DEFENCE FIRST: EAT YOUR BROCCOLI

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?

JOB OFFER?

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.

  • O.C.

    Some comments…

    O’Mark is a quality “who else we got” player, but he best ring the bell once in a while.

    Jones has much less talent and does much more with it.

    That game coulda shoulda been 4 – 4 and shootout. Eberle missed two easy ones, the cross bar with lotso room top right come to mind.

    Khabby was simply very good.

    Hall/RNH/Eberle were not magic this night, and Hall was clearly go hard and then out of gas – A for Effort – C for Results… but we don’t know… maybe the matchups were really that bad. I recall some really big boys taking runs at the little guys. Mighta been protection.

    RNH is far from a liability. His hockey sense covers about 16,000 sq uare feet or so.

    Empty net goals are easy but you have to be sharp to create the conditions/jump on the opportunities. If you can’t force or take away the puck, you won’t get very many.

    Two Late Losses like that sting. They are also great motivators – early in the season that is.

  • DoubleJ

    Lots of fair comment in the last few posts here. It’s not black and white, and that’s the point I was trying to make.

    Renney can’t just play the kids, no matter what the situation. If he sends out RNH for a face-off in the final minutes and the puck ends up in the net off the draw, he gets torched: “What’s Renney thinking. . . ?” Others will say, “How will RNH learn to excel in critical situations unless you put him in critical situations . . ?” That’s fair, too.

    Defence-first isn’t a lot of fun to to watch, especially when that “be responsible” style is being applied during a stretch of seasons in which the team hasn’t been very good. A lot of fans say, “Just give me something to cheer about, win or lose.” Others, though, lean more toward results — “Get in a playoff race. I don’t care how.”

    The best of both worlds, obviously, for fans is having a team that hangs fire on the attack every shift and wins. Fans here remember what that was like, but it’s been almost 25 years.

  • O.C.

    This from VanDiest st The Sun this morning. It sure sounds like a page out of MacT’s coaching manual . . .

    “It’s important to know that we’re coaching to win, too,” Renney said. “As much as those three kids with Ryan can help generate offence, it’s also a case of what you take, but what you leave.

    “We have to work that angle, as well, and make sure that he continues to make a solid contribution to our team, so at the end of the day when you look at his situation specifically, we look at the body of work here and determine whether he’s going to stay here or we have to send him back. I want to make sure that we’re able to go after our games as well at that same time not having given the kid the short-end of the stick in terms of his evaluation to be here.”

  • Max Powers - Team HME Evans

    At this point the fans are starving for a good team and I, for one, am happy to eat broccoli so long as Momma Tambo promises some nice pie. Problem is Momma Tambo and Papa Lowe have proven to be sh!tty parents in the past. They’ve given us blueberry pie and took it from us mid-bite and replaced our dessert with dog turds for 5 years straight.

    I’m afraid they’re going to turn our kids into dog turds but this is the right way IMO.

  • Another good article Brownlee but I always like melted cheese on my brocoli . .

    So when I look at RNH the guy’s got 5 Pts in 6G – if this was Hemsky or Horcoff we’d be jumping up and down. Not really sure what bar we are trying to measure this kid at, but I think there is other reasons why they are trying to reduce his playing time.

    I would disagree with Renney’s approach though because if he’s playing he is not on a minute clock right now – he’s on a game clock. If he’s in the line-up then play him if not then put him in the press box, but keeping him on the bench makes no sense if they are really considering sending him back.

    To me this may be about trying to protect the kid from injury. He’s 18 and the NHL schedule and all that comes with NHL is a real grind. Again give him a game rest not minutes on the bench.