OILERS NEED A WILL TO WIN

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.

EXAMPLE

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.

OUTSIDER PERSPECTIVE

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.

RECENTLY BY JASON GREGOR

  • Hall for President

    Eager, Belanger, Paajarvi need to go. I don’t think they have the real fighting spirit. Or they need to watch tapes of Ryan Jones all day and dream of his shifts all night. I think our top 6 are mentally tough. They battle consistently.

  • I know everyone (most people) love Eberle. I think he is an extremely talented player. He’s been blessed with pure talent. Special player.

    Where I’ve been concerned is his “fragile compete”. Not strong in his own zone, not hard on the forecheck, not much compete.

    I’m not suggesting he becomes a checker, but I think he needs to develop a “winning” drive. I will say this though, it’s easy to focus on Eberle because he should be elite.

    I’ll turn the key to my car very slowly today….

    • French Toast Mafia

      I am one of the guys that loves Eberle but lately I think I would agree with you. I do not see the level of desire we have seen in the past, or that is required for him to take the next step. Pat Kane seems to have found that fire and look what’s going on there (though, granted, it took a while).

      Management brought out the old guard to recruit Schultz – I would love it if they brought in guys like Kurri, Mess, etc. to talk to all of these kids and spell out what it takes. One of my favorite stories is about the 83 team losing to the Islanders in the finals, but not thinking it was that big of a deal. Then they walked past the Islander dressing room and saw a bunch of guys beat up, broken, cut, exhausted. That is where Gretz says he realized what it was going to take. Now you can only get a true appreciation by actually going through that, but I’d think a few legends telling some stories would be the next best thing.

      Might be just what the doc ordered too in the middle of a 9-game road trip from hell.

      Of course that would require a management team that actually anticipated things and then acted on them…

      • Hall for President

        I remember that in Gretz’s autobiography. Impressed me very much when you think of what it takes to win. I like to think of it as the dropping of the balls.

        I think a run at a playoff spot will do wonders for this team and its key players. Get in or not the fight that comes with that will be aces!

    • Light, Sweet, Crude

      Nah, I hear you, man. While I think he has that winning drive for sure – check out his trophy case at his parent’s place – can you imagine him getting fired up like Hall or even Gagner (vs. Beauchemin for example). If he could, and maybe he will, he would be even more valuable to a winning team.

      Note: I do not want Ebs to fight, but I would like to feel it’s not impossible.

      Also, Gregor I know the Petry game loser has been talked about to death, but I absolutely agree with you and at the time my issue was with how Petry reacted right after he got beat to the net. It was as if he expected Sharp to score. Maybe he was still seeing stars from the Carcillo hit earlier, but yeesh that was weak.

      • match16

        Petry screwed up on the play.

        We need to understand how hard it is on the defence when the puck is in their end all night. As assessed by Ralph, he was on an extended shift after spending most the game in their own zone. Fatigue makes you do dumb things. You’ll see improvements when they’re playing teams not called Chicago.

        If the Oilers can ever start getting some sustained pressure down low, I think you’ll see improvements in all aspects of their game.

        Their hockey this year is still twice as good as last season which was 10 times better than the season before. I even think they’re winning some forechecking battles, which they haven’t done for a long, long time.

        so:
        1. Petry screwed up. Not all his fault.
        2. Oiler is hockey improving.
        2.5 – It would be good if that showed on the score clock.
        3. Love the article and makes sense.

      • Hall for President

        Gagner is a great example! He’s like four foot f’ all (I kid) and has some good compete. Checks, fights and plays with a little edge. Maybe not every night, but…

        Was at the game the other night and sat close to the Oilers’ bench. I noticed how small Eberle really is. Not so much height, but he’s petite. Does that have an affect? Could.

      • Hall for President

        The Chi-town game had me shaking my head, but I’ve been noticing this from Eberle for a bit now. He’s gotta come around. We need him to step it up. We will live and die this year (and more) by Eberle, Hall and RNH.

    • Hall for President

      Couldn’t disagree more. Go back and watch him in the world juniours. He’s the epitome of clutch, and it’s because he’s mentally strong. He’s got a winners mentality. From what I’ve seen of Hall’s juniour days I’d say he’s the same.

      • French Toast Mafia

        Game to game Hall has shown up far more than any player on this team. Every night he plays hard, gets in on the forecheck, causes turnovers, and backs of defenders with his speed.

        I like Eberle a lot and he is a pure sniper but him and the other guys on the team don’t bring it every night the way they need to in order to win more.

