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Photo Credit: Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

In Search of the Real Milan Lucic

Most interviews with hockey players, and really all pro athletes in North America, are immediately forgettable. The player says little of substance, usually throws in a cliché or two, and the whole things is over relatively quickly, and wiped from my memory shortly thereafter. There are exceptions to this obviously, but nine times out of ten, hell, 99 times out 100, absolutely nothing of substance gets said. I’d love to hear more from players and be offered even a glimpse of what they really think, but given that any player who dares to show even a hint of personality tends to get ripped apart on social media, it is completely understandable that this is what we get.

But even though I find most interviews to be of little value I will listen or watch an interview from time to time. Sometimes I do it just to kill time, but, more often than not, because I need a fix of something Oilers related. Times like early September, for example, when nothing of substance has happened in months and I’m just dying for something, anything hockey related. This was the case last Wednesday when I came across this interview with Milan Lucic.

If you’re looking for clichés, training camp interviews are an absolute gold mine. Player X is in the best shape of his career, or Player Y is looking build off last season, or Player Z is just hopeful that he can find a way to contribute and help make the team better. And while there’s a little of that in this interview, Lucic also gets asked a question about his 5-on-5 play to which he provided a very interesting answer. The question gets asked around the 4:30 mark.

That was one of the things, looking back at last season, where I felt that I really need to improve on going this year is getting back to having that 5-on-5 success, where it’s been the strongest point of my game, always, up until last season, so I’ve got to find a way to not be so reliant on the power play to get goals and to get points so just getting back to being a really good, effective 5-on-5 player is definitely a big point of my game heading into this year.

That’s a good answer and one that shows a pretty strong awareness of what’s made him successful as a player in this league.

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Finishing last season with 23 goals and 27 assists it would be easy to look at the totals and conclude that Lucic had a season that, while certainly not one of his best, wasn’t far off his career average. In fact, I’ve had many fine folks on Twitter do exactly this, and the numbers do make it appear that way. In the six season before joining the Oilers, five with Boston and one with Los Angeles, Lucic averaged 23 goals and 33 assists, just six more points than he scored last season.

The difference between last season and the six before is Lucic’s production on the power play. With the man advantage, last season Lucic scored 12 goals and added 13 assists for a total of 25 points. That total was good enough to place Lucic into a tie for eighth place league wide last season. It’s also a total that’s nearly double his previous career high of 13 power play points which he recorded during the 2010/11 campaign. If you strip those numbers away and look just at his production at 5-on-5 the results are not nearly what we would have expected from him.

You can see from the graph above that last season (numbers courtesy of naturalstattrick.com) the rates at which Lucic recorded points and that the team scored with him on the ice were lowest they’ve been over the last seven seasons. In the previous six seasons Lucic’s team scored 3.14 goals per 60 minutes, last season the Oilers scored at just three-quarters of that rate, 2.33 goals per 60. For those doing the math at home that’s a difference of 15 goals over the course of the season. That Lucic spent 450 of his 1,125 even strength minutes riding shotgun with Connor McDavid makes those results even more surprising. The graph isn’t all bad news though, at least the goals against didn’t go up while goals for dried up.

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When the Oilers decided last summer to sign Lucic to a deal worth $36M over six years (actually seven years and $42M as pointed out in the comments below) I was, well let’s just say, I was skeptical. Lucic was already 28 years of age and it seemed very unlikely to me that he’d be able to cover the bet of this deal for the full six years, at best I thought might be able to do so for four years. And given the impending cap crunch that was going to result from McDavid’s second contract, I would have preferred to avoid having a deal like this on the books through the 2021/22 season. Looking at the deal now, there’s trouble ahead, trouble behind, and we’re just one-year into that six-year (seven) contract.

His play last season may not have been what the Oilers were expecting but I don’t think there is a need to read too much into those results at this point. We’ve seen it many times where a player reaches a point in their career and effectively falls off a cliff, but, even for a player like Lucic who has played a physical game for his entire career, I wouldn’t bet on that happening just yet. If I’m projecting Lucic’s next season I would absolutely consider those results but I wouldn’t assume that that’s his new normal. Realistically, I don’t see any reason (or perhaps don’t want to see) why he can’t do exactly what he said he needed to do which was to get back to being a really good, effective 5-on-5 player.

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THE WRAP…

Apr 1, 2017; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers forward Milan Lucic (27) celebrates his third period gaol against the Anaheim Ducks at Rogers Place. Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Given expectations, he probably got off a little easy last season. His production on the power play helped overshadow the results elsewhere in his game, as did the fact that Patrick Maroon found instant chemistry alongside McDavid and perfectly filled the role that Lucic was supposed to fill, and that the Oilers were winning games for the first in a decade. That cover is unlikely to continue forever though. For starters, Maroon will likely price himself out of Edmonton after this season after which all eyes will be on Lucic. And the team will need to take a step towards being a true contender to match the new expectations set by fans, something that will be much harder to do if Milan Lucic can’t come close to being worth the money that he’s being paid.

Lucic clearly understands that his 5-on-5 play was lacking last season. It makes it easy to correct a problem if you know you’ve got a problem, so here’s to hoping that he knows how to get his game back on track. If not, we might see his answers to questions like this become more cliché and a lot less interesting.

