GDB 73.0: CULTURE CHANGE

Can the outcome of the final ten games make a difference in the long-term growth of the Oilers? Unless they shock us and win 7 or 8 of 10 I don’t see it altering much. The Oilers are six points back of 28th Minnesota, so unless the Oilers pick up 15 or 16 of a possible 20 points, I don’t see them losing 29th place. Dropping a spot in the lottery is the only way the outcome of these final ten games will alter their future, barring a major injury of course.

What needs to be altered is the culture of this organization.

For years the Oilers have collectively been pushed around. Even when they had the reigning heavyweight champions in George Laraque and Steve MacIntyre they Oilers never intimidated anyone, because you can’t expect guys who play seven to ten minutes a night to really intimidate the opposition.

The Oilers need bring an attitude where guys are willing to do whatever it takes. I don’t expect Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Ales Hemsky or Taylor Hall to do the heavy lifting, but the Oilers can’t have nine guys in their top-nine that aren’t capable of defending a teammate or initiating contact.

It is unrealistic to think that if the Oilers jump a guy after he takes a run at Eberle, RNH, Hall or Hemsky that other teams will stop doing it. It won’t happen. Everyone knows you can’t continually take instigating penalties and win games, so unless the Oilers hit back nothing will change. The Oilers need to find guys who are willing to push back when necessary, but also guys who will initiate the hitting, not wait and respond when the opposition starts it.

I understand those players are hard to find, but when you have legitimate skill guys, you have to surround them with some toughness; and not necessarily drop-the-gloves kind of toughness. Look at the Canucks, Alex Burrows played two years in the ECHL, and a year and a half in the AHL before cracking the Canucks lineup.

Of course he had skill, but mostly he had guts and determination. He racked up 463 PIMs in two ECHL seasons, yet he still found time to score 79 points one year. In his first full NHL season he tallied a paltry 3 goals, nine points in 81 games, while collecting 93 penalty minutes.

He then scored 12 goals, 31 points and 179 PIMs in his 2nd year, before getting promoted to a top-six player. He tallied 28 goals, 51 points and 150 PIMs in his 3rd season, and 35 goals, 67 points and 121 in his fourth. Playing with the Sedins clearly helped his offensive numbers, but his willingness to get in people’s faces, deliver a few cheap shots and never shy away earned him the chance to play in the top-two lines.

When was the last time an opposing fan base hated an Oiler player? Raffi Torres maybe?

You can’t expect Ryan Jones, Teemu Hartikainen or even Tyler Pitlick to be that type of player, because they’ve never been that guy before, although Jones did fight a few times in junior, and did well this year v. Abdelkader, but they should at least try to be that guy. Jones has a great opportunity to seize that role down the stretch, but is he willing to do it?

Asking guys to become an agitator or aggressive player when they’ve never consistently done it, would be like asking Theo Peckham to suddenly become a great puck moving D-man. The organization has to go looking for them, and some guys like Jones, Hartikainen, Pitlick or Petrell need to recognize the void and grab hold of it.

By the time guys come out of junior, you know what type of player they are. Sure some can become a bit more offensive, but Burrows was a 35-goal scorer in junior and had 79 points in the ECHL, so he did have some skill to go along with his willingness to play hard. I’m certain the Oilers can find a few guys like that.

DRAFT SOME GRIT

The Oilers have had to shore up almost every position on the ice for the past few years, and it is difficult to fix all of your problems, but to me it seems the organization has continually drafted only skilled guys. Skill is a huge part of the game, and you need lots of it, but in the past five years they haven’t drafted one player who played with an edge consistently.

Why not?

Drafting Hall, RNH and Eberle made sense because you need great players to compete for a championship, but in the 2nd, 3rd, 4th and later rounds why didn’t they look at guys like Brad Ross or other agitators with some skill? Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but maybe Zack Kassian, who went 13th in 2009, might have been a better fit than Paajarvi down the road?

I’m not down on Paajarvi at all, but if he plays here will he add the missing grittiness the Oilers need in their top-six?

It has been a glaring weakness for years, yet they have never addressed. It is hard to trade for a top-pairing D-man, just like it is hard to trade for guys who will scratch, claw, hit, score, agitate and fight the odd time. Guys like Steve Ott, Scott Hartnell, Burrows, Ryan Kesler, Milan Lucic and others are rare, but when your team hasn’t had one in ages shouldn’t you make it a priority to find them?

