LEAVE THE KIDS ALONE: THE PROTECTION RACKET

While I don’t pine for or expect to see a new millennium version of the 1970s Philadelphia Flyers at Rexall Place this season, I’m one of those dinosaurs who believes toughness takes a backseat only to talent when it comes to building a successful hockey team.

The Edmonton Oilers will have plenty of the latter, even if it’s still plenty wet behind the ears, in Taylor Hall, Magnus Paajarvi and Jordan Eberle, to complement Sam Gagner, Gilbert Brule, Ales Hemsky and Dustin Penner this season.

And they’ve loaded up, in a rather timely manner in my estimation, in the former with tough guys Steve MacIntyre and Zack Stortini, along with hard-nosed Jim Vandermeer, underrated Jason Strudwick and, maybe, willing and raw Theo Peckham.

I believe the first group and the second is a combination that’s going to surprise a lot of teams this season. It’s a combination I’m looking forward to seeing against the Calgary Flames tonight. Want to play hockey? Fine. If not . . .

THE RIGHT MIX

How much toughness, if any, a team needs makes for great debate and it’s an argument that’ll go on as long as fighting is allowed in the game. How many roster spots, if any, should a team commit to toughness? Why hold back a talented prospect to dress a hammer who plays four minutes a night and isn’t needed in half the games? On and on . . .

In the end, though, it doesn’t really matter what you or I think when the puck drops. What counts is what the people playing the game, Hall and Hemsky, Eberle and Paajarvi, think. I can tell you without any reservation, Hemsky is just as delighted about the infusion of toughness as he is to see the addition of offensively gifted players like Hall, Paajarvi and Eberle.

Likewise, there’s no question MacIntyre and the rest of the bent-nosed bunch coach Tom Renney has put together to contest his 23-man roster know why they’re taking up space in the dressing room. Take a run at Hall or even flap your gums at the kid? Pay the price. Toss Hemsky into the boards from behind (hello Robyn Regehr)? Say hello to my little friend. Face-wash Paajarvi? Here, take this and that, too.

DOING IT RIGHT

I’m not advocating meaningless thuggery or staged showdowns — although I won’t turn away in disgust if MacIntyre and Raitis Ivanans decide to throw down for no good reason tonight — I’m talking about employing toughness effectively.

"Obviously, you’ve got to go out there and set the precedent that, you know, we’re not going to be taken lightly and people are going to be accountable," MacIntyre said.

"It doesn’t matter who you’re playing. If it’s time to do something, you do it," said Vandermeer, who had a memorable tilt with MacIntyre during the 2008 pre-season as a member of the Flames after he punched out Marc Pouliot.

"There are certain guys in the line-up to keep other teams honest. If somebody is going to take liberties, it doesn’t matter who it is, on the team, they’re going to know not to do it."

The key, at least from where I sit, is these "certain guys," with the exception of MacIntyre, are players who’d have legitimate shots at making this roster on other merits. They can play some.

Stortini fits a fourth-line role. Vandermeer can play in a team’s third-pairing. Strudwick is a utility guy. Peckham is contesting a third-pairing role. MacIntyre? I’ll give you that one. He’s here because he’s six-foot-five and 250 pounds of face-breaker and doesn’t need a written invitation to get the job done.

LET THEM PLAY

If teams want to play it straight, fine. If they don’t, that’s when MacIntyre and the rest come into play.

Three years down the road, when Hall, 18, Paajarvi, 19, and the rest of the young players in Oilers the line-up have established themselves as NHL regulars and have matured physically, maybe the needs will change. As always, it’s a moving target based on personnel.

For now, though, it’s in the Oilers best interests to keep opposing ruffians in check, to let Hall and Paajarvi know they can go out and play and nobody is going to screw around without having to answer for it. They need to know somebody has their backs. While that’s not everybody’s way of building a team, it’s the way I’ve always believed it should be done.

More important, at least to Hall, Paajarvi and the rest, it’s the way Renney intends to go.

