges as a star in the NHL makes the same dramatic shift in passion and commitment. Every star player who has a bad year, or sometimes two, who then remerges as a star makes the dramatic shift in passion and commitment. Seems the me the oiler team who won the cup the year after Gretzki was traded made the dramatic shift in passion and commitment.

        • How many players make a sudden shift in passion and commitment after establishing themselves as NHL'ers, though?

          You say that star players do it – I'd like to see examples, because most of the time it seems to come about as a result of playing in more favourable situations (more in the offensive zone, with better linemates, against worse opponents) than as a result of a re-dedication to the game (again, there are exceptions, but they are exceptions).

          As for the Oilers, why? They went from being a team with multiple superstars and the best player in the world who won things to being a team with multiple superstars who won things.

  • Hemmertime

    Maybe they should change that motto to "anything and everything", as in that's what they should do to get a win, including practicing damn faceoffs, PP and PK.

  • Hemmertime

    Why is teaching faceoff draws so hard? I know that getting stellar numbers like Horcoff is an exception, but shouldn't ANY forward be able to get into the 40% range on a regular basis? Or at least MOST?!?!

    IT SEEMS SO BASIC!

    Signed,
    Someone whom clearly has NO faceoff experience himself, but perplexed by the numbers!

    • toprightcorner

      As a student, it is best to learn from a master.

      They should look at hiring Oates on an interm basis to teach they young guys. I do not thing it was a coincidence that when he played here, every centre we had improved on the dot significantly. Even Yanic Perreault would help.

      I know strength has something to do with it but technique is much more important IMO. Even Quinn said they need to learn to cheat better, all great face off guys cheat. Brindamour is a great example of that.

      $200,000 to invest in a quality teacher is well worth it.

      • GSC

        I always did the same, or do the Kyle Wellwood and get your leg in the way of the opposing centre's stick (when able, depending on your handedness and side of the ice you're on). That's a neat little move.

        From what I've read and have been told for years by several different (yet qualified) coaches, it's all about learning how to cheat "better" than the guy across from you.

  • I'm a Scientist!

    "Anything" – Wow…motivating.

    My new personal motto is "Everything"… Don't worry, with that motto, i should have the world saved in no time…

    *reads the word "Everything" and is instantly transformed into a cyborg that can communicate much more easily with the SuperComputer*

  • BarryS

    I can't understand why no one on this team can learn anything new. We always need to bring in somebody, and then we don't anyway. Is it too much to ask for a couple of our players to learn the play pk or win a faceoff????

  • Poo Czar

    It boggles my mind that they didn't address the faceoff deficiency on this team over the summer. I know they are up against the cap and that trades are difficult in the "New NHL", but come on Tambo…when you have a hole as large and gapping as this you have to fill it before it sinks your ship.

    * Takes time to admire his cheesy metaphor.

    • I'm a Scientist!

      Did you watch the game on Saturday? Because if you did, I really do not understand why you would bring up faceoffs, it was a non issue. Sure it was only one game, but right now there isn't any reason to rehash that yet.

      • Eddie Shore

        I actually missed the game bc I was at a wedding, but I did see the pre season tilt against TB where we lost in regulation as a direct result of lost faceoffs. Horcs wasn't playing that game, but it showed me that this will be a problem for the Oilers all year. I'm concerned.

    • BarryS

      Nothing with overweight pipers can be atrocious.

      I thought Comments are moderated. Pretend your mom is reading over your shoulder. was our mission statement,