I liked the Ben Eager signing, because he is exactly that type of player. Unfortunately he’s only averaging 8:40 a night, so you can’t expect him to be that much of a difference maker. He needs to play better, but the coaches need to play him more when he’s playing well.He still isn’t the long-term solution, but he might be a stop-gap until a better option arrives.

I question the willingness of the Oilers to let guys play on the edge.

If Theo Peckham, Andy Sutton or Ben Eager take an aggressive/dumb penalty they get sat. You can’t ask guys to play on the edge, and not expect them to cross it sometimes. And when they do, you need to support them. If it happens too often then it becomes an issue, but if your team isn’t good enough to kill off an overly aggressive penalty once every eight games, then your team isn’t that good.

The guys I mentioned aren’t in your top-nine forwards or top-four defence and that is the issue. If fans or the coaches expect those guys to bring toughness necessary to win games then you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. They don’t play enough to be real difference makers. They will help, but you need more than just 4th liners and 3rd pairing D-men to be gritty and tough.

Guys don’t need to be brawlers to play tough.

When Kevin Lowe played he wasn’t a fighter at all, but he competed extremely hard. He never gave an inch in a one-on-one battle. Those are the types of guys they need, and I’m surprised Lowe hasn’t been more vocal in trying to find them.

DETROIT MODEL

I always hear people say, "Look at Detroit, they win without a heavyweight or toughness." That isn’t completely true.

They won back-to-back in 1997, 1998.

On the 1997 they had Shanahan, Konstantinov, Fetisov, McCarty, Maltby, Sandstrom, Lapointe and Kocur. Of course they had lots of skill in Yzerman, Lidstrom, Larionov and more, but they had a mixture. Their gritty guys played lots of minutes.

In 1998 they had Shanahan,Fetisov, McCarty, Maltby, Holmstrom, Lapointe and Kocur.

In 2002 they had Shanahan, McCarty, Maltby, Holmstrom, Chelios, and Fischer.

In 2008 they had new skill in Datsyuk and Zetterberg, but they had size, skill and grit with Holmstrom, Franzen, Kronwall, Drake, and grit guys like Matlby and Chelios. Guys who competed hard for every loose puck. Kronwall is one of the most feared hitters in the league.

The Oilers have the skill factor covered, and should add another highly touted guy at the draft in June, but until they find guys who battle for every puck, stand up for their teammates and give more than they receive I don’t see them being a legitimate Cup contender.

When the Oilers went to the Cup final in 2006, they had one superstar in The Human Rake (Pronger), some decent skill in Smyth, Hemsky and Samsonov, but lots of grit guys in Smith, Peca, Torres, Staios, Moreau and even Spacek played physical. Until they insert those types of guys into their lineup, I don’t see them being a legit contender.

LINEUP

Taylor Hall was on the ice for the morning skate in Nashville but he won’t play tonight. I’m not certain, but I thought there was some sort of protocol that if a player is concussed, which Renney said Hall was after Calgary game, that he has to sit out at least a week. If that is true, then we might see him Friday or Sunday, but likely not Thursday.

Ben Eager’s back is feeling better and he’ll play tonight.

Jones – Nugent-Hopkins – Eberle
Hartikainen – Gagner – Hemsky
Smyth -Horcoff – Petrell
Eager – Belanger – Hordichuk

Smid – Petry
Whitney – Schultz
Sutton/Peckham – Potter

Dubnyk

I’m sure many will wonder why Linus Omark isn’t in the lineup, but it is clear to me the Oilers have finally realized they can’t win with six small, not very physical wingers in their top-nine. Moving forward I don’t see Omark being a part of the top-six, so they might as well give bigger bodies like Teemu Hartikainen and Lennart Petrell a look.

GAME DAY PREDICTION: Preds and Oilers put on an entertaining performance, but the Preds even the season series with a 4-3 victory.

OBVIOUS GAME DAY PREDICTION: Jordin Tootoo will level an Oiler and fans will scream "get him." They mean get revenge, but they should be saying "Tambellini get him," cause he is the type of player they need. Tootoo has 29 points for the Preds this year, that would put him 8th on the Oilers. Don’t tell me wouldn’t help this team.

NOT-SO-OBVIOUS GAME DAY PREDICTION: Sportsnet  will only show Carrie Underwood once during the game, instead opting to up their "babe" coverage and show a feature on the Preds Ice Girls and Dance team. This will start a great debate over which group is hotter. When fans cheer for a 29th place team they need any angle to keep them entertained.