Why the heck are the Oilers playing Ladi Smid at such a young age? Shouldn’t he be developing his craft in the AHL rather than getting his baptism-by-fire at the NHL level? Haven’t we seen enough scenes like the above?
Such questions are cannon fodder for the ongoing Oilogosphere debate between those who like watching young players develop vs. those who lean towards veteran solutions to plug perceived holes on the roster. Those who have read my commentary over the past year will likely realize I have a strong preference towards the former. Bear in mind that I watched all the myriad of mistakes of a club that simultaneously * featured six emerging youngsters age 21 and under; today all six are in (or en route) the Hockey Hall of Fame, so that time it worked out all right. It doesn’t always, obviously, but perhaps that explains my bias.
This week the experience-vs.-potential debate has turned to young Smid, both in my previous post on Oil Droppings and in this comments thread over at Lowetide. Are the Oilers rushing Ladi? In his defence I mentioned names like Chris Pronger, Jay Bouwmeester, Brent Burns, and Robyn Regehr as guys who were minus machines at the start of their career but took off once they gained the requisite experience. I immediately accused myself of cherry-picking and decided to do a little more rigorous research on the subject. So here goes …
Once again availing myself of the on-line bible Hockey-Reference.com, I went through 15 years of entry draft records, 1990-2004, identifying defencemen who were picked among the top 10 selections. HR doesn’t list their positions on that database, but let’s just say there were a lot more familiar names in that elite draft list than unfamiliar ones, so I just spot-checked the doubtfuls. I came up with a list of 45 blue-chip blue-liners that went near the top of their draft class. Interesting fact #1 is that 45/150 = exactly 30%, which “coincidentally” is the solution to the well-known roster equations 6 of 20 and 7 of 23.
None of the 45 were selected by the Oilers, and while a few (Hamrlik, Pronger, Brewer, Pitkanen) subsequently spent time in Edmonton, Smid is the only one to actually begin his career here.
Interestingly, every last one of the 45 blue-chippers has subsequently played in the NHL, anywhere from a cup of coffee (Boris Valabik, 2004, 7 games to date) to a long, distinguished career (Darryl Sydor, 1990, 1171 GP). As a group they have so far played 22,998 regular season games, more than 500 per, an average that will continue to soar since over 30 of these guys are still active. NHL scouts know their stuff.
[Amazing trivia: of the 25 Entry Drafts 1979-2003, 248 of the 250 players chosen in the Top 10 have actually played in the NHL! For extra points, name the two hotshots who never got a single cup of coffee. Answer below]
I’m particularly interested in the blue-chip defencemen’s performance as youngsters, and since Smid himself has just completed his 21-year-old season I chose that age as the cutoff (“hockey age” as defined by Hockey-reference.com). Of the 45 guys all but three (Ruslan Salei, Lance Ward, Lars Jonsson) played their first games at or before that age. 32 of the 45 had played at least 50 GP and 23, a rank majority, had over 100 NHL games by that age. As a group they averaged 113 GP through their 21-year-old season. Having completed his 21-year-old season with 142 GP, Ladi Smid ranks 21st, right in the middle of the pack.
So how did these guys fare in their early years? I chose +/- as the best available statistic of record. Interestingly, as a group these hot shot draft choices are virtually at the waterline with a collective -21 in those 23000 GP. Even more interesting are the splits: Up to 21: 5069 GP, -291 (-0.057/GP) 22 & up: 17929 GP, +270 (+0.015/GP) Totals: 22998 GP, -21, (-0.001/GP)
Surely that’s enough of a difference to be statistically significant.
Like most statistical studies, the samples are far from pure and we must recognize their limitations: For starters, +/- is not a perfect stat. (Eh, David?) Where ATOI numbers are available, virtually all played fewer minutes/GP in the early years, very probably against lesser QualComp (which is unavailable except for the most recent draft classes). Presumably coaches generally “sheltered” these guys early in their career, which would tend to reduce their raw minus figures. OTOH, guys drafted in the top 10 are generally coming in to non-playoff teams, so there might be an early-career bias towards minus figures due to team effects. As the team improves to the mean, the player’s stats should improve with them. But the player’s own improvement would contribute to that team improvement. Such self-referential data is apt to be corrupted no matter how you slice it. Conclusion: Handle with caution, but the career arcs from minus to plus of entire groups of players must to some extent reflect their growth as players.
