Cult of Hockey: Edmonton Oilers need more net crashers
Ryan Smyth, of course, leads the way in this category, but NHL team could use more presence in front of opposing goalies
EDMONTON — So far this year, the Edmonton Oilers have been dominated and drubbed by the best and the biggest of NHL teams, most recently by the Boston Bruins this past Saturday.
To beat those teams, the Oilers are going to need not only size but also more fight, a group of “driver” type players, as Oilers GM Craig MacTavish has called them, players who constantly and fearlessly drive hard to the net to score goals.
Right now, the Oilers’ leader in this category is Ryan Smyth, who will be 38 later this month and is no longer a strong, top-line player. Smyth is doing his best as an old man of the NHL, but he needs help.
I’ve tracked such hard plays at the net — hard charges on net with the puck, jams, screens and deflections — on all Oilers scoring chances for the past four seasons.
This year, Smyth has 49 such hard plays at the net on scoring chances, most of them on his wraparound move. David Perron is next with 37, Ales Hemsky 23, Taylor Hall 22, Ryan Jones 20, Boyd Gordon 18, Jordan Eberle 16, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins 14, Sam Gagner 8, and Nail Yakupov 7.
Newcomer Matt Hendricks already has three, so he’ll help in this department. Big wingers Jesse Joensuu and Luke Gazdic have just 10 and four, respectively, largely because they lack the finesse to be involved in many scoring chances.
After the 4-0 loss to the Bruins, Oilers head coach Dallas Eakins addressed the deficit in this area, saying he was discouraged with how few scoring chances his team had generated, just six against Boston by my count.
“We’ve got to find a way to get more pucks to the net and, more importantly, have people that want to go the net — not being told to go to the net — that want to go there and go to those dirty areas,” Eakins told reporters.
The Oilers average 14.8 hard or dangerous shots on net from the slot per game, but they run up their totals, posting 20-plus scoring chance games, only against weak defensive teams such as Winnipeg, Toronto, Columbus and Florida.
In 13 games against powerhouse teams such as Los Angeles, Boston and St. Louis, the Oilers have regularly generated just 10 or 11 scoring chances.
What’s needed on each of the Oilers’ top lines is at least one player with this lust for battle in close to the net. Perhaps Perron can fill that role on one line and maybe the 20-year-old Yakupov on another, despite his poor net presence so far this year.
It would certainly do Yakupov well to become more consistently abrasive. The young Russian forward isn’t slow or unskilled, but he lacks the breakaway speed and top drawer on-ice vision to be a top point getter without making far more hard plays at the net.
For him to thrive, he’s got to drive, and drive hard and regularly, with the puck to the net.
In light of the Oilers’ need here, the persistent rumour that Sam Gagner might soon be dealt makes sense.
The rumour has been talked about incessantly for a month now, most recently on Monday, when CBC’s Elliotte Friedman told a Calgary radio station that Edmonton and Los Angeles have talked: “The Kings have some legitimate interest in Gagner, and I think those two teams have talked very seriously.”
The Kings aren’t keen to give up a roster player and would also like the Oilers to keep some of Gagner’s upcoming $4.8 million-per-season salary against the Edmonton salary cap, Friedman said.
Gagner has been slow to recover from a broken jaw this year, but in recent weeks, he has demonstrated a burst of strong defensive play. With better health, his offensive game should take off after the Olympics.
Los Angeles needs scoring. They are 29th in goals per game in the NHL, but they have plenty of large, tough wingers who should interest the Oilers, namely Dwight King (24 years old 6-foot-4, 230 pounds), Jordan Nolan (24, 6-foot-3 221-pounds), and Kyle Clifford (23, 6-foot-2, 211-pounds).
There’s no doubt the Oilers are in need of such robust wingers. The team can’t count on Smyth to do the heavy lifting forever.
With his willingness to take a hit, his heavy shovel of a stick, and his combative attitude, Smyth is a master of this dark art, but the Oilers are in great need of one or two other strong practitioners.
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