Style vs. substance and the Edmonton Oilers

Jonathan Willis
March 11 2013 02:55PM

There’s a school of thought that suggests playoff hockey is war, and the team with the biggest, strongest players will carry the day every time. Is that kind of team necessary to win in the post-season, and if so what do the Oilers need to do to get there themselves?

The Ducks and the Red Wings

In 2006-07, the Anaheim Ducks won their first Stanley Cup, and they did it with a team that any old-school hockey man would love. They took 71 major penalties; the second-place team in the league took just 47. George Parros alone had 18 majors, more than three full NHL teams. They had more players with a fight than Detroit had fights. Hits are a notoriously finicky stat, due to things like home bias, but no team in the league recorded more hits on the road. Their top-six had skill, but it also had grit – the “nothing line” of Pahlsson, Niedermayer and Moen got heavy minutes – Pahlsson played more than any Ducks forward not named Ryan Getzlaf – and even a lot of their skill players were massive. It was a take-no-prisoners, dominate-physically style of hockey, and it worked.

The next season, the Detroit Red Wings won it all. They did it playing a style of game that would be anathema for many hockey men. Fighting was up league-wide in the wake of Anaheim’s win, but Detroit finished last with 21 major penalties – half of them coming from a player (Aaron Downey) who would not dress for a single post-season game. Four different players had more fights than the entire Detroit team. They didn’t hit much, either – the Red Wings were a bottom-five team in road hits – and they were small, too – the team’s five most-used forwards in the playoffs that season were all 6’ or shorter, as were seven of their top-nine (though strength was clearly not a problem, with the top six all listed at 195 pounds or more). This was a team that played against type - their forwards were not overly big by NHL standards, they didn't fight, and (comparatively) they didn't hit. They won anyway.

It would be difficult to imagine two more dissimilar Stanley Cup Champions, stylistically. The two teams placed entirely different priorities on the importance of traditional physical play – Anaheim emphasized it; Detroit all but ignored it. What both teams shared was competence: both the Ducks and Red Wings dominated the shot clock in the regular and post-season, and ultimately both ran up a crooked ratio of goals for versus goals against.

The Edmonton Oilers

Grit is a funny thing. We tend to define grit as physical play – a big (typically North American) guy who hits a lot fits the sterotype. But few would argue against Pavel Datsyuk as a gritty player – because he’s hard on the puck. He doesn’t lose it often and he’s a constant threat to take it when he doesn’t have it. Datsyuk’s a small European who rarely hits, but I can’t think of a single player in the Western Conference who plays a tougher possession game.

Looking at the Oilers’ personnel, I just don’t see them as an Anaheim-style team. With Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle, Nail Yakupov and Sam Gagner as four of the top-six forwards long-term, they aren’t built for it. Even with only three of those guys in the top-six (imagining, for instance, that Gagner is dealt for a bigger player), they can’t mimic the wall of size that the Ducks played with in 2007. But as Detroit showed, they don’t necessarily have to – if they can play a hard puck-possession game (something that they remain a significant distance from mastering) they can still win.

That, to me, is where the emphasis should lie. All else being equal size is always better than a lack of size, but the primary emphasis should be on players that do a good job of maintaining possession. Big guys like Nathan Horton in Boston and Ryane Clowe in San Jose – both pending unrestricted free agents as of this writing – fit the bill. Big guys like Ben Eager do not. And if the choice comes down to a big, flawed player or a mid-sized guy who rarely surrenders possession and never does without a battle, the team should take the latter player each and every time.

Basically, it’s the old ‘the size of the fight in the dog matters, not the size of the dog in the fight’ adage. If the Oilers have a team of players willing and able to do whatever it takes keep possession, to generate chance after chance while limiting the opposition’s opportunities, they can win. And maybe I’m looking at it through rose-coloured glasses, but a lot of the guys on the team seem to have those qualities, though a lot of them are still well back of their prime years right now. As they gain in maturity and experience, I think they can form the core of a contending team. The trick is to augment those players with others – big or small – who don’t give up on the play, who dominate possession and show equal ferocity on the fore-check and the back-check. That kind of grit sometimes shows up in hit counts or fighting majors, but it always shows up in shot totals and goal totals. It’s that substance, regardless of the style of the team, that won championships for Detroit and Anaheim.

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Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, the Edmonton Journal and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.
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#101 washed up
March 11 2013, 11:45PM
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@The Beaker

I was implying that the oilers would be trading away the 40pts player. Just using those number as examples.

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#102 2004Z06
March 11 2013, 11:49PM
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The problem with continuing to build through the draft is that by the time the players we are waiting for a couple top D men and som sizeable, gritty forwards develop into consistent NHL'ers, the top six will be long gone or we won't be able to afford them all. The window is not as large as many think it is.

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#103 Old Retired Guy
March 11 2013, 11:50PM
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Oiler Al wrote:

JDI... Oilers have 9 forwards and 1 defense that under 200 lbs. Montreal has 10 forwards and 2 defense men under 200lbs. So really close in the weight category. Height helps a bit, but really if you are 5'9" or 6'1" there is no great advantage. Weight and some muscle make a difference, plus some technique. There are /were a lot of short guys that play hard on the puck , tough to move hockey. [ look at Marchand @ Boston] etc.

Its fighting for and not giving up the puck.\. plus finishing your checks that makes teams tough.

yeah.......but taking a guy on the opposing team and smashing his face in makes a team tough too..... it's really hard to go top cheese with a detached retina.....

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#104 Old Retired Guy
March 11 2013, 11:53PM
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I'm trying to be a patient Oiler fan......but MAN it felt good when Brown pummeled those last couple of guys.......did more for me than any of the goals we've scored in the last 4 games....

