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.