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

  • Mitch

    @Robin Brownlee

    I’m a little concerned with a couple players on the oilers blueline, mainly Smid and Gilbert they look to really be fighting the puck, I understand with Smid coming off a major surgery. I won’t talk about Souray he has gotten what he deserves. There’s going to be some huge growing pains, hopefully good lessons are being taught well the loses take place, and the new young guys take a positive experience from this no matter what the outcome is.

    • Laddy will be fine. I spoke with him Friday before the game. His neck is coming along nicely and he’s not afraid of re-injurying it, but he’s still trying to get his full range of motion back — the head on a swivel thing. It takes some getting used to.

      As for Gilbert, I haven’t made any mental notes about any glaring strengths or weaknesses in his game in pre-season. He’s been only OK.

      • According to Mike Russo, the Canucks have put Shane O’Brien & Darcy Hordichuk on waivers.

        O’Brien has 1 yr @ $1.6M. Wouldn’t he be considered an upgrade on Peckham? Would you expect Tambellini to pick him up?

  • Quicksilver ballet

    Darcy Hordichuck is enticing, especially at 775.000, i’d even extend him. He may have to come at the expense of Stortini or unfortunately Smac again.

    • There’s a lot of pretty knowledgeable Canucks fans in my office who I know will be dancing for joy today with the news of Hordichuk going on waivers. They think he’s totally useless, a talentless goon that only seems to fight the other team’s tough guys and takes numerous stupid penalties.

      Personally, I’d stick with what we already have if Hordichuk was the alternative.

  • Quicksilver ballet

    I thought Darcy was a better skater allowing him to be inserted on the second or third line occasionally, provide his linemates with a little extra room out there. If he’s going to take weekly bad penaties like Moreau did then you guys are probably right.

  • Cowbell_Feva

    I agree 100% with Brownlee’s take on needing toughness in the line-up. Seeing as the Oil have such nancy’s upfront the necessity of a bona fida heavy-weight only magnifies this.

    On another note. Is it just me or is Taylor Hall in over his head? I know he’s a young kid, but he has already been run over at least twice, and seems tentative because of it? His speed is NHL level and then some, however his hands seem a touch behind. Eberle and Magnus on the other hand are legitimate.

    I truely feel that Horcoff is the bottle neck in the line of Eb’s/Horc/Hall. He still looks as bad as he did last year, which is a terrible sign for the copper n’ blue. His speed and cardio are good (if not great) but his hockey sense & skillset is still that of a 3rd line grinder- which is truely what he is! Get him off the PP! Eberle’s back will be sore from carrying the line if these tandems continue. Keep your head up Taylor!

  • Cowbell_Feva

    RossCreek: No, I don’t think the Oilers should have any interest in O’Brien. He’s over-priced for what he brings and when it comes to adding the element of toughness, I consider him a bit of a phoney — he really picks his spots.

  • Adam D

    Heavyweight fighters do not contribute to wins. In terms of GF/GA, they are a waste of a roster spot and a waste of money.

    However, one side of the argument that doesn’t get much discussion, as far as I can see, is that if having someone like Big Mac on the roster keeps the players happy, maybe that’s worth the 14F spot. If it makes them A) calmer in a game-time situation, B) happier with the coach and management for “taking care of them”, and C) more positive towards the team in general come FA time, then sure, keep Stevie Wonder around.

    • Adam D

      It gets lots of discussion with me and that was the point of the item.

      You can’t attach a number to everything — actually, you can, and some people do, but I’ve got reservations about that.
      When small, young or skilled players tell me having toughness in the line-up does the kinds of things you’ve mentioned, as Liam Reddox did after the Calgary game, I’m not going to run numbers past them to prove what they think isn’t actually reflected in the results.

      If Hall and Paajarvi and Hemsky and the rest tell me having tough players around works for them, I think my theories, and those of other people, take a backseat.
      A loss is always a loss in the standings, but getting knocked silly at the same time because the other team can do what it damn well pleases gets real old, real fast.

  • Adam D

    Also, for what I hope is the last time, Stortini is not just a goon. He is not interchangeable with Big Mac. Storts can play a regular shift, and the math has seen him good. Big Mac is essentially a heavy-weight boxer on skates, although I assume Muhammad Ali had better stickhandling.