One problem is that the data includes the early careers of all 45 players, but the mid-careers of a smaller number and the late careers of relatively few. Since two-thirds of them, 28 of 42, were minus players in the under-22 portion of their careers, this skews the overall result to make the entire group appear to be average (even) players when clearly they are not. To eliminate this built-in bias I therefore did a separate sort of just those 15 blue-chippers -- again, exactly 30% -- drafted in the Top 10 in the five drafts 1990-94. Some of these guys are still going strong, but their careers are pretty well defined at this point. I will show just this smaller table to confirm the method:
Year Pick Player ******** up to 21 22 & up *************************** GP +/- GP +/- --------------------------------------------- 1990 7 Darryl Sydor ****** 182 -14 989 +38 1990 8 Derian Hatcher ***** 193 -1 852 +75 1990 9 John Slaney ********* 47 +3 221 -29 1990 10 Drake Berehowsky *** 50 -5 499 -43 1991 3 Scott Niedermayer * 213 +62 888 +122 1991 4 Scott Lachance ***** 166 +7 653 -83 1991 5 Aaron Ward *********** 5 +2 692 -44 1991 8 Richard Matvichuk ** 92 -14 704 +60 1992 1 Roman Hamrlik ***** 261 -77 815 +13 1992 3 Mike Rathje ******* 116 -26 652 +52 1992 5 Darius Kasparaitis * 155 +9 708 +30 1993 2 Chris Pronger ***** 202 -33 738 +186 1994 1 Ed Jovanovski ***** 212 -16 609 -26 1994 2 Oleg Tverdovsky *** 246 -17 467 -4 1994 10 Nolan Baumgartner *** 5 -1 126 +5
Up to 21: 2145 GP, -121 (-0.056/GP) 22 & up: 9613 GP, +352 (+0.037/GP) Totals: 11758 GP, +231 (0.020/GP)
Given that exactly 2/3 (10 of 15) were minus players through age 21 this player sample would seem to be representative of the larger group. Results varied from player to player, from the freakish Niedermayer to the slow-developing Pronger, but as a group they improved by about +1 for every 10 GP after their 22nd birthdays.
The question remains why not play them in the AHL ‘til they’re 22 to learn the pro game and avoid those early-career minuses? Anaheim did this with Salei, who is not a bad comparable to Smid btw. But it was Ruslan's treatment that was exceptional for a high draft pick, not Ladi’s. Those same 15 top-drawer prospects that played 2145 GP at the NHL level by age 21 played just 402 AHL/IHL games during the same stage of their careers. Per player that's 143 GP in the NHL, just 27 in the minors. It would seem most teams conclude that for development purposes, AHL ≠ NHL. Defencemen training to compete at the top level must be exposed to opposition at the top level. Or so goes the common wisdom in the NHL. What the Oilers are doing with Smid is nothing out of the ordinary at all for a player of his pedigree.
Finally there is the matter of the CBA. As of 2008-09, players are free to move on after 7 years of NHL experience OR age 27 (with at least 4 years experience). Since virtually every player on the list would meet the second criterion, there is no reason to delay their start on the first. Thus the UFA clock begins ticking when the player graduates from junior, whether he is in the AHL or NHL. Time spent developing a guy more slowly in the AHL is potentially time lost at the productive end of those first 7 years.
So it is with Ladi Smid, who has surely already played the two “worst” seasons of his career. Now that Oilers and their fans have made the investment, it’s time to start reaping the return. I anticipate Smid building off of last year’s strong finish – he was an even player the last 14 games after returning (prematurely) from his knee injury, despite being paired with the guy many/most saw as Edmonton’s weakest defender, Matt Greene -- and become at least a break-even player in 2008-09.
Trivia answer: Ryan Sittler ( Philadelphia, 7th overall,1992) and Brent Krahn (Calgary, 6th overall, 2000)]
This is Not Chris Pronger. “Not Chris” is a real ugly name that carries a lot of baggage for an innocent lad, so I prefer to just call him Ladi for short.
The Ladi pictured above was playing his first professional season at age 19, with Portland Pirates of the AHL. After that season the highly-rated Ducks' prospect was one of several assets traded for the real Chris Pronger in a deal that was greeted with collective disappointment and derision by Oiler fans already devastated by a Game 7 loss in the Stanley Cup Finals. The best player to wear Oiler silks since Hall of Famers Mark Messier, Glenn Anderson and Grant Fuhr all left town in the fall of ’91, Pronger had delivered on his early promise by leading the Oilers within a bounce of the Holy Grail. Then, just as suddenly as he arrived, he was gone.
Much of that disappointment was refracted on the two actual players that were included in the return, Ladi and Joffrey. The expectations were immense, unrealistic; Joffrey wilted under the pressure. Young Ladi, meanwhile, went about his business of apprenticing in the toughest position in the best league in the world under the microscope of a hockey-mad town.
Over the next two seasons Ladi proved fairly conclusively that he is Not Chris Pronger. However, when he was 20 and 21 Chris Pronger wasn’t exactly Chris Pronger either, at least not the one we’ve grown to love and hate. While the two have little in common, it’s instructive to compare their early career results:
We don’t know Pronger’s ice time or quality of opposition/teammate, but based as a percentage of team goals he was clearly getting more ice by his first year in St. Loo. Equally clearly, he was still a student in the School of Hard Knocks.
Age 22: Pronger: +77/-62 = +15 Smid: ?????
