Connor McDavid and the threat of Antoine Roussel

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Paul Bissonnette took the hard road to the NHL, earning more than 200 games in the majors primarily through his pugilistic abilities. An outspoken and popular presence online, Bissonnette recently responded to a question about the relationship between Luke Gazdic and Connor McDavid, and offered an intriguing defence of the necessity of Edmonton’s enforcer. We can boil that defence down to one name: Antoine Roussel.

The Exchange

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Asked whether Gadzic’s public comments that he would have McDavid’s back served to protect the Oilers’ young star or rather served to highlight him as a target, Bissonnette offered the following:

The NHL is such a competitive league and there’s money to be made, so guys are going to compete. I don’t think there are many conflicts that occur in the NHL out of a personal vendetta. The bigger culprit is that when a guy like McDavid has such a high skill level, the other team will try to do whatever it can to get him off of his game. Teams deploy guys like Antoine Roussell, who will do what he can to get under the skin of the other team’s star player. It’s not a personal thing, it’s in his job description. And Gazdic’s job is to keep Roussell in check — essentially serving as a distraction to the distraction. Gazdic’s job, an important one, is to neutralize Roussell so he can’t neutralize McDavid. It’s like really physical chess.

Bissonnette puts it elegantly, as one might expect, but in a lot of ways this is just the age-old defence of the enforcer: There are rats out there, and it’s helpful to employ a big man with a stick to whack them when they pop up.

How much truth is there in his argument?

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins

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Obviously, we don’t know exactly how often McDavid will see Roussel or his ilk, but we can make an educated guess based on who Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has faced. We’ll look at last season, when he was Edmonton’s established first-line centre, and then at 2011-12 when he was a rookie first overall pick just entering the league.

Bissonnette specifically identified Roussel, but we should expand the sample beyond that one player. We’re looking for Western Conference skaters who are physical and aggressive but also reasonably skilled and who play close to the edge. When I went through last season’s numbers I came up with five players who really fit: Roussel (25 points, 148 PIM), Derek Dorsett (25 points, 175 PIM), Cody McLeod (12 points, 191 PIM), Kyle Clifford (15 points, 87 PIM) and Steve Ott (12 points, 86 PIM). How often did Nugent-Hopkins see these guys and what happened when he did?

Here’s the data, courtesy of Puckalytics.com:

  • Roussel: 11 minutes against, 65% Corsi
  • Dorsett: 8 minutes against, 73% Corsi
  • Ott, Clifford, McLeod: Less than 5 minutes head-to-head

For the most part, Nugent-Hopkins didn’t see these guys, and when he did he ate them alive. He may have taken a hit or two along the way, but no coach is going to trade a hit or two for getting out-shot two- or three-to-one over any length of time. At least, no coach who likes his job will.

But that’s last year. What if we go back to 2011-12, when Nugent-Hopkins broke into the league?

Our list changes a little with the times; we can keep Dorsett (20 points, 235 PIM), McLeod (11 points, 164 PIM), Ott (39 points, 156 PIM) and Clifford (12 points, 123 PIM) and it makes sense to add Max Lapierre (19 points, 130 PIM), Chris Stewart (30 points, 109 PIM), Cal Clutterbuck (27 points, 103 PIM), Brenden Morrow (26 points, 97 PIM), Jordin Tootoo (30 points, 92 PIM) and Jamal Mayers (15 points, 91 PIM). That’s a longer list – curiously, this player type seems to have been rarer in the West in 2014-15 than in 2011-12 – and should give us a good idea of what rookie Nugent-Hopkins faced from this class of player:

  • Clutterbuck: 13 minutes against, 58% Corsi
  • Stewart: 13 minutes against, 56% Corsi
  • Ott: 12 minutes against, 50% Corsi
  • Tootoo: 11 minutes against: 59% Corsi
  • Lapierre: 9 minutes against, 57% Corsi
  • Morrow: 9 minutes against, 33% Corsi
  • Dorsett: 6 minutes against, 57% Corsi
  • McLeod: 5 minutes against, 64% Corsi
  • Clifford, Mayers: Less than five minutes head-to-head

For the most part, these guys just don’t play that much against top-line opponents. As a rookie, Nugent-Hopkins saw lots more of guys like Radim Vrbata, Ray Whitney and Pierre-Marc Bouchard (all of whom he played 25-plus minutes against in 2011-12).

Of course, those (relatively) rare shifts against physical forwards can be significant, too. Morrow is the one guy in this group in either year who had a level of success against Nugent-Hopkins, but it wasn’t because he was pounding the Edmonton rookie into a pulp; watching those games it looked more like it was because Nugent-Hopkins engaged and gave as good as he got:

That was a rarity, though; for the most part Nugent-Hopkins just settled for roundly outplaying the agitators he faced. His real protection wasn’t that the Oilers had Darcy Hordichuk and Ben Eager out there distracting the distractions; to borrow a metaphor his real protection was that opposition coaches didn’t feel like trading a pawn (the chance to land a hit on Nugent-Hopkins) for a more valuable piece (actual dominance of the on-ice play).

