It seems clear that any player who makes it to the NHL is competitive. They had to beat out thousands of players just to get a shot in the league, but even in the NHL there are different types of competitors.
Your team will have a mixture of tough competitors and fragile competitors.
Do the Oilers have enough tough competitors?
Yesterday on my radio show I had the pleasure of having Chris Morris in studio. Morris is on the Eskimos wall of honour, he won three Grey Cups and now he is the head coach of the U of A Bears football team. Morris was one the best guests I’ve had on in months.
He was passionate, well-spoken, intense and he outlined his thoughts on coaching, but we also focused on how you build a winner, and the need to the install the drive and desire necessary to win into your players.
"You build that in people. You aren’t born hard like that. You are taught it and you are taught how to retrain your mind and reload it every time something bad happens. There a million things a coach has to build into a player’s mindset in order for them to be able to compete at that level," said Morris.
Before the interview Morris and I spoke off-air about his pain threshold and his ability to always battle hard. We talked about fragile and tough competitors, and then during the interview he brought it up and gave an excellent breakdown of their differences. I’ve debated for years that I felt at times the Oilers were too easy to play against, but not just physically.
We were talking a little bit earlier about different types of competitors. If you want a hard, tough competitor you have to get all the things that can break them out of them. There are fragile guys who fight really hard for a few minutes, and then one bad thing happens and they fold a little bit and then they fold a little more when something else goes wrong. Those are fragile guys.
You have to build it (toughness) in them. You have to tell them how to build their mindset. When something bad happens this is how your mind has to react to it. This is how you have to react when you’re not feeling well. Don’t talk to me about being sick. No one cares that you are sick. No one cares that you are not feeling right. None of your opponents care that you aren’t feeling right. You have to show up and work harder than them, despite how you feel.
That is the beginning of teaching kids how to act and how to be leaders and how to have a group of leaders on your team, rather than it coming from your coach. Once players are wired that way, I think you are talking about leadership exuding from your team, and that’s when you have a championship-level team.
Right now the Oilers seemingly have too many fragile competitors and it will be up to Ralph Krueger to find out which ones can become tough competitors, and the ones that don’t need to be shipped out of town. The Oilers haven’t had as much talent as other teams for the past six years, so I never expected them to win very often.
However, too often over the past seven seasons we’ve see the Oilers get out worked by their opponents. They lose too many one-on-one battles, and that is more about mental toughness than sheer skill.
Jeff Petry’s play in OT was a microcosm of a bigger issue in my mind. He got beat coming off the wall, which is fine, because Patrick Sharp also wants to win, however, how Petry reacted after getting beat out of the corner fit perfectly into the "fragile competitor" label.
He went behind the net, and then glided for a few strides before looking back at the play. To use Morris’ definition, he folded a bit. I never expect players to be perfect, nor do I expect them never to get beat, but watching Petry’s body language and his decision to take the easy route instead of sticking with Sharp and staying in front of the net illustrated a picture we’ve seen too often in the Edmonton the past few years. I think Petry showed he can be a tough competitor last year, but right now he, like many of his teammates are fragile. They need to learn to become tough competitors on a nightly basis.
I believe one of the main reasons Krueger was hired last year was due to his strong motivational background. The Oilers need a coach who will help them become mentally tougher. It will be a process, and likely not one that changes overnight, but right now I feel the Oilers need more tough competitors, and it will be on Krueger to find out who he feels can become one and who can’t. Those who can’t need to get weeded out.
I spoke with former NHL player, agent and general manager and now Sportnet analyst Brian Lawton yesterday about building a team. I find Lawton is always well spoken and thought provoking.
"The hardest part about building a team is filling out your blueline. I believe once you get your D straight the rest falls in line," said Lawton. He admitted that they struggled with that during his time in Tampa Bay.
I then asked him being building that blueline and finding the right balance between young players, puck movers, guys who are tough in the corners and in front of the net and overall hockey awareness on the ice.
For me, it is the most critical part of the game, but it is also the most difficult to judge. There are certain players in the league and you know they’re good players, and they look good on the stats sheet, and they’re well trained, and they may even be great guys, but for whatever reason their teams don’t seem to win with that certain position.
Just getting guys in the right positions is critical, and there are so many ways that we’re measuring a players performance today, yet there still is an element of feel in there as to which guys you win with and which guys you don’t.
When I look at Edmonton, without naming names because I have great respect for the organization, they have some people that I’m not sure that you’re necessarily going to win with. They’re trying to develop them and they’re trying to build them to a certain level, and that’s what they should do, but at some point you have to make really tough decisions when you’re the leader. That may be the next evolution for the club, to make some tough decisions on people that – they’ve got all the trappings (as I like to say) of a really good player — but the end result never matches up, and quite frankly those are the most difficult things that you do when you’re managing a club is you make those calls.
Those decisions are not easy. You’re never going to make them all right, so you have to be prepared as a general manager to have some failure. But if you work at it and you’re diligent in the process, you’ll get it right eventually.
That is where the Oilers are at with some players. As Lawton said, Tambellini, Lowe and MacTavish won’t make the correct decision with every player, but they need to rid themselve of players with "trappings" and the players who are fragile competitors.
This isn’t an easy decision, nor will it be a quick fix, but it has to happen, because for the past six seasons I’ve seen too many games where the Oilers got out worked and lost too many one-on-one battles.