This is the point in his career where young Pronger began to assert himself. Ladi might reasonably be expected to do the same, although with 60 fewer games of NHL experience he may yet be a little further down the curve. Indeed, there’s every chance he will always be lower down the curve; Pronger developed into an elite blueliner. My only point is that it’s much too early to declare that Ladi won’t/can’t do the same. ***
First impressions captured last night were largely positive. On a night I was trying to focus on Oiler newcomers, young Ladi kept catching my eye. A few vignettes:
Ladi pounces on a loose puck at his own blueline, wheels, and fires a perfect tape-to-tape pass hitting a teammate breaking over the Florida line. Ladi recovers the puck on the defensive LW hash marks, a Florida player coming hard on the forecheck. Ladi eats the puck, takes the check and while rolling off it delivers a crisp 15-footer up the boards to the supporting LW who walks the puck out of the zone. With his left-winger in a losing battle at the offensive hash marks, Ladi jumps up the boards, grabs the puck, and takes it hard behind the net. He suddenly slams on the brakes, totally losing the guy checking him (#50, officially listed in the program as Some Random Dude, but impressive nonetheless), then takes the puck back out the short side and tries to jam it home. The whistle blows just as Tyler Spurgeon arrives to stuff the rebound. No goal, but a tremendous play all the same. Walking out of his own zone, Ladi tries an ill-advised D-to-D pass that deflects off a forechecking Panther, resulting in a turnover. Harmless, but “unnecessary” according to the ever-watchful Ray Ferraro. On the PK Ladi loses his stick in a battle for the puck. He battles his man on the edge of the crease, accepts Robert Nilsson’s offer of an emergency stick, then after a few more nervous seconds puts the borrowed twig to good use, diving to a loose puck and clearing the zone. Ladi loses his man at the edge of the crease but there is no rebound and no problem. Coming in at the whistle, Ladi grabs the guy by the face and pulls him away from the crease area, then proceeds to do show off his speed bag technique with a few gloved punches. Two minutes for getting burned. That said, the guy definitely paid the price and I didn't entirely mind the penalty. Ladi “falls asleep” (Ferraro) and lets his man get behind him for a half-scoring chance. Ladi jumps into the neutral zone and joins the rush, turning it into a 3-on-2. Controlling the puck in the middle of the ice, Ladi walks in and dishes a solid tape-to-tape pass to the LW for a shot that fails.
In other words, no shortage of mistakes, but no shortage of impressive plays either. While the offensive moves were an unexpected and most pleasant surprise, what I was looking for most of all was assertiveness and confidence, and I saw plenty of both. Young Ladi is maturing into a man, a 6'3" 226 lb. mean mofo of a man, and he looks ready and eager to make the next step. Still very much a construction project, he'll be an interesting player to watch in 2008-09.
Finally, after nights of meetings and a thankfully-brief web view of the sleeper in Vancouver, my schedule and the TV gods align to bring Oilers hockey live to my couch. Never the same as being in the building but my big new HDTV screen at least begins to breach that elusive third dimension.
Here's the starting line-up according to Gregor (courtesy Digger on Lowetide):
That's seven newcomers to focus on, including the entire bottom unit. I'm especially keen to see Trukhno, Brule, and Chorney. Strudwick too. Hell, all of them; for some of these kids this is their Big Shot.
I have no intention of running a game-day thread; Lowetide has a great thing going over at his site with 120+ posts a night for three untelevised exhibition games, so I'll just join in on the fun over there, at least while the game is underway.
I got a warm welcome to the Oilogosphere from the fellows over at Covered in Oil, albeit with a rather questionable image of some guy supposedly named Bruce which seemed to play on my name's entirely unearned reputation for effemininity (sic?). Check it out here.
I responded with a list of the powerful (and superpowerful) Bruces in Hollywood, while Doogie2K helpfully chipped in with a reference to the baddest of all my ancestral Scots, Robert the Bruce. Now today comes news of the boarish behaviour of the latest candidate for the Brotherhood of Bad-Ass Bruces.
Large pushy pig traps Australian
A woman on the north coast of New South Wales in Australia is being held hostage in her own home by a large pig, Australian media report. Uki woman Caroline Hayes, 63, says the pig is as big as "a Shetland pony" and that she cannot get out of her house because of its aggressive behaviour. "It started knocking on my door at 4 am, head-butting the door, [after] some food," she told ABC television. When she opened the door, she said, the pig pushed her back inside the house. The offending animal, whom neighbours have named Bruce, also pulled a king-sized mattress out of her garage and ripped it up. Ms Hayes, who describes herself as an animal-loving vegetarian, admits she and some of her neighbours had begun feeding Bruce. Rangers from Murwillumbah Council tried to catch the large animal but the cage was too small. Animal ranger Len Hing, who visited the scene, explained that Bruce's large size makes him difficult to control when hungry. "He is a bald pig [weighing] about 80 kilos [176lb]," he said. "I wouldn't like to see the pig go as a pet anywhere because he could become a potentially dangerous animal." Rangers say the pig will be captured and taken to a piggery.