That’s going to be McDavid’s defence against the Roussels of the world. It may not hurt that Gazdic’s out there trying to help, and it may not hurt if McDavid stands up for himself the way Nugent-Hopkins did, but at the end of the day his defence is simply that he’s a much better hockey player than most of the league’s agitators and coaches don’t make it to the NHL by routinely seeking matchups in which their players are thoroughly out-classed.

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      • Sheldon "Oilers Fan for Life!!!"

        When he did that I was totally impressed that he was serious about putting his plan in place for the whole team. Then he went about redoing the locker room and getting rid of the pics of the old Oiler heroes. In hindsight it was a big overstep of his authority and all about show. It seems that was what really mattered to him, what happened in the room however did not work. The media are your link to those who pay your salary, the fans. If he had showed up that first day with the material he did and the donuts stating he wanted to give an healthy alternative to everyone it would of been far better.

  • LibrarianMike

    Really interesting — seeing how little those types of players go up against top opponents really makes one wonder what they’re actually doing out there, and whether their effectiveness is overrated. Thanks Jonathan.

  • For Pete's Sake!

    Thanks for this great article JW. I really think the days of an enforcer riding shotgun for a superstar are gone. What worries me the most about a great talent like McDavid is not that they will get hit once in awhile, that’s just part of the game and I’m sure he’s used to it. What worries me is the “cheap shot artists,” like Zack Kassian who purposely and unremorsefully try to injure the other team’s top guy. But a goon isn’t going to stop a coward like that because he’ll just refuse to fight. The only thing that will stop a cheap shot artist is if all the players on the team stand up for each other and punish him right then and there, right after the dirty hit!

  • MacT's Neglected Helmet

    Hmm.

    I agree that enforcers are overrated and probably don’t matter in today’s NHL… but I still think that they have an effect and that effect is hard to measure/see with stats.

    If I go out and wear my favourite fancy shoes, I’m going to feel better about myself. I’m going to be a bit more confident. I’m going to have a bit more swagger. How does one measure something like that? Sure, I might not get any more dates while wearing those shoes (and my wedding ring), but I’m going to feel happier. And yes, my feet are going to hurt sooner because those shoes are not as comfortable as my old running shoes, but um, what was my point again?

    • I don’t think you’re wrong to suggest that there’s a psychological effect to having an enforcer out there; there very well may be and a lot of smart people are convinced that there is.

      I’m only addressing one piece of the puzzle here, and it’s less about enforcers than it is about matchups and who players like McDavid spend their time against.

      • MacT's Neglected Helmet

        If there is a psychological boost in having an enforcer in the lineup. Wouldn’t the way to test it in running the corsi of certain players when Gazdic or Bissonnette etc… appears in the lineup versus when they don’t.

        To keep the bias low, pick players that don’t actually play with these guys so they aren’t affected by the on ice performance but only the supposed Psychological boost. Or only pick shifts without the enforcer in order to test the mental aspect.

        • I’m with you here. The Oiler’s have to play tougher than they did last year. Having tough players in the line up helps the team play bigger but that’s not the sole factor.

          I expect this year that Coach Todd will instill more toughness into the team. Pack attitude. If Gadzic can play without being a liability, it’ll be bonus.

          I can see the enforcer role being gone with the Oiler’s in the future as Nurse and Reinhart physically mature.

      • oilbaron

        Intimidation is a huge part of the game. If you watched Lander closely last year he was getting chirped and poked after every whistle, before every draw and during the play. Plus when he skated to the bench!

        I was surprised how well he ignored it for the most part but he certainly did not dish back like the Nuge did to Morrow. I really think this is what the brass saw and sent him down to OKC as his confidence was waining game by game.

        I’m looking to see how Lander and MCD give back, not just take.

      • PlayDirty

        I’ve always believed that if you go out there and play scared and worry about what might happen, you are more likely to get hurt. If you go out there, keep your head up, and play your own game, you’ll be fine. This is nothing new for him and he is not made of glass. If something happens to him, worry about it then and trust that someone will respond.

  • oilbaron

    There’s gonna be a coach or two who try it for sure. On those nights the team should be cognizant of it and try and send two messages.

    The first, McDavid and Hall should go out and simply blow by whatever plug is out there, and at least create a scoring chance, if not make the team pay dearly.

    The second is they should send Gazdic out the very next time that player is out, and have him knock the lights outta the guy.

