Staples: Who will make hard plays at net for Oilers in upcoming season?
Magnus Paajarvi led Edmonton in 2013, but he has since been traded
EDMONTON - Where the toughness and net presence is going to come from on the Edmonton Oilers in 2013-14 remains a mystery, even as the team has rid itself of non-physical forwards such as Eric Belanger.
In his two seasons with the Oilers, Belanger played 1,154 even-strength minutes. In all that time, only four times did he make a hard play at the net on a scoring chance.
That works out to 0.05 hard plays at the net for every 15 minutes of even-strength play. Not good.
By comparison, fellow former Oilers centre Shawn Horcoff played 1,506 even-strength minutes the past two seasons and made 27 hard plays at the net on scoring chances. That works out to 0.26 hard plays per 15, about five times as frequent as Belanger.
A hard play at the net is defined as screening the goalie, jamming at a loose puck in the crease, charging hard at net with the puck or deflecting or tipping a puck on a scoring chance opportunity. It’s the kind of thing you will hear NHL coaches go on about, and on about, and on about. They’re keen for hard plays in the blue paint.
The Oilers weren’t strong at this task in 2013. Magnus Paajarvi was the team leader. In fact, Paajarvi, now traded to the St. Louis Blues, was improving on taking the puck hard to the net, so much so that at even strength, no Oilers forward came close to putting up as many hard plays at the net in 2013. Paajarvi often lowered his shoulder and drove the puck into the blue paint and sometimes screened the goalie on shots as well.
Paajarvi made 26 such hard plays on scoring chances ar even strength in 2013. Next best was Jordan Eberle with 15, but Eberle played more even-strength minutes. He put up 0.30 hard plays at the net per 15, while Paajarvi put up 0.75 per 15.
Next best was Ryan Jones, 0.44 per 15, then Ryan Smyth, 0.36 per 15.
Paajarvi isn’t the only Oilers forward with a high number of hard plays at the net on scoring chances to be sent packing in recent years. Horcoff, Dustin Penner and Teemu Hartikainen were also strongish in this category, especially on the power play, where they did a good job of screening and jamming opposing goalies.
In the short 2013 season, burly Hartikainen did by far the best job of it, making 4.2 hard plays at the net on Oilers scoring chances for every 15 minutes of power play time. But Hartikainen never won the trust of the coaching staff, he also got hurt, and he’s playing in Russia this year.
Next best was Paajarvi, who made 3.1 hard plays per 15 power-play minutes. Horcoff was at 1.7 per 15. Horcoff had likely lost enough skill to age and injury that he was no longer a strong choice for power play time.
The Oilers still have Smyth, who has made a career out of making hard plays at the net, but he’s likely in the same boat as Horcoff, having lost enough skill due to age to make him a question mark on the power play. In a pinch, he might have to do, though Ryan Jones put up excellent numbers in 2010-11 when it comes to making hard plays on power plays. That year Jones made 4.6 per 15. He followed it up with a decent 2.7 per 15 in 2011-12, before getting pretty much shut out of power play time last year.
Jones isn’t any kind of great attacking player, but if he’s willing to take the hits, sticks and punches, he’s likely the best bet for this job in 2013-14, unless a newcomer like Jesse Joensuu takes over.
The Oilers could also choose to run their power play without this kind of Tomas Holmstrom player in front of the net. That may well work at times. That said, if the Oilers power play is going to have sustained success, it’s almost certainly going to need to play this card, and in 2013-14 this opens up a major opportunity.
There’s no shortage of immensely skilled, smaller attacking forwards on the Oilers, but it’s a huge unknown right now whether or not the Oilers will get the necessary physical play from bigger wingers like Jones, Joensuu, or even newcomer Ryan Hamilton, who played for new coach Dallas Eakins in the AHL.
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