And the seasons they go round and round And the painted ponies go up and down We're captive on the carousel of time We can't return we can only look behind from where we came And go round and round and round in the circle game -- Buffy Sainte-Marie "The Circle Game"
Any team featuring Craig MacTavish never had any worries about its third-line centre. Until now.
The early word from training camp is that Coach MacT has looked at his roster and found an intergalactic void where the third-line centre used to be. No Jarret Stoll, no Marty Reasoner, no veteran centre to replace either of them, and a bunch of kids with known weaknesses extending down (and up) the depth chart. A prototypical 3C throughout his own accomplished career, MacT seemingly puts more value in the “veteran” part of the equation than worrying about having an actual “centre” play the position. He has indicated he might employ his most reliable veteran, Fernando Pisani, in the role.
Now unlike the Ryan Smyth Experiment of a few years ago (a.k.a. the Ryan Smyth Disaster), I don’t doubt for a second that Fernando will respond favourably to the challenge, and become an instantly-competent and eventually-excellent performer in a shutdown C role. He’s an intelligent, well-rounded, and versatile player, the kind of guy who would be first in line to play defence if the bench got too short in a given game situation. So he has to learn faceoffs? I’d put money on his achieving at least 50% in his first season playing the Circle Game. He just needs to put his mind, his terrific work ethic, and MacT’s coaching skills into gear and he is on his way already.
My concern comes from the trickledown effect, as the line-up logic cascades from there:
*** Q. Who replaces Pisani as our primo defensive winger?
A. Ethan Moreau. Ethan’s an experienced 3LW who hasn’t made it through the last two Octobers. Surely he won’t be so unlucky a third time.
Q. Wait a minute, that solves the problem on LW, but Fernando is moving over from the starboard side. How do we plug that hole?
A. Just because he hasn’t played a down at RW in his entire career is no reason why Dustin Penner can’t make the switch. A winger’s a winger, no? (Unless he’s a centre.)
Q. But … but … wouldn’t it make more sense for our two savviest vets to protect some of the kids in the line-up rather than each other? A stint with Fernando was a key stage of the season for kids like Gagner, Nilsson, and Brodziak last year.
A. Well, we need to get our best checkers out there on the 3 line, and give them all the tough minutes they can soak up.
Q. But wouldn’t Moreau be a perfect fit in GlenX’s old spot with Brodziak and Stortini? He’s a natural portsider who plays the same sort of grinding game that the big youngsters displayed effectively down the stretch. Might even be an upgrade on GlenX, who was terrific in his brief run wearing the oil drop. Wouldn’t it make sense to give Moreau reduced but high tempo ice time 5v5, and continue to rely on him on the 1PK unit?
A: We can’t afford that luxury.
Q. So who do we wind up putting on the left wing with those two kids?
A. Another kid, one who doesn’t normally play the wing. If it’s Pouliot or Brule, one whose previous experience on the flank has been on their natural, right side.
Q. Brodziak and Stortini played well last year, but are they strong enough to carry a third youngster who’s learning his way in a new (out-of-) position?
A. Meh. We’ll adjust on the fly, shorten the bench, play the three-line game.
Q. Will this help in the development of Poo/Broo/Potty/Sugartits? Especially if two or more of them shuttle in and out of the line-up?
A. It didn’t hurt Horcoff’s development did it? Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. ***
What would kill us is another lost October. It would seem that MacT sees the Pisani Sandwich as the best insurance policy against that happening again.
Here is one variation of the Pisani-centred line-up: 1. Cole – Horcoff – Hemsky 2. Nilsson – Cogliano – Gagner 3. Moreau – Pisani – Penner 4. Pouliot? – Brodziak – Stortini
Looked at another way: 1. RW – C – RW 2. LW – C – C 3. LW – RW – LW 4. C – C – RW
… meaning no fewer than 5 guys playing something other than their preferred position. Replace Pouliot on 4LW with Brule, Schremp, Potulny, doesn’t matter … they’re all centres. At least, they were.
Time on the wing is part of the apprenticeship for many NHL centres – as I recall MacT himself played a fair bit of LW in Boston – but for a guy like Marc Pouliot it hasn’t exactly been a recipe for success. Last season Pouliot had an early-season run at 4RW, which was an unmitigated disaster, 9 GP, 0-0-0, -7. After a four-month stint in Springfield, he was both recalled and inserted at his natural position of centre, where he responded with a fine stretch run, 15 GP, 1-6-7, +6.
To realize its potential with the current cast of characters, the team really needs one of those young centres to step up and seize the 3C role. Ideally that would be Pouliot who has proven to be competent defensively, at least when playing his natural position. Surround him with Pisani and Penner on the “P3 Line” (doesn’t get much more Albertan than that), or Pisani and Cole. If Pouliot struggles, give Brule a shot in the same spot, but let him play his natural position. Or move Brodziak up and give Brule or Schremp or Potulny or one of the other young centres a shot playing Centre on the fourth line.
