I’ve always had a preference for players who bring a combination of skill and toughness and who can beat you on the scoreboard and in the alley. I’m not talking about sluggos, but hard-nosed players who find a way to prevail no matter how you want to play it. Guys willing and able to do whatever it takes, be it scoring a big goal or knocking somebody’s teeth down their throat.
At the top end, I’m talking about guys like Mark Messier and Cam Neely or, for the fossils in the crowd like me, Gordie Howe. For my money, Mr. Hockey was the best of the bunch. There’s only a handful of players cut from that cloth in the league at any one time, and I can’t think of any others who have been as skilled and scary as those three aforementioned HHOF guys.
Milan Lucic does not belong in that tier — not close — but he can bring the nasty and intangibles that come with it to go with the ability to score 25 goals and get 55 points a year. It’s no surprise, then, I really liked the acquisition of Lucic by the Edmonton Oilers in the summer of 2016. I actually said I loved it, even if the seven-year contract at $42 million was a year or two too long in my mind. Even so, after so many years of watching other teams push the Oilers around and take their lunch money, I thought he’d be the perfect complement to Connor McDavid and the rest,
After 82 regular season games last season and 13 more in the playoffs, here we are seven games into 2017-18 with the Oilers shuffling along at 2-5-0 and I’m still waiting for Lucic to provide the impact and the big bang I thought he would. This is my kind of player, but for me, Lucic has only been OK since signing that deal. Some fans would say I’m being generous in that assessment. Call me underwhelmed. I expect more from him. You?
THERE’S GOT TO BE MORE
If you polled fans across the NHL at the start of last season and asked them to name the top three power forwards in the game, I bet Lucic would have been in virtually everybody’s top three. While big No. 27 finished about where you’d expect in terms of overall production based on his career numbers with 23-27-50, I can’t remember more than a handful of games where I thought he was markedly better than just OK.
While Lucic was off the charts in terms of career-highs on the power play, scoring 12-13-25, he was less than overwhelming at even-strength, with 11-14-25. His time alongside McDavid didn’t last long. In the playoffs, Lucic was again mostly lukewarm, save for a game or two, with 2-4-6. This from a player who had more playoff experience than anybody else on the roster. Numbers aside, how often did Lucic grab a game by the scruff of the neck?
The Oilers raised the bar by going two rounds deep in the playoffs last spring after a decade of nothingness. I expected Lucic, having had a season to settle in here, to lead the way at the front of a more confident, experienced group right off the hop to start this season. I expected he would be a notch more impactful than he was a year ago and that we’d see more of the swagger he talked about when he first arrived. Remember what Lucic said?
“I can tell you from an opponent’s standpoint, you were never scared or intimidated heading into a game against the Oilers,” Lucic said after signing his deal. “That’s something we all have to change as a group. That attitude, that swagger, you have to build it as a team. You’ve got to have the right kind of cockiness, knowing you can win every game. You can’t be arrogant, but … be a harder team to play against. Wave after wave, shift after shift. That’s how the process of being a harder team to play against starts.”
THE WAY I SEE IT
Lucic should consistently be at the front of the line when it comes to the process of making the Oilers a harder team to play against. That’s not to say this lousy start falls on him, but at his pay grade and with his experience and ability, Lucic has to take a little more rope than lesser players and move things along. He’s been that guy before. That’s what the Oilers are paying for.
At 29, Lucic should have a few good years left in him. I think he probably deserves the benefit of the doubt, at least for the time being. Even in his early 20s, Lucic wasn’t fleet of foot, but he was always quick enough to get there and mean and skilled enough to make something happen when he did. We’ve seen some flashes of that, but from where I sit not nearly enough of them. We’re in year two of that big deal he signed, not year six.
Get after it, big man.