    I think that sends the right message to teams and coaches about what will happen in those situations. You’re player is going to get beaten, twice.

  • A-Mc

    We know things are said ice level and intimidation factors are at play with every game that’s played. We know this because the players tell us this.

    This article is trying to use Corsi to explain effectiveness of chirping and intimidation, and im not sure there’s enough there to sell me on either point of view.

    Does it really matter that Nuge’s line got a few more shots vs a plug line? Does Nuge’s line getting more shots mean that what was said on the ice didn’t throw off parts of their game through out the rest of the game? Does a good CORSI-For mean the agitator was unsuccessful in getting under the skin of players that might actually be on the bench?

    Is it possible that an enforcer could get a player or player(s) off their game by abusing/chirping nuge? even if nuge isnt bothered by it?

    For me, this article is pretty far off from explaining away the need for intimidation and chirp-play at ice level. I’m not saying i like bruisers; I’m actually not in support of them but i’m not not in support of them. But in order to support 1 side emphatically, i need a solid argument and CORSI is not something that i feel is complex enough to explain anything here.

  • For Pete's Sake!

    I remember when the oilers decided they didn’t need a George Laraque anymore and didn’t resign him. the oilers got pounded for years and other teams took liberties with our players. They were then forced to go and get Macintyre to protect the oilers stars.

    Gazdic might not play much but I would rather have a Gazdic than not.

    the oilers still need to be tougher as a team but with our top 6 not getting any bigger this year we need a enforcer!!!!

    • I’d like to specifically address your Laraque comment.

      In the Oilers first season post-Laraque, 24 players had at least 10 fighting majors and nine teams fought 40+ times. The league-leading Anaheim Ducks fought on 71 occasions.

      Last season, just seven players had at least 10 fighting majors and only one team fought 40+ times. The league-leading Columbus Blue Jackets fought on 44 occasions.

      That’s such a difference that I don’t really think it works as a straight comparison.

  • For Pete's Sake!

    Ya, I really believe it’s more about just having that guy on the bench and in the room than it is about really trying to enforce or protect McDavid. It’s just an option to have, more psychological than anything…

  • A-Mc

    All I know is that if I was an 18 year old phenom playing in the nhl with men chirping at me and wanting to run me threw the boards, I’d feel better knowing Gazdic was on my side

  • I think that an enforcer as such, just a big goon like a nuclear deterrent, is no longer effective in today’s officiated game.

    A guy who can fight but contributes in a tough, physical, checking way, can be a factor – provided they are at least keeping opposition chances down. A guy that runs out and makes good clean hits can get a team going. Unless a guy like Gazdic can play with a guy like McDavid, it isn’t really a deterent. What could be a deterrent is an eye for eye – you hit my skilled guy hard and dirty, I go out of my way to hit your skilled guy likewise. I’m not a fan of a good clean hit requiring a big scrum/fight; now if it was a questionable hit, then take him out…

    • Spiel

      I think you are correct. Players need to able to do something other than just fight nowadays.

      However, fighting ability is like a bonus that will help a player that has other 3rd/4th liner skills stay in the lineup.

  • Spiel

    I think the concern is what will McDavid do matched up against legit #1 NHL centers and defense. The NHL western conference is big and nasty, and not because of the agitators.

    RNH and company have not done much to alleviate that concern. Played the most minutes on a team that has been no better than terrible for years and years.

  • Rebuilding the Rebuild

    Skill wins. The ‘physical chess’ tactic of throwing out a face punching boogieman for 10min a game = bleeding chances for 10min. I look forward to those match ups.

    • Spiel

      And hard work beats skill that doesn’t work hard. Oilers have had the skill part of the equation for a while.

      Still waiting for the hard work to be added.

      • Rebuilding the Rebuild

        I agree with your statement if the conversation is about actual hockey players. This article talks about the deployment of agitators/goons/and face punchers.

        • Spiel

          Antoine Roussel has scored 13 goals last year, and 14 the year before. That is more than Yakupov. He is an actual NHL player.

          Not many teams employ the one dimensional face punchers that this article is trying to portray. What they do employ are players who have some hockey skill and the ability to agitate, fight, or what I would just call it “compete”.

          The Oilers are not like many teams. Their “skill” players don’t compete, and their “compete” players lack skill.

  • I find it interesting that an NHL tough guy basically tells you what the tough guy role is in the NHL and it’s all-out rebuttal by the stats crowd.

    You may not philosophically agree with the role but to deny its existence and/or relevance in the game makes you look like a nose against the glass outsider.

    • I am an outsider. Perhaps that’s why I like to see evidence offered that supports positions taken.

      If you prefer to just take Bissonnette’s word that Roussel’s a real threat to McDavid rather than looking at how often the Roussels of the world play the McDavids of the world, that’s entirely your prerogative.