Of course it’s all well and good to sit on the sideline and ponder “wouldn’t it be nice if we could actually put a round peg in a round hole?” Fact is MacT can’t afford to have the club bleed out in October again while some youngster is in over his head against the tough comp. He’s got to start playing to win (or at least, for the tie :), right from Game 1. Until then, though, he can experiment all he likes with Pisani at centre, but at the same time those young guys will get some ice in the preseason as well, both down the middle and on the flank. Hell, maybe some of those young guys can learn a thing or two simply by watching how the consummate professional Pisani responds to the challenge of learning their position, even as he challenges them for ice time.
I’m guessing MacT’s first choice would be to keep it a preseason experiment to broaden his options later in the season, while motivating the Pouliots of the team to not take anything for granted. But wouldn’t it be great if one of them just seizes the reins and doesn’t let go? It’s the biggest “If” of the new season.
This is Jaroslav Pouzar. (Always wanted to write that, LT!) He won three Stanley Cups with the Oilers in 1984, '85 and '87, and his absence in 1986 was a little-credited factor in the Oilers upset loss to the hated Flames. Pouzar was at his best in the biggest games, and he proved it by becoming just the second man in history to win both a World Championship and a Stanley Cup (nowadays this is common, but only Canada's Sid Smith preceded him). Pouzar was the first and remains on a short list of elite players who have won both titles on multiple occasions.
Ugly helmet aside, he was an absolute beauty of a hockey player. He was a big scorer (33 goals in 75 senior international games) for the great Czechoslovak squad that knocked the Soviets off their eternal perch as world champions for a couple of years (1976 and '77) and which played a sublime Team Canada squad very tough in the inaugural Canada Cup. He was a star of the Lake Placid Olympics, where in 6 GP he posted 8-5-13. By the time he made it to Edmonton as an over-30, his hands had mostly deserted him, but his head was still intact and the rest of his game still very, very effective.
"Pouz" wasn't just tough, he was Lee Fogolin-tough. He may have been the proverbial fire hydrant on Wayne Gretzky's left side, but that was never more true than when somebody took a run at him. He would brace, they would bounce.
The man was, as we said (admiringly) in the day, a Tank. He was great at creating space; moreover, he seemed to hate all the same opponents I did. I remember listening to a Boxing Day game from Calgary one year (probably 1983) where Badger Bob Johnson deployed Doug Risebrough to get in Gretzky's face, hacking, beaking and generally frustrating the Great One. The first period ended scoreless, and for a radio listener full of wine and turkey I was about as pissed off as one could be. So here is an approximate recreation of Rod Phillip's play-by-play to start the second:
And now Jaroslav Pouzar has been moved up to the line with Gretzky and Kurri. This could get interesting. The puck gets shot into the Oiler end, OH! AND POUZAR JUST CRUSHES RISEBROUGH!! oh, he just demolished Risebrough, he's still down, and here's the puck into the centre zone, Gretzky and Kurri, two on one! Gretzky ... to Kurri ... HE SCORES!!!"
Took something like 21 or 26 seconds, and the Oilers were off and running to a 6-3 win. Pouzar never got a point, or a mention in the game story the next day, but I'll never forget it. I hated Risebrough, both as a Hab and a Flame.
Pouzar has an odd line in his stats: in the 1983 playoffs he played one game and scored 2 goals. They came in Chicago Stadium in the (first) Campbell Bowl-clinching game, as Pouzar replaced an injured Mark Messier in the line-up, the Oilers only significant injury of those playoffs. Messier came back to play hurt, and ineffectively, in the sweep at the hands of the Islanders, while Pouzar was left chomping at the bit in the pressbox while the set line-up got beaten up by the more-experienced Islanders. Not saying he should have replaced Messier, but I then, now, and will forever consider it a mistake by Glen Sather to not get him in there somewhere.
The next year Pouzar was in the line-up from the get-go, mostly on an extremely effective and irritating line with Ken Linseman and Dave Lumley. (Opponents' Rule #1: Keep your head up. Rule #2: Don't turn your back. Rule #3: Then worry about the puck) Pouz just hammered Trottier early in G1 as Mr. DeBakey mentioned in the comments section of the last post. More importantly, he absolutely fucking smoked Billy Smith, midway in the second period of Game 3, within a couple of minutes of the famous Mark Messier goal that supposedly turned the series. It was at my end of the ice, Smith had gone out to tee up a puck behind the net, Pouzar got bumped on his way in, didn't avoid the contact and just clobbered Battlin' Billy with a wicked dart.
Interesting to note that the Oilers scored 4 goals (including Messier's) in the ~150 minutes before that hit, and 17 goals in the 150 minutes that followed. How much of that was The Goal and how much was The Hit remains an open question, but today one is celebrated and the other largely forgotten, and that doesn't seem quite right to me. Pouzar never did get the credit he was due in my view; the Oilers won 15 of 16 playoff series during his time here, and as mentioned he was pressboxed for the one they lost.
