Why can’t Ken Holland see Oilers need forceful response to nasty hits on Connor McDavid?

Why can’t Ken Holland see Oilers need forceful response to nasty hits on Connor McDavid?

Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers after a taking a hit from Mackenzie Weegar of the Calgary Flames during NHL hockey at the Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary on Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2022.
Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers after a taking a hit from Mackenzie Weegar of the Calgary Flames during NHL hockey at the Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary on Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2022. Photo by Al Charest /Postmedia

Maybe because Holland realizes something many fans don’t see

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Why can’t General Manager Ken Holland see the Edmonton Oilers need forceful response to nasty hits on Connor McDavid?

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All kinds of fans, broadcasters and hockey writers clearly see this. They were outraged with the Edmonton team for its tepid non-response to an iffy knee-on-knee hit by Calgary’s Mackenzie Weegar on McDavid on Tuesday night.

The Oilers aren’t a close team, some critics said. They don’t stand up for each other. They don’t compete hard enough. Something is missing.

Edmonton is permitting open season on its big stars McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, said others. The team lacks spine, and it’s going to push McDavid out of here one day.

What isHolland going to do about this mess?

After the game CHED broadcaster Bob Stauffer of Oilers Now noted change may be on the way: “We all saw the Weegar hit on Connor McDavid. Yes. Ultimately the Edmonton Oilers won. But. Needed to be more of a response IMO. Granted EDM really misses Evander Kane… Don’t be surprised if Oilers add more physicality at FWD and D as the season progresses.”

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I happen to agree that the Oilers would do well to make a few additions to the roster, and I’m not against picking up one forward and one defenceman who, along with the ability to play solid two-way hockey, can also throw a mean check and might even come to the assistance of any Oilers teammate who has been fouled in nasty fashion. I like vengeance as much as the next Oilers fan.

That said, I would not put toughness at the top of the list of team needs for the Oilers. In fact, what they really need is a defensive d-man who can shut down top attackers on the opposing team, including on the penalty kill. He could be a tough player like Joel Edmundson of Montreal. But he could also be a far less physical d-man who knows how to block shots, shut things down in the slot, and cover off dangerous passing lanes, kind of like Kris Russell did in his prime years with the Oilers. Russell was no big hitter but he was a superlative slot defender.

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As for Holland, if he’s not yet filled the Edmonton roster with Big Bobby Clobbers, I would not expect him to do so now. Holland knows something that fans who most crave that the Oilers bring in a big hitter or three fail to recognize, that to win the Stanley Cup a team doesn’t need an enforcer, it doesn’t need a roster full of brawny hitters, it needs high skill, high tenacity and excellent fundamental play in all zones of the ice.

In far more violent days in the NHL, Holland was the GM of three Detroit Red Wings teams that won the Stanley Cup, but not one of those teams were overly aggressive when it came to physical play. They didn’t brawl you if you went after their star players, Steