Coaches preaching defence-first hockey to their players aren’t the exception, they’re the rule. Tom Renney of the Edmonton Oilers isn’t different or odd or out in left field by insisting on that approach.
Whether it’s Renney or Craig MacTavish before him, defence-first hockey makes sense. It’s the right thing to do. Sort of like when mom used to insist you eat your broccoli or peas before even thinking about that big slab of pie you were eye-balling. Reasonable. Boring. Necessary.
As is often the case, the issue of defence-first hockey and the ability to sell it to a group of players, particularly a group of youngsters like Renney has on his roster now, comes down to a matter of degree.
Players will accept the dutiful teachings of a coach, they will choke down their veggies, if it means getting that pie. In hockey terms, it means ice time and a chance to get down to the other end of the rink once in awhile and have some fun with the puck. Snap it around. Score some goals.
Finding the balance is the trick.
WALKING THE LINE
As I watched Renney dole out his ice time — the only real currency an NHL coach has these days — on the way to a 2-1 shootout loss to the Minnesota Wild at Rexall Place Thursday, I couldn’t help but wonder if he’d stepped over the line. Too much broccoli.
With Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and rookie Ryan Nugent-Hopkins getting more pine time than ice time against the Wild — a team capable of inducing coma among fans like no other with defence-first hockey — it brought back memories of the stifling, "eat your veggies" days of MacT.
"We started placing a premium on playing defensive hockey a couple of years ago," Renney said. "We’ve really tried to create a defensive foundation that we can build our whole game from.
"I think we’re in a good place this early in the season, but we still have a lot of work to do. In no way, shape or form should it distract at all from offence."
Sounds good, in theory.
ON THE CLOCK
At the end of the night, two-way veterans Shawn Horcoff (23:52) and Ryan Smyth (22:30) had played a whole lot more than any of the kids — Hall (14:21), Eberle (13:24) and Nugent Hopkins (13:22).
Horcoff and Smyth had some PK time thrown in there at 3:33 and 2:21 respectively, while the kids had none. Renney gave Hall (2:41), Eberle (2:39) and Nugent-Hopkins (2:39) more looks on the power play. Horcoff had 2:18 and Smyth just 48 seconds.
For even minutes, the breakdown was: Horcoff 18:01, Smyth 20:21, Hall 11:40, Eberle 10:45 and Nugent-Hopkins 10:43. While I’ve liked what Smyth and Horcoff have shown, I’d have preferred to see the kids coming through the gate a little more often. A lot more often, actually. Judging by the call-in shows Thursday night, fans agreed.
Renney, of course, has games to win. After five straight years out of the playoffs, that’s no small consideration. He obviously liked his team’s chances better Thursday with Horcoff and Smyth on the ice.
Today, and as an aside that has generated some buzz, Renney talked about the possibility of sitting out Nugent-Hopkins against the New York Rangers Saturday, in part to make room for the return of Sam Gagner. On the face of it, not a big deal, really.
Then again, that, like Renney’s choice of who he sent over the boards against Minnesota, would likely be about as appetizing to many Edmonton fans — those longing for excitement and something to yell about — as more broccoli when they hunger for pie.
I’m with them on both counts.
GREAT ONE SAYS . . .
As part of a wide-ranging interview with Darren Dreger of TSN, Wayne Gretzky weighed in on Nugent-Hopkins.
"I really believe he’s one of the best young players we’ve seen come into the game in a long time," Gretzky said.
"And the great thing for him is he has two other young guys in Taylor Hall and [Jordan] Eberle that are really outstanding players and really good young men and they are in the right scenario."
Sound like somebody ticketed back to Red Deer?
As part of his interview with Dreger, Gretzky suggested he’d had offers of front office jobs from both the Oilers and the Kings, but pointed out he’s not interested in jumping back into the grind full-time. Gretzky told Jason Gregor and I the same thing weeks ago before he came to town.
Given Gretzky’s ties to Edmonton, I’d suggest the Great One has a standing offer, as opposed to being pitched a specific job recently — the message being that anytime he wants to get back in, he’d be welcomed by Kevin Lowe and owner Daryl Katz. That’s been discussed more than once and it remains on the table.
THIS AND THAT . . .
— Will lightning strike twice? Will No. 28 hit the lottery two years in a row? Too early to tell for sure, of course, but I’ve liked most of what I’ve seen from Ryan Jones so far this season.
Jones, coming off a season in which he scored a career-high 18 goals, a feat widely panned as luck and happenstance by many advanced stats men, has scored a couple of goals and, all in all, been pretty good.
While projecting based on only six games is goofy — Jones won’t scored that 27-goal clip he’s on now — I can see him, like I said in pre-season, slotting into the 15-18 goal range again. I’m thinking 16 would be dandy.
— I’ll take substance over style on the bottom line every time, and that’s why I’m conflicted about Linus Omark.
On one hand, you’d have to be dumb as a post not to recognize Omark’s obvious offensive creativity and ability to play like he has the puck on a string. He’s had some dazzling shifts this season.
On the other hand, Omark is without a point in the five games he’s played this season. All told, he’s scored 5-22-27 in 56 games. Omark’s calling card is putting up points. He’d best get on with it. Close doesn’t count.
— Like I pointed out on Twitter last night, Horcoff, Eberle, Eric Belanger, Omark, Anton Lander and Magnus Paajarvi have combined for 0 goals in 35 man-games. Mitigate that with any numbers you’d like, if you’re so inclined, but that’s not nearly good enough.
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TEAM 1260.