When I took the training wheels off my son Sam’s new bike this week, I knew he’d lose some knee skin and spend a lot of time picking himself up off his backside and giving me the stink eye. It’s necessary, though, if he’s ever going to ride the damn thing right.
The way I see it, if the Edmonton Oilers are going to become the kind of team fans have spent miserable six seasons out of the playoffs hoping they can be, the training wheels have to come off for the 2012-13 season, whenever that begins. Games, like knee skin, will be lost. They’ll do a header over the handle bars a time or two. The Oilers will end up flat on their asses more times than fans would like to see. Necessary.
What the hell does that mean, Brownlee? Well, simply put, when the gate does open for the new season with Ralph Krueger standing where Tom Renney used to, I think it’s time to expect we’ll see Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins used more often and in all situations. Less protected, even taking the item Willis just referenced from NHLNumbers on combined quality of opposing forwards and defense pairings – a useful analysis that lends clarity — into context.
In fundamental terms, without the benefit of charts, graphs and spreadsheets – other people do it better than I and it’s not my thing – I want more Hall, Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins (and Sam Gagner, Ales Hemsky and even Nail Yakupov, for that matter) and less Shawn Horcoff and Ryan Smyth.
Turn the team over to the kids now (they’re going to take it sooner rather than later anyway). I say wind them up and turn them loose, notwithstanding the obligatory rookie leash in the case of Yakupov. No training wheels.
Contrary to the common perception, Hall, Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins weren’t spoon-fed a steady diet of patsies and ham-and-eggers in terms of opposition when forwards AND defenseman are taken into consideration, as the NHLNumbers data shows.
That said, while we can argue the extent, Renney certainly made a conscious effort to put the kids in situations where they had the best opportunity for success. There’s nothing wrong with that. Makes sense. In 2011-12, after all, we were talking about two sophomores and a raw 18-year-old rookie in RNH. Now, with Hall and Eberle entering their third seasons, Nugent-Hopkins his second and Yakupov fetching the energy drinks in the dressing room and destined to get stuck with the rookie tab at a team dinner, I’d suggest it’s time to see more of the first three, with Yak, Gagner and Hemsky also jumping ahead of Horcoff and Smyth in the ice time pecking order.
No chance, no way Horcoff should lead the Oilers in average ice time per game with anything approaching the 19:35 he played last season. Same with Smyth, who logged 19:04 and was higher than that until he was cut back in the second half of the season.
By comparison, Eberle averaged 17:35, leaving him sixth among forwards. Hall checked in behind Horcoff and Smyth at 18:13. Nugent-Hopkins and Hemsky played 17:36. And, yes, I know a lot of the added ice time Horcoff and Smyth got came by way of killing penalties, while shorthanded duty was an afterthought with the kids.
Tougher forwards? Sure. Defensemen? Yes. Zone starts? Get out there. By any measure, it’s time the kids led the way, even if there’s going to be times when it seems like detention in the school of hard knocks and skinned knees, as my son Sam will attest. "Dad, I’m scared."
Two wheels, son. It’s time.
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TEAM 1260.