Luke
Gazdic is the most skilled Oilers forward when it comes to fisticuffs, but if
he is going to be a regular in the lineup he’ll need to be more than just a
fighter. Gazdic lost a few pounds — not that he was too heavy, he simply wanted to
get leaner and quicker.
But he
made it clear yesterday that doesn’t mean he is trying to forget the role that
got him to the NHL.
The Oilers
have not been team tough for a few seasons. They have been the easiest team to
play against in the western conference. That must change this season, and
toughness, grit and togetherness has to come from all the players, not just
Gazdic.
You also
need a head coach who is willing to dress a player like Gazdic. In his time in
San Jose, McLellan showed he likes to have some muscle in the lineup.
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In his
first season as head coach in San Jose, Jody Shelley dressed 70 games and Brad
Staubitz dressed 35.
The next year
Staubitz dressed 47 times, Shelley played 36 games before being traded, but
McLellan replaced him with a younger tough guy, Frazer McLaren, and he played in
23 games after Shelley’s departure
In the
past five seasons he’s used different physical players: Jamaal Mayers dressed
78 games in 2010. He had John Scott last season and acquired Mike Brown from
the Oilers in 2014.
McLellan
doesn’t play goon hockey, but his resume shows he likes having a physical
player in the lineup.
Gazdic
got leaner because he wanted to be quicker. He recognized he needed to improve
his overall game if he wants to play more. He will need to be very good along
the boards in his own end, and he must make good decisions with the puck at the
offensive blueline. He can’t turn pucks over. I thought Gazdic looked fine when
Todd Nelson played him close to ten minutes a game last season.
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It is
extremely difficult to make any impact on the game when you only play five or
six minutes, but when Gazdic played 9-10 minutes I felt he was effective. He
wasn’t a defensive liability. He made smart plays with the puck, and he skated
fairly well for a big man.
He is
also one of the toughest players in the league, and I suspect with Connor
McDavid arriving on the scene, McLellan will want Gazdic’s skillset in the
lineup.
Gazdic is
well aware of McDavid’s importance to the franchise.
“There
aren’t going to be many guys who will take a run at him, but if they do there
will be a price to pay for that. I want to make him feel as comfortable as
possible,” Gazdic said yesterday after an informal skate at the Royal
Glenora.
I have no
doubt Gazdic will want to try and protect his young roommate/teammate, but to
do it properly you need a head coach who trusts you can do it correctly, or be
willing to live with the consequences — a penalty — when you cross the line.
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Intimidation
is still part of the game. Gazdic can’t protect the Oilers skill forwards the
way Dave Semenko, Marty McSorley and Kevin McClelland could in the 1980s. The
game has changed. The instigator penalty along with video review means Gazdic
has to do it within the rules. It is difficult, but still possible.
If I was
McLellan I’d have Gazdic and Matt Hendricks as my fourth line wingers to start
the season. The Oilers need team toughness, and if you have one of the toughest
guys in the league it is easier for everyone else to find their appropriate
level of toughness.
Toughness
isn’t just fighting, far from it, in fact. It is standing up for your teammates.
It is standing up for yourself. It is being willing to go into a scrum to
protect a teammate even if you are outnumbered. The Oilers need more on-ice
togetherness, but they still need a tough guy like Gazdic.
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If Gazdic
can show McLellan he is reliable defensively and not turn the puck over
offensively, I suspect McLellan will give him every opportunity to play 60+
games.
I believe
Gazdic is up for the challenge, and with more skill on the top-nine, no one
should worry about his offensive production. That isn’t his role and if the
top-three lines are doing their job, then any points he produces will be an
added bonus.
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