        When you see teams like Chicago, Detroit, and Vancouver they have guys up and down there lineup (Toews, Hossa, Datsyuk, Kronwell, hate to say it Burrows, and Bieksa to name a few) that are tough to compete against every night and do things outside of sniping a beauty that go a long way in winning games.

        Hall is all we have as far as a guy that game in and game out is a dominant players that actually difficult for other teams to handle. We need more players that are hard to play against. Even if its just guys that finish their check.

      • Spydyr

        I agree he is clutch when the puck is on his stick and the net is within 8ft, but the game is played in three zones. I think he’s gonna get it. He just don’t get it right now.

        Sorry, but Hall is a step or two above Eberle when you think about want, desire and try. JMO.

        • Hall for President

          I agree he doesn’t affect the game in all three zones like Hall or RNH, but I don’t think it’s due to lack of mental toughness. Hall and RNH have said they’ve been working hard to improve in the other areas, whereas maybe Eb’s has been thinking about winning the Art Ross. I don’t think his defensive skills are lacking because he gets down on himself, maybe he just hasn’t been working as hard at it. Same result I suppose…

  • Losing and winning are habits. The problem with a rebuild is changing that attitude and compete level.

    Even a person that has had an incredible work ethic and compete level his entire career can develop a losing attitude.

    If the outcome of the game is the same no matter how hard you work people end up taking short cuts or the easy road. This is not a concsious a decision but human nature. If there is no reward for the extra work…..the extra work typically fades away.

    Every time you bring a new person into the group that has a winning attitude you expose your players to it and that can help to break them of their losing attitudes.

  • DSF

    It’d be interesting to hear if Petry just read the play wrong. I don’t think his compete level was off, it’d be interesting to see if WIllis can analyze that play differently to justify what Petry did. As for having the compete factor on our blue line, I really think Nick, Justin, Fistric, and Smid, are all fierce competitors. I’d put Petry in there as well but he’s stilll kind of developing and will be prone to make mistakes.

    As for the forwards, Ebs, Hall, Harti, Smyth, Horcoff, Petrell, Yak are all clearly passionate about winning night in night out. I think if anything, this team has turned the corner on the whole nights off thing. The core they are building around (Hall) are notorious competitors. These guys literally bleed for the team. So I really kind of think this argument might not be all that sound as I can’t think of another team that is more stacked with tough competitors.

    PS Dubnyk and Habby have been competitors all season.

    • Bonvie

      What Petry should have done is stopped at the short side of the net and went to the front of the net, that would have allowed Smid to play Sharp more aggressive because he recognized Hossa as a threat in the slot, so he had to stay where he was and make sure that the pass could not be slid through. Smid then goes down to block the shot, leaving him self vulnerable to react to the next play which was a rebound to Hossa. If Petry wasn’t standing behind the net watching he would have ensured Hossa was not able to get to a rebound.

      Smid was actually down on all three goals one was actually a blocked shot though, he should avoid going down as it takes him out of the play. This is something I noticed Smid does in odd man situations which leaves him vulnerable to react to the rebound. I always say that in odd man situations the d man need to stay in the middle and take away the pass and stay on their feet so they are the first to get to the rebound.

  • Part of building a winning team is the necessity for absolute dedication to winning throughout the entire organization. You can’t expect players to assume a winning mindset when it’s patently obvious the team has no real intention of doing so. You go into Montreal and it’s basically win or die every day. When is the last time we could say that about Edmonton? 2006?

    Tanking (i.e. not caring about winning) got us three first round pics, but the psychological damage it’s done to our young guys will take a loooong time to fix.

  • There is something missing on this team!. I can’t say for sure but as it was last year, I suspect anarchy in the room. [ ya in front of the mike they say the right things], but think about it… first off, leader ship should come from the vets on a very young team! The vets here Smyth, Whitney,Potter,Belanger, end up with big pouts and whines when they get benched. It tells me that the attitude is ” OK, you young pup’s show us what you can do”. And really the vets should be demonstrating hard on the puck and tight checking, which they dont.
    At the end the young guys have to carry the team, as the vet presence is limited, especially in the leadership role.[just for the record, I think #94 puts in a decent effort, but he’s No.1 on the pout list].

    I think Hall, should be made Capt., as he show s the most jam in his game, lead the new young group. Other teams have made young guys captain.s [ Towes, Crosby, Landesgog,Backus come to mind]

    Guys that need to find their jam in the trunks of their cars, and bring them to the game:
    Hemsky, Eberle, Paajarvi, Gagner, Petry, POtter,Justin Schultz,Belanger,Horcoff,Vandevelde. I think RNH and Yakapov, are catching on quickly.

