Style vs. substance and the Edmonton Oilers

There’s a school of thought that suggests playoff hockey is war, and the team with the biggest, strongest players will carry the day every time. Is that kind of team necessary to win in the post-season, and if so what do the Oilers need to do to get there themselves?

The Ducks and the Red Wings

In 2006-07, the Anaheim Ducks won their first Stanley Cup, and they did it with a team that any old-school hockey man would love. They took 71 major penalties; the second-place team in the league took just 47. George Parros alone had 18 majors, more than three full NHL teams. They had more players with a fight than Detroit had fights. Hits are a notoriously finicky stat, due to things like home bias, but no team in the league recorded more hits on the road. Their top-six had skill, but it also had grit – the “nothing line” of Pahlsson, Niedermayer and Moen got heavy minutes – Pahlsson played more than any Ducks forward not named Ryan Getzlaf – and even a lot of their skill players were massive. It was a take-no-prisoners, dominate-physically style of hockey, and it worked.

The next season, the Detroit Red Wings won it all. They did it playing a style of game that would be anathema for many hockey men. Fighting was up league-wide in the wake of Anaheim’s win, but Detroit finished last with 21 major penalties – half of them coming from a player (Aaron Downey) who would not dress for a single post-season game. Four different players had more fights than the entire Detroit team. They didn’t hit much, either – the Red Wings were a bottom-five team in road hits – and they were small, too – the team’s five most-used forwards in the playoffs that season were all 6’ or shorter, as were seven of their top-nine (though strength was clearly not a problem, with the top six all listed at 195 pounds or more). This was a team that played against type – their forwards were not overly big by NHL standards, they didn’t fight, and (comparatively) they didn’t hit. They won anyway.

It would be difficult to imagine two more dissimilar Stanley Cup Champions, stylistically. The two teams placed entirely different priorities on the importance of traditional physical play – Anaheim emphasized it; Detroit all but ignored it. What both teams shared was competence: both the Ducks and Red Wings dominated the shot clock in the regular and post-season, and ultimately both ran up a crooked ratio of goals for versus goals against.

The Edmonton Oilers

Grit is a funny thing. We tend to define grit as physical play – a big (typically North American) guy who hits a lot fits the sterotype. But few would argue against Pavel Datsyuk as a gritty player – because he’s hard on the puck. He doesn’t lose it often and he’s a constant threat to take it when he doesn’t have it. Datsyuk’s a small European who rarely hits, but I can’t think of a single player in the Western Conference who plays a tougher possession game.

Looking at the Oilers’ personnel, I just don’t see them as an Anaheim-style team. With Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle, Nail Yakupov and Sam Gagner as four of the top-six forwards long-term, they aren’t built for it. Even with only three of those guys in the top-six (imagining, for instance, that Gagner is dealt for a bigger player), they can’t mimic the wall of size that the Ducks played with in 2007. But as Detroit showed, they don’t necessarily have to – if they can play a hard puck-possession game (something that they remain a significant distance from mastering) they can still win.

That, to me, is where the emphasis should lie. All else being equal size is always better than a lack of size, but the primary emphasis should be on players that do a good job of maintaining possession. Big guys like Nathan Horton in Boston and Ryane Clowe in San Jose – both pending unrestricted free agents as of this writing – fit the bill. Big guys like Ben Eager do not. And if the choice comes down to a big, flawed player or a mid-sized guy who rarely surrenders possession and never does without a battle, the team should take the latter player each and every time.

Basically, it’s the old ‘the size of the fight in the dog matters, not the size of the dog in the fight’ adage. If the Oilers have a team of players willing and able to do whatever it takes keep possession, to generate chance after chance while limiting the opposition’s opportunities, they can win. And maybe I’m looking at it through rose-coloured glasses, but a lot of the guys on the team seem to have those qualities, though a lot of them are still well back of their prime years right now. As they gain in maturity and experience, I think they can form the core of a contending team. The trick is to augment those players with others – big or small – who don’t give up on the play, who dominate possession and show equal ferocity on the fore-check and the back-check. That kind of grit sometimes shows up in hit counts or fighting majors, but it always shows up in shot totals and goal totals. It’s that substance, regardless of the style of the team, that won championships for Detroit and Anaheim.

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  • OilClog

    Horton – 22gp 7g 5a 12pts +5 4pm 62shot 17:38toi
    27yrs 6.02 229lbs Concussion Concerns

    He’ll get atleast 5 on the open market, he’s a beauty other then those concussions.

    Clowe – 22gp 0g 8a 8pts -4 72pm 51shots 16:45toi
    30yr 6.02 225lbs Wearing Down

    He’ll get money from someone for a good long term, I frankly hope it’s not the Oilers.

    If I’m spending money on either of the two, I spend a little more on Horton and forget about Clowe altogether. Long term, Short term stats don’t compare, Horton is superior.

  • Speaking of puck possession, I think whatever line Hall is on is pretty solid with “possession” in that there are ton of stats out there that demonstrate the play goes one way when Hall is on the ice.

    As for the second line, or any line Gagner is centring, they seem to have some trouble. And I think this is where the argument to add size comes in. Having said that, the Magnus Gagner duo looked pretty good. And even if they don’t have possession, Magnus is responsible enough defensively to cover.

