Having somebody stick a glove in the face of David Backes at the end of a 4-2 loss to the St. Louis Blues Tuesday obviously wasn’t going to change the outcome for the Edmonton Oilers or address the laundry list of shortcomings we know all too well, but it needed to be done. Of course, it wasn’t.
Instead, as usual, Edmonton’s Benoit Pouliot found himself surrounded by Alex Pietrangelo, Jay Bouwmeester and Backes while everybody else on the ice, save for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, stood around and took the opportunity to count the crowd or stare at their skate laces. You’re on your own, Benny.
I’ve lost track of the number of times we’ve seen the same scenario unfold in recent years, but this glaring lack of a pack mentality and willingness to turn the other cheek and take whatever opponents decide to dish out spans several coaches and a roster that’s been almost completely turned over.
Again, the Oilers default role of playground weakling doesn’t top my list of reasons why this team is going nowhere fast – lousy goaltending, lack of depth on defense and at centre are the most obvious reasons the record today sits at 10-25-9 – but it’s a fundamental flaw that has to be addressed.
Right now, the Oilers aren’t built that way.
BE A TEAM
I know TSN 1260’s Jason Strudwick went on about this at length last night on his show. As a guy who always showed up to engage in the battle even if he didn’t win it, I can only imagine how Strudwick tossed and turned last night after the Oilers went quietly into the tunnel yet again — a repeat of what we saw with Leon Draisaitl earlier this season.
Bruce McCurdy of The Cult of Hockey over at the Edmonton Journal, who is somebody I consider a voice of considerable reason, got to the heart of the matter, as I see it, on the radio this morning: “If you don’t have a team, you don’t have a starting point,” he said.
McCurdy, like many people, is more into advanced stats than I am, but he didn’t need to check a spreadsheet to come to that conclusion after watching the end of the game. I don’t know if you can even quantify the value of the pack mentality that’s missing with this team. That said, anybody with a lick of common sense knows being willing to stick up for a teammate, to at least engage and refuse to allow anybody to be outnumbered, is a trait that builds a sense of unity. The old all-for-one-one-for-all axiom.
The problem is the Oilers aren’t built that way. Outside of Matt Hendricks, Boyd Gordon, Andrew Ference, tough guy Luke Gazdic and newcomer Rob Klinkhammer, all of whom play well down the line-up, the Oilers are sadly lacking the kind of players who simply refuse to accept seeing a teammate outnumbered or pushed around.
JUST SHOW UP
The idea of playing as a pack and for the guy next to you can’t be left to a handful of a guys playing in your bottom six forwards or third defensive pair. It doesn’t, and cannot, work that way.
There’s not nearly enough of it up top in Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Jeff Petry and Justin Schultz, to name just four. Those players, who are on the ice more than anybody and thus have the opportunity to impact the game more than anybody else, just aren’t built that way.
The thing is, the pack mentality doesn’t depend on wading in and winning every battle. It’s not about dropping the gloves, throwing punches and breaking all those high-priced hands. It’s about showing up for every battle. Step in the middle. It’s about being involved rather than being a spectator.
When you know somebody has your back, it’s far more likely that you’ll be willing to have theirs. My experience is the best teams are built that way. I have no doubt about it, even if I can’t attach a number to it. I’ve played on teams that had a dogged pack mentality and those that didn’t. I’ve watched both varieties for 30 years.
Playing with a pack mentality isn’t a substitute for talent, great goaltending or depth at all positions and it won’t completely mitigate lousy coaching or bad drafting and player development, but it’s a thread that binds and makes better whatever you do have.
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TSN 1260.