    Alot of the guys above tend to wear their “fly-by” jackets durig the game.

  • Bi-Curious Gord

    Petry got outworked for sure. And, he went for a joy ride. That moment, for me, is when it’s alright to take a penalty. Get your stick under Sharpe’s arm or around his body and just water-ski. All you gotta do from there is touch the puck. Whistle goes, your down a man, but you fight another day.

    The Chicago game was ugly and the point was a grace from God or Allah, Ganesha, Ra, Zues…. whatever you like in your drink. Out played, Out gunned.

    Willis has an article out on A. Volpatti currently on waivers. He brings truculence, sand paper, etc. Something needs to be done with the cluster (explicit) we call the D. Someone has to go in order to open up a roster spot. Whitney is my choice, but sounds as though he’s not on any GMs list. Maybe Potter down to the farm? Whatever happens, needs to play out soon.

    • I’ve seen Volpatti play – he’s a guy who will give you 8 mins. a night on the 4th line with some scraps but not much else. Who do you take out? Apart from the fighting I don’t think he outplays Petrell (PK), Eager, Jones, Belanger, MPS or Harti.

      • Good point. But he could be a 14th forward. Come in a provide some sh*t disturbance every other game. He could take out whoever needs to be taken out. Whoever isn’t doing what they should be at that moment. Gotta be accountable for your game. Game in and game out.

        Depth pick up. Saving grace? No, that he is not. But, he does have a good element to his game. Crazy!

        • Hall for President

          This may be the case. Don’t watch the ‘nucks play a lot. But, from what I’ve seen he’s got some crazy. This teams needs a little crazy. From someone.

  • DSF

    If I read the article correctly, then Lawton’s comments were directed at the Oilers’ D and not the forwards. Whitney’s struggles and inability to adjust to his role/restricted mobility, I think, are an example. Chelios re-invented himself multiple times over his career, but the overriding constant was he was a tough S.O.B. to play against. Whitney, despite his size, hasn’t transformed his game from being a D who can skate the puck out of danger (which he can’t anymore) to a guy you really don’t want to run into. Potter also falls into the: not hard to play against category – again despite decent size.

    Ironically, Lawton iirc was never someone who had that hard winning edge to his game.

  • Jason Gregor

    This guy is a bloody analyst, why the heck doesn’t he spill the names on the guys he thinks are soft? Isn’t giving an opinion his job now? Is he stumping for a job with the Oil?

    I’ve heard the interview and I think Lawton is great, but I’m not sure who he is protecting other than himself by not naming names.

    It’s a little frustrating for the average fan to guess and wonder who he is referring too.

  • “they’ve got all the trappings of a really good player”

    BUT

    I laughed when we listened to that line yesterday. the room broke into a Gagner, Hemmer,PRV etc. etc. etc argument. I think the only guys who escaped unscathed were smid and maybe Joey Moss.

    My point is, there are a TON of players on this roster that Lawton may have trapped with that line.

    And he is correct.

  • A-Mc

    Gregor: What guy(s) would you pick to be fragile types on a consistent basis?

    Regardless of how good he is, is there a player that you think the Oilers need to cut lose?

  • Hall for President

    Hemsky, Smyth, Horcoff??? Lowe and Tambi are doing the same thing in management.

    And no not Gagner. He doesn’t win many but he usually doesn’t give up on the play either.

  • Hall for President

    I agree Gregor, there is something missing in this team. I understand that people want this team to get tougher, but I don’t completely agree. This team needs to be more COMPETITIVE. You don’t have to be big to compete, you have to have the WILL to win puck battles and hockey games.

    When you watch Phoenix and Nashville for example, here are two teams that lack skill, yet win more then they lose. There players battle and are relentless which our team on most nights are not. That has to change ASAP, getting bigger and tougher won’t help unless everyone competes and wins battles.

    Good piece Gregor, thoughts?

  • Hall for President

    So I am guessing you would not want players like Alex Semin on your team?

    I don’t think I buy the argument you have completely. As players shed these “fragile competitor” misnomers simply by playing in a long playoff run. So if team success takes away from this fragile competitor label, and you are searching for successful teams, then it is more of correlation determining success, not causation. Basically what is said that winners are good at winning.

    That’s why I think this argument is a tad weak.

  • Hall for President

    Gregor, I want this guy on the Oilers coaching staff. He has hit the nail on the head. Xs and Os are only one aspect of coaching a hockey team. I don’t see any fire in the belly of the Oilers.