    If I may, I think Kruger should try a top line of Horcoff, Hall, Hemsky to line up against the tough competition. Your second line of Nuge, Eberle, and whatever winger with size you want to put on the left is your next line, as getting the sheltered minutes should help the Nuge break his slump and get back to his scoring ways.

    The second, ‘second’ line then has Gagner, Yak, and Magnus.

    With a fourth energy line. That makes a top line that is going to fatigue by the end of the game, but is likely not going to let a lot of shots go in, and has shown can be dominating. A second line with the defensively responsible nuge, and someone there to dig a puck out of the corner. And a third line that is young and possibly prone to mistakes, but with one of our more defensively minded players, and all three can play at a blistering pace, against softer competition. They’ll have a hard time getting and keeping the puck, but once they get it, they are dangerous with it.

    Thoughts?

  • Would you be talking about the Montreal Canadiens? Probably smaller than Oilers, certainly less talent [?], but they play hard on both sides of the puck, finish their checks,,
    back and fore check , crisp passes most of the time.can skate etc. Pretty much basic stuff a player should have when they pull on an NHL jersey.

    I see very little of that from the Oilers!

    Fault: Krueger and the coaching staff.! You play what you practice.

    PS I am a Oiler fan, I only bring up Montreal,because I marvel who hard they play every night. Ya I know they have a better goalie,but the best goalie in the world wont help you if do play hard.

    • justDOit

      While the Canadiens have 4 players listed at 5’9″ or less, two of them (Gallagher and Gionta) play with a lot of grit and energy. Of course, they might grow an inch or two on the ice when they play with these guys:

      COLBY ARMSTRONG 6′ 2″

      RENE BOURQUE ** 6′ 2″

      LARS ELLER 6′ 2″

      ALEX GALCHENYUK 6′ 1″

      TRAVIS MOEN 6′ 2″

      PETTERI NOKELAINEN 6′ 1″

      MAX PACIORETTY 6′ 2″

      BRANDON PRUST 6′ 2″

      That the Habs can play well with a small team is about as accurate as the Oilers roster being Krueger’s fault.

      • washed up

        JDI… Oilers have 9 forwards and 1 defense that under 200 lbs. Montreal has 10 forwards and 2 defense men under 200lbs. So really close in the weight category. Height helps a bit, but really if you are 5’9″ or 6’1″ there is no great advantage. Weight and some muscle make a difference, plus some technique. There are /were a lot of short guys that play hard on the puck , tough to move hockey. [ look at Marchand @ Boston] etc.

        Its fighting for and not giving up the puck.\. plus finishing your checks that makes teams tough.

        • GVBlackhawk

          yeah…….but taking a guy on the opposing team and smashing his face in makes a team tough too….. it’s really hard to go top cheese with a detached retina…..

  • Thats all fine, but you need a mix of both
    and the current edition of the Oilers has very little
    of it on either side. Hemsky has played better for sure but he will never
    have that combative trait Hall Does. Sam Gagner lacks size but
    he is willing to get dirty, so has Taylor Hall, Eberle i think is fearless
    but lacks at least right now some get to the dirty areas mentality
    but that aside i would not trade him – perhaps ever.
    RNH is Gretzky like, will never intimidate anyone, he is passive
    but brilliant, 29 other teams would take him in a heartbeat.

    IMO- We need the guys like Curtis Glencross, and i
    am ticked to this day we let him get away. The Cal Clutterbuck
    Darcy Tucker type, Doug Gilmour, Smaller of stature but absolute
    bull dogs. Toss in some size with decent skill. its got to be a mix, easier said then done but damn it, we have the pieces to move to get
    there. And i am sorry DD is not EVER going to win you anything.

  • Minister D-

    “Big guys like Nathan Horton in Boston and Ryane Clowe in San Jose – both pending unrestricted free agents as of this writing – fit the bill. Big guys like Ben Eager do not. And if the choice comes down to a big, flawed player or a mid-sized guy who rarely surrenders possession and never does without a battle, the team should take the latter player each and every time.”

    This, all day long, as the kids are fond of saying nowadays. I think the ‘grit’ problem highlighted here once again turns the spotlight squarely on management’s inability to find decent support players for our top two lines. Guys like Eager and Petrell seem fundamentally incapable of carrying the puck, taking or receiving a pass, or keeping possession once they have it. There’s been long stretches of hockey where the Oilers don’t seem to touch the puck at all, and it usually has to do with the third and fourth lines being out there. This simply *HAS* to be addressed in the offseason this year if anything like progress is going to occur.

    JW: What’s the likelihood that the Oilers will be in on Horton and Clowe? Any other UFAs fit the bill?

  • yawto

    Prudent article JW – I think another example from the “Detriot” model is Chicago themselves. The bus drivers there are Kane, Toews, Hossa, Sharp, Bolland, Keith and Seabrook. All strong on the puck with excellent possession skills + speed, but not based on a “run you through the glass” system. Their complementary players are of the larger with skill variety, and one could (I think) reasonably assume that a guy like Harski could find a role on that team.

    Seems to be working there…although maybe it’s the Ice Girls in Chitown – real and spectacular!