      But I’m not at all sure why you’re complaining about a hockey discussion on a hockey blog. Discussions on this and anything else Oilers-related are kind of our raison d’etre.

  • There is more shelter in having a pest player or two for the other team to focus on who isn’t afraid to slap a bigger guy on the ankle for playing McDavid too hard.

    Sweet Tikkanen memories just flashed to mind.

    I’m mostly worried about when McDavid will have to face an angry stare from Benn…I can’t see Purcell jumping in to break the gaze.

  • oilbaron

    i keep having nightmares of a suicide pass by Nikitin, up to mcdavid, who accepts it with his head down and then ultimately gets a concussion from the inevitable hit…… :/

  • I agree with a couple of the other readers that this article is only attempting to address 50% of the equation. A thorough examination would have at least looked for data relevant to the Oilers’ tough guys’ effect on the noted players. To be clear, I have no idea if there is one.

    I would have also liked to have seen some commentary on the tremendous collision with Morrow that lead to RNH’s shoulder injury.

    I am not a fan of the enforcer that cannot play the game. I love a good player that can fight though (Iginla, Shanahan, Howe, Orr, Lecavalier, Lucic… the list is a long and good one). On the other side, it is without a doubt to me that a true nuclear enforcer, like Boogaard was, changed the way Edmonton played. However, Gazdic is not that guy.

    A real study I would like to see is if there is a league wide correlation between the increase in injuries, and the decrease in fighting. That would be illuminating.

  • Gazdic bought back to Edmonton game to send a clear message to Flames and rest of league what there intentions are if they expect a team to run McDavid . It’s exhibition time and time is now to show it .

  • I have zero problem with the Oilers using a deterrent in the way of a Gazdic or anyone similar… but for the love of mercy, can we please hold him and whomever else accountable for not fighting when needed? And following the game up afterwards by citing that he “didn’t want to take the instigator penalty…put us down a man…” when there was 8 minutes left in a 7-0 blowout? If liberties are being made on any of our cornerstone players (any player, really), and punches are indeed the solution, there should be no excuse acceptable when there’s time left and the game is decided.

    Close game, fine. But blowouts? Take the instigator and settle the score.

  • A-Mc

    Sam Gagner was never the same after that ridiculous stick swing from Kassian. Many seem to forget Gagner was our leading scorer the previous season and that hit essentially ended his career.

    If you watched those games prior to acquiring Gazdic you would see the Canucks were running at Hall and Nuge every chance they could get. Call me crazy but Im in the camp that thinks the Gagner injury would not have happened had Gazdic been on that team from the start.

    Look at the skate-by-elbow on Crosby, or the Cooke hit on Erik Karlsson. Its pretty clear enforcers still have a place in todays NHL.

    I’ll put a Luke Gazdic on my team over a Will Acton every day of the week. Call me old-school or out of touch, I don’t care. We have far too many skilled forwards who have minimal toughness to take any chances.

    • For Pete's Sake!

      What happened to Gagner was terrible. But how would Luke Gazdic help? A coward like Kassian will never fight a guy like Gazdic.

      The real tragedy of the Gagner injury was the anemic response by his teamates. I don’t care if you’re Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle or Justin Schultz.

      If your teamate takes a cheap shot on the ice and you don’t show up to defend him right when it happens, there is something very wrong with your team. And you’ll pay the price for the rest of the season, which is exactly what happened the Oilers that year.

      Great teams like the Chicago Blackhawks don’t need goons to protect them because every player on the team is willing to backup his teamate. If the Oilers are ever going to be a winning team, they have to learn this.

  • Cheap Shot Charlie

    I understand the concept of not having an enforcers but that only works when you don’t:

    A) have a coach that punishes guys for sticking up for each other

    B) have guys who are afraid of getting pushed around

    C) have defence who won’t come into the o-zone when there is a tussle to avoid the face off coming into the n-zone

    I’ll take Gazdic and/or any other tough guy until the players learn to stick up for eachother.

  • A-Mc

    Yep i agree.

    Kassian on Gagner – Face Smash.

    Dorsett on Hall – Blown Knee

    Any Bruiser vs Star fight = Star out for 5+ minutes. Pretty decent trade off.

    How many Agitators/Aggressors have taken runs at our skill guys? All of the kid line has been leveled several times at some point during each season because someone is stepping up when they are in a vulnerable position.

    Ference didnt blink an eye popping a guy a few times in the mouth and knocking out teeth. That’s not stuff he’ll be proud of but that kind of thing can happen at any point to anyone. If the threat of that happening to a player is always present, at some point he might want to watch his P’s and Q’s.

  • OilLeak

    The players who play that play will continue to play that way regardless of any “intimidation”. Only way to make the opposing team pay is on the scoreboard.