Pouzar was a man of few words, and those in a broken English which had an endearing way of getting straight to the point, usually with a twinkle in his eye. During one celebrated incident he got stitched up between shifts without bothering with a local anaesthetic, rationalizing: "Me married. No need good looks!" Local legend had it the quiet man spoke up in The Room during those 1984 Finals in what may have been his only dressing room speech during his time here. I don't suppose the message was much more than Carpe Diem, but it apparently had its effect.
That Oilers-Islanders rivalry was a great one, and Pouzar was one of the guys that turned the tide. I still remember the time I was sitting behind the Islanders net, the evil Denis Potvin made an outlet pass just as Pouzar came in and cashed his check with a particularly ferocious crunch. The camera and most eyes had turned up ice to follow the puck, but those in my end zone watched Potvin collect himself gingerly and glide over to the bench, doubled over in pain and gasping for wind. As this delicious scenario unfolded a leatherlung behind me let him have it with an unforgettable shot: "NOW YOU KNOW HOW YOUR WIFE FELT, POTVIN!!"
You had to be there, but if you were, it was damn close to perfect.
The leaves are turning and with them turns the page on a new hockey season. As always I'm anxious to return to the rink, to get out to an early training camp session or better yet, the annual Oiler Wannabe-Golden Bear "friendly" at Clare Drake Arena. There's something reassuring about the familiar sights of the Zamboni doing its last lap, the attendants fixing the nets in position, the goalie leading the charge on to the ice by taking the crease and methodically scraping it down to just the right degree of friction. Soon enough the sounds of clashing sticks on the opening faceoff, blades digging into ice, the puck clicking from stick to stick, bodies coming together hard at the boards, the buzz of the crowd. Ain't nothing quite like live Hockey in Canada.
Finally, there's some real hockey to talk about. I missed the two on-line broadcasts from the Oilers rookie tournament (vs. Calgary and Vancouver prospects) but attended the 21st annual Bears-Wannabe shindig. This featured a lesser line-up than the Camrose tournament, as I think the Oilers traditionally limit their line-up to guys who have played at most one year of pro (O'Marra, Paukovich), or maybe they allow guys who played primarily in the ECHL but not the AHL or something. Mostly they are names that can be found in the press guide under "In the System" or, failing that, in the training camp pamphlet under "#80, Kalvin Sagert". But there are always some interesting names to watch, never more than this year given all the info I have on these guys from the Oilogosphere
My friend and I arrived very early and had our pick of seats. I chose to sit in the row in front of the cordoned off section for the Oiler "family", in part so I could see what they saw but in part to watch the brass in action and perhaps pick up the odd word or two in the wind. And what an extended family it was, including Daryl Katz, Kevin Lowe, Steve Tambellini, Kevin Prendergast, the entire coaching staff, and more scouts than I could name. About two dozen men in all, no women, one kid (Katz's). Well, two kids, if you count Kent Nilsson's. Row-bert was sitting on the back wall between his dad and Kyle Brodziak, checking out the "competition".
The spot we staked out turned out to be directly in front of Craig MacTavish, Charlie Huddy and Billy Moores, with an empty row in between. The acoustics in the old bandbox are truly shitty, but I picked up the odd thing like MacT's playful scouting report on Ryan Huddy, and the buzz that went through the group when Bryan Lerg burst through the defence and ripped a dangerous shot on net. Best of all was when Sam Gagner stopped by on the walkway in front of me between periods to say his hellos to the coaches after the long summer. He and MacT carried on a nice conversation right over my shoulder, with Gagner describing his trip to Austria with the London Kinghts alumni and the coach reminiscing to the Oilers somewhat infamous trip to Graz in 1990 or so. What was immediately apparent was the bond between the two, which clearly went beyond the deference and respect of a player-coach relationship and into the realm of genuine affection. Master Samwise is in good hands, methinks.
Amidst all these distractions, not to mention all the eye candy passing by on the walkway immediately in front of me (I love campus life), I watched the game in a fragmented rather than focused manner. Lots of, uh, "screen shots". Luvverly.
Ah yes, the hockey game. It really looked like a pick-up game this year, as the Oilers surprised their hosts by showing up in white unis for the first time. In the warm-up the Bears wore their traditional home whites at the other end, so something had to give. So the hosts switched into last year's third-jersey yellows, lots of number changes, lots of wrong names on the back, one skater #1 and another skater with no number at all, the goalies in green with a different crest. Too bad for those kids, especially the ones trying out in front of the biggest crowd of the year, not to mention the poor sod who did all the work to get the whites ready for prime time. The good news was the Oilers prospects all had names on their sweaters with their own unique training camp rosters. The only familiar numbers were of the departed, as Matt Greene's #2 and Joni Pitkanen's #25 were officially recycled.
While the Bears dominated long stretches of the action with their trademark hard two-man fore-check, Brian Pitton and Andrew Perugini played well in the Oilers net, allowing the rooks to sneak off with a 3-2 win on a night they were outshot 36-26. The Bears now lead this remarkably-balanced series 11 games to 10.