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#105 washed up
March 12 2013, 12:01AM
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@Old Retired Guy

You may be right. Maybe I should have said Omark and something else that would have been more in line with "MOST" of the trade ideas around here.

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#106 Old Retired Guy
March 12 2013, 12:09AM
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Dog Train wrote:

I'm a believer in having an identity and then playing to that identity. It's clear that the Oilers' strength is speed and skill. It would be nice to have a bigger player or two who can play with that skill but we should not acquire size just for the sake of getting bigger.

Agreed......not JUST for the sake of getting bigger......but for getting bigger, running goalies and knocking guys teeth out.

Speed, Skill and Scars......

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#107 Old Retired Guy
March 12 2013, 12:11AM
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washed up wrote:

You may be right. Maybe I should have said Omark and something else that would have been more in line with "MOST" of the trade ideas around here.

Not Maybe........it's right up there at the top of all your posts.......it says your washed up.

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#108 Old Retired Guy
March 12 2013, 12:21AM
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@Old Retired Guy

Kudos to DSF on this chain......some days its like shooting fish in a barrell... :)

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#109 Old Retired Guy
March 12 2013, 12:24AM
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Old Retired Guy wrote:

Kudos to DSF on this chain......some days its like shooting fish in a barrell... :)

Can you do one where you trade Taylor Hall for David Steckle.....I'm dying to see how many responses you'd get. :)

I've got to hand it to you....on this site....You are the straw that stirs the drink!

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#110 David S
March 12 2013, 12:46AM
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justDOit wrote:

It seemed to me, that whoever Omark was on the ice with, had no idea of what he was going to do - leaving him alone during some critical plays along the boards. Sure he turned the puck over a good number of times, but it's difficult to pick out who should have been in position to help, so it's easiest to just blame O!.

It's entirely possible Omark might have improved some major deficits in his game over in Europe too.

I will say this. If he's played with the right linemates in an offensive role, he will do well. Perhaps not on the Oilers, because god knows we don't need more scoring in our bottom 6.* But I truly believe he will make an NHL team and turn into one of those (many) guys we whine about trading for years to come.

*Sarcasm

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#111 count
March 12 2013, 01:49AM
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Saytalk wrote:

Those aren't rose-coloured glasses Willis, those are rose-coloured beer goggles. I thought only the Tambo apologists were still fawning over how every one of our lottery picks is the next Datsyk/Zetterberg and Crosby/Malkin.

A lot of these youngers guys don't look like "possession players" as you so label them. If they had any fight to regain the puck, why aren't they backchecking hard and preventing the high shots against? If they had the skill to keep the puck, why are they getting dominated at even strength? Why can't they even battle for the puck in the faceoff circle or in the corners? So they're young, I get that, but where is the progress? Run a stopwatch on how long these guys hold onto the puck in the offensive zone at even strength and tell me they know anything about possession.

Right now I see six flashy powerplay specialists (Nuge, Hall, Ebs, J.Schultz, Yak, Gags) who are not receiving the kick-in-the-pants scream-and-throw-sticks coaching or the Cup-winning-veteran-on-his-line mentoring that would develop some substance to go with the style.

Welcome to year 7 of the Kevin Lowe infini-build.

Worst post read ever.what crazy comments you poster.This post makes washed up post even worse.Come on it does have to do with being young.Look at Ganger ,we are now reping our rewards with him.Wait till their atlest twenty three to talk

Crazy moron.

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#112 Mr. Sense common
March 12 2013, 02:03AM
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Saytalk wrote:

Those aren't rose-coloured glasses Willis, those are rose-coloured beer goggles. I thought only the Tambo apologists were still fawning over how every one of our lottery picks is the next Datsyk/Zetterberg and Crosby/Malkin.

A lot of these youngers guys don't look like "possession players" as you so label them. If they had any fight to regain the puck, why aren't they backchecking hard and preventing the high shots against? If they had the skill to keep the puck, why are they getting dominated at even strength? Why can't they even battle for the puck in the faceoff circle or in the corners? So they're young, I get that, but where is the progress? Run a stopwatch on how long these guys hold onto the puck in the offensive zone at even strength and tell me they know anything about possession.

Right now I see six flashy powerplay specialists (Nuge, Hall, Ebs, J.Schultz, Yak, Gags) who are not receiving the kick-in-the-pants scream-and-throw-sticks coaching or the Cup-winning-veteran-on-his-line mentoring that would develop some substance to go with the style.

Welcome to year 7 of the Kevin Lowe infini-build.

WOW, agree 100%. Why is it that so few people see this?? We can NEVER win anything with juvenile midgets, no matter how skilled they are. Grit is defined as not being knocked off the puck?? Wtf!! Comparing the genius Dats to any current oiler is laughable.

The oil need these 4 players (or their DNA) to succeed: Steve Ott Brandon Dubinsky Wayne Simmons Curtis Glencross

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#113 Curcro
March 12 2013, 05:02AM
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How much bigger do you think Brown is than Gagner? Look it up..

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#115 Lochenzo
March 12 2013, 01:25PM
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While Getzlaf, Perry and Penner were great during that playoff drive, the #1 line of that Anaheim team was Andy McDonald, Chris Kunitz and Teemu Selanne. Skill is the most valuable commodity a team could add and for good reason. You win with skill!

When the Hawks retooled after their Cup win, the guys they shipped out were Byfuglien, Ladd and Versteeg. All valuaable contributors to the Cup win, but Bowman correctly chose to retain his skill players. Toews, Kane, Hossa. This is the core that has them back at the top once again.

The skill players should the core of the Oilers. The trick is finding the complements that will get them to the next level.

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#116 DSF
March 12 2013, 06:30PM
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@Walter Sobchak

Huberdeau is stealing Hopkins lunch money too.

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