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  • Mitch92

    The only issue I have with Lucic is that he is not doing the job he was brought in to do which was to patrol Connor’s wing. The fact that Patty Maroon clicked with Connor is a blessing because with Lucic struggling on the top line things could have gone south fast. Instead the new top line flourished and Lucic faired alright on the second line. He provides an intimidation factor regardless of where he plays in the line-up. I think line assignments will change again this season with the departure of Ebs, the fact that Drai and Strome can both play center if required and the emergence of Jesse Puljujarvi in the Oilers top six. With Nuge being relegated to third line duties I think this will be his last season in Oiler colours simply because he is overpaid if he is your third line center. Cap considerations will come into play as CMD and Drai’s big deals come into force.

    • The Rookie

      Pretty sure he wasn’t promised Connors Wing. He was brought in to be a big presence with hands, who is hard to get off the puck and wins battles. Regardless of which line he is on.

  • Spydyr

    The Oilers needed what he brings to the team but he will get even slower as he ages. I said it when he signed the last few years of his contract will be ugly.

  • OldOilFan

    Lucic = $6M well spent…
    Milan is one of those [few] unique players in the NHL, and he is NOT particularly “old.” Therefore, his role in shifting the team “psyche” towards winning-toughness-belief in yourself… is WORTH $6M/yr. Recall, that salary is the SAME paid to Taylor Hall and Jordan Ebere…. food for thought 🙂

    • HardBoiledOil 1.0

      well spent indeed. he brings more to the table than Eberle did and some fans quite joyfully said that we couldn’t afford to lose his production, yet fans seem to have forgotten that Ebs as well went through long stretches of not scoring and was stuck on 16 until the last few games of the season. i wonder if fans would have claimed his value to us if he’d finished the season with just 16 goals while not bringing much of anything else to the table? at least Looch brings a few other things to the table that we needed that a guy like Eberle didn’t like toughness and hard hitting play and dropping the gloves when needed. i’d still rather have Looch on this team than a one dimensional player like Eberle for roughly the same amount of money!

    • Frank Rizza

      I wish I could upvote this a million times…he’s worth every penny in my opinion.

      I watched every minute of the decade of despair and how this team got pushed around and nobody wanted to skip up for the best players, Lucic changed all of that instantly! It wasn’t as if it was a slow gradual thing throughout the season and the Oilers got tougher, it was these guys have the toughest guy in the league and he can play 18 minutes a night so let’s not fu** with them. There is almost no bs after the whistles when he’s on the ice. I’ll take that any day over having the softest team in the league like we were after souray left.

    • kiaora

      I agree – just because Maroon was a steal / better suited to CMD’s wing, doesn’t make Lucic a poor signing. For years everyone was complaining about the “Coke Machine” signings the Oilers made when we signed big guys. Now we have big guys who put up points and provide the space for the small skilled folks, and people are still complaining. I’d do this signing again in a heartbeat – I wouldn’t downplay the intangibles on leadership he brings either as a supporter to CMD.

    • Ryan Batty

      I’m not a huge fan of that deal. Eberle is far from a perfect player but he certainly looks like a better player offensively. Strome might really click with McDavid, or Chiarelli might use the extra cap space to make the team better, but as it stands right now I don’t see how that trade helps much.

    • Shameless Plugger

      Nice OT win. Gambredella looks like a fiesta player. Starrett looked uncomfortable making saves and really bad positionally. I suspect he was a tad nervous. Oilers win rookie tourney again. So much for the mouth breathers down south saying we have no prospect depth.

      • Shameless Plugger

        *fiesty. Dag nab-it.

        Seriously though baggedmilk the comment section is absolutely hideous. Regardless of a missing edit button. The format was waaaaaaaayyyyyyyy better before and it’s not even close.

  • btrain

    I think a good case scenario for Lucic is if he can replicate Hartnell’s post 30 career. Hartnell, though not as intimidating, has played a heavy brand of hockey for many years. Only as a 34/35 year old this past season did Hartnell score less than 20 goals since turning 30 years old (aside from lockout). Age wise, Hartnell is going into what would be Lucic’s last year as an Oiler. I think it makes for a good comparison and will give us an idea of what we might expect in a few years.

  • BlueHairedApe

    I’m hoping for the best but there was a couple things that stood out to me last year. While I wish he could be crashing the net every shift because that’s one of the things he’s good at I wasn’t impressed by his skating or his speed. Also his stick handling or should I say turnovers through the neutral zone reminded me of Taylor Hall except he didn’t fall down as much. Still, love the toughness and intimidation factor. And he did have some really strong games. Hoping this year he is more consistent.

  • Space Pants

    Too many people worrying about 34-35 year old Looch than the right now 29 year old, who like McDavid and Draisaitl, have the DESIRE to win. (cue the Ozzy “Desire” track with Zakk Wylde)

    A flames fan I work with said it perfectly to me when we signed him, would you rather have Looch on your team or play against him?

    • Jaxon

      I get what you’re saying but if his production decreases and he slows down any further, I think I’d rather play against him. He can’t hit what he can’t catch, and you can always just walk away from Lucic in an NHL where fighting is really in decline. He already looked agonizingly slow last season, he often stood still watching the play change around him, and often made some real brain fart moves with the puck that led to chances against. It was hard to watch.

  • Oil_Thick

    I was stoked when they signed him, but based on the graph provided I expect a further decline in his 5/5 production. 2015/16 looks like an anomaly, maybe a little extra motivation with coming to the end of a contract? If the declining production continues over the next 7 years in line with the last 7 years he’ll be 4th line enforcer by the 4th year of this contract.

  • Jaxon

    Yup. They found the real Lucic when they picked up Maroon. I sure hope he turns it around because that contract is going to suck for the next 6 years if he doesn’t. And it’s a completely unmovable contract. It can’t even be bought out with any real benefit and nobody will trade to take that contract on in a trade after his NMC clause becomes a modified NMC if he’s not playing well.