I highlighted a few names on the game sheet and tried to follow each guy for a shift, but as is my habit (as an ex-goalie) I found myself watching the puck and the flow of play more than who was doing exactly what. Still, a few snatches on the skaters that caught my eye:
#30 Brian Pitton / #50 Andrew Perugini, G: I made a point of watching both goalies pretty closely. Both made a number of fine stops, but the difference was in the little things. My scribbled notes on Pitton included these comments:
-- trouble with carom off backboards -- poor rebound control -- puckhandling error -- couldn't find puck -- adventure!
... describing five different plays during his 30 minutes of work. Meanwhile, my comments on Perugini were things like:
-- excellent rebound control -- no rebound on screen shot -- again, no rebound -- battled hard against crease crashers
... and he just looked by far the more polished, professional goalie at this point. Not saying that Pitton can't file off these rough edges in time, and perhaps he's the better pure stopper, who knows. But for right now the undrafted Perugini looks more comfortable and commanding in the crease. On this night he pitched a half-shutout and was rewarded with third star honours.
#2 Milan Maslonka, D: A late addition to the line-up, he looked big and slow. Scored the second goal on a booming point shot, but it took him all day to let it go.
#23 Philippe Cornet, LW: Sneaky good, on the first line with Eberle and Lerg. They helped make him look good, especially when Lerg made a pretty pass to set Cornet up for the games' first goal, but he seemed to be on the line on merit (they always stack a line in this game), and he sure didn’t look out of place, anticipating the play and darting into the holes. The coaches seemed to like him.
#25 Jordan Eberle, RW: Easily found chemistry with Lerg, and generated a few dangerous shots with a quick release. I liked his stickhandling; he wasn’t shy about putting the puck right into his opponent’s feet and controlling it there. That may not be a formula for success at the NHL level where only the great ones get away with that consistently, but I liked his confidence.
#28 Marc-Andre Bernier, RW: Scored the winner short-handed, on a giveaway in the first minute of the third that undid the Bears second-period comeback (shots 18-2) that had tied the score at 2. Nice play, nice shot, otherwise didn’t capture my attention.
#41 Taylor Chorney, D: Kind of all over the ice in a MAB sort of way. Chaos D? Has great speed, as demonstrated on one play where he forced a turnover at the defensive blueline and turned it into a partial breakaway. Not a play one sees often from a defenceman.
#42 Ryan O’Marra, C: Did nothing to stand out except look like a hockey player all night long. Seemed to do the little things right, played his position pretty well. His line did get burned for the tying goal-against.
#48 Alex Plante, D: Big palooka looked fairly mobile and strong along the boards.
#61 Bryan Lerg, C: Best player on the ice, and it wasn’t close. Having seen about 15 of these games over the years I can state with some authority that the players who usually do best are the four-year NCAA guys. For one thing they are the only “Rookies” who are not surprised by the calibre of play, indeed they’re used to playing at that level. Unlike most four-year college guys, Lerg is just 22. Unfortunately, he’s also just 5’10”, 175. Still, a player to watch, although be prepared to wait; even the best college grads (Horcoff, Pisani, Gilbert, all of whom starred in their one appearance in the Wannabes game) need a little time in the A to acclimate to the pro game. Nice signing.
#64 Milan Kytnar, C: Seemed a lot bigger than the listed 6’0”, 180. Strong in the circle and along the boards. Made good plays to win the puck and then did nothing with it. A project.
#74 Garet Hunt, LW: When going over the game sheet before the game with my friend (an Oiler season ticket holder who doesn’t quite follow the organization in the depth that I do), I put a big arrow next to Hunt’s name, saying something like they aren’t supposed to fight but don’t be surprised. Sure enough, Hunt took a double minor for roughing at the 24-second mark of the game when he punched Kyle Fecho right in the nose in the extended aftermath of the game's first whistle. After that, though, he did nothing but impress me with his speed and hustle, finishing every possible check with obvious relish and even killing penalties. Playing style reminded me of Jordin Tootoo or Kirk Maltby.
#75 Jamie Bates, RW: Whodat? But grabbed my eye with one great shift in which he skated end-to-end to create his own scoring chance, then skated just as hard the other way to break up a dangerous rush. That kind of thing wins points with me every time.
#84 Geoff Paukovich, C: Probably was a tough game for him to play after his match penalty/major fucking scare of the night before. I half suspect he was a tad reluctant to really bring his A game, which surely is a physical one. Looked slow and out of position at times. Made two fine defensive plays on one shift including a lay-it-all-out-there shot block right in front of us which likely impressed the likes of Lowe, MacT and Buchberger, to name three masters of the bruised art.
#90 Justin Chwedoruk, F: I never heard of this guy, also a late addition, but he did nothing but skate his ass off and forecheck the bejeezus out of the Bears all night long. ***
At night's end four of the reasons Jordan Eberle and Bryan Lerg won't be in the big club's immediate plans literally brushed by me in rapid succession, namely Sam Gagner, Robert Nilsson, Kyle Brodziak, and Andrew Cogliano. Rarely do players go directly from this game to the big club, as Gags'n'Cogs did last year. With the surfeit of youth on the returning Oilers, newcomers are going to have to earn their spot in the pecking order and wait for injuries. Surely Eberle is a lock to return to the Dub, but it's nice to know that there's some real talent "in the system".
Like all the fans around me I had maintained a respectful silence towards the men doing their jobs behind me; the frequently-turned heads in front of me had gawking eyes but closed mouths for the most part. But as the crowd began to file out I approached Frank Musil specifically to inquire after the health of his countryman Jaroslav Pouzar. Alas, the word is not good; Pouzar is in ill health again, whether it's a relapse of the leukemia or something even more sinister, Frank's tone was sombre. I thanked him, and told him how Pouzar was one of my favourite Oilers of all time which he really seemed to appreciate. "As were you" I hastened to add (and it's true), "I even liked you when you played for Calgary!" His forced laugh reminded me suddenly of Esa Tikkanen scoring the series-winner off of the unfortunate Musil's shinpad in '91, but that wasn't what I was referring to at all. Hope he didn't take it the wrong way; as I rediscovered recently even the best intentions can go down wrong sometimes. I shook Musil's hand, wished him, Pouzar and the Oilers good fortune, and rejoined the great unwashed in the slow-mo stampede to the exits.
At last! hockey's back, and no better time to start my hockey blog than the first game of the new season. Lots of people have suggested it, maybe to get my verbose ramblings off the comments page they frequent and into my own little corner of the Cyberverse where I can safely be ignored. I guess as Rod says, time till tell.
Not exactly sure how this will go, or how frequently I will post, having fallen into the habit of playing all "road games" and commenting on existing topics raised on the blogs of others. I will no doubt continue to do that, but will try to stay on point more in that 'sphere and develop the peripheral stuff that I tend to bring up here on Oil Droppings.
A little background on why my viewpoint might be different. I'm a lifelong fan of the game and have followed the NHL continuously since 1963, fully half of the league's 90-year history dating back to the Original Six. I grew up a Leafs fan but please don't hold that against me; my Dad loved the Leafs 'til the day he died and my brother still does.
For me it all changed in the '70s. The year I moved to Edmonton (from Newfoundland) as a teenager in 1971, the Oilers were born, and the next year a whole league sprinkled with well-known players and actual Canadian teams sprouted around them. Before the WHA was done I had full season tickets in the corner reds, had seen Gordie Howe and Bobby Hull at one end of the line and Mark Messier and Wayne Gretzky at the other, and welcomed the merger into the NHL with the same degree of excitement the whole city felt. The Leafs, turned into a laughing stock by Harold Ballard, became the enemy and I fell in love with a whole new team. An extraordinary team which soared through the ranks, winning a Stanley Cup within 5 years and four more by the end of that remarkable decade, completely rewriting the offensive record book in the process. It was a hockey fan's dream come true.
Of course it couldn't last forever and neither did my job which financed my tickets. By 1993 with the team down and out I reluctantly let my rights lapse, the final straw being the sticker price of a red seat passing the $30 mark. (If only ...) I have continued to follow the team as best I can, on the tube mostly but attending a handful of games annually mostly through the largesse of generous, ticket-holding friends. You know who you are, and thank you.
In 2007-08 the Oilers featured their best group of talented young players since at least 1996 with more than a few reminders of that precocious group of fuzzy-cheeked superstars circa 1981. There is of course no way of knowing how they'll turn out, but that's part of the fun. I look forward to enjoying the ride.
It will surprise nobody who has read my posts that my approach will be all over the map. For starters, I'm an unrepentant ex-goalie and officially Crazy. I don't have the formal mathematical training of some of the guys doing cutting edge statistical analysis so you won't hear me talk about Poisson distributions or linear regressions, but at heart (head?) I'm a numbers guy; my hobbies include number theory, positional astronomy and baseball with a background in sabermetrics. My head is full of scores, statistics, and records. I'm keen about the history of the game, and particularly of placing the modern game and its players in their proper place within that history. I have memories and anecdotes worth sharing from time to time, but my status as a hockey and Oiler fan will always be rooted in the present tense. I am willing to advance and discuss new theories for interpreting the game with an open mind. There'll be times I'll be full of shit, and I know that going in. Feel free to remind me, nicely, when I'm tending in that direction.
Which brings me at last to netiquette. While Lowetide rightly claims to host the lounge of the Oilogosphere, I'm happy to be a sports bar; room for friendly discussion and respectful disagreement, but when the voices start to rise it's time to back off. Table talk I don't mind at all, but I hope we can keep it within the boundaries of personal dignity and mutual respect. We're all hockey fans here, and I hope we're all in it for fun. That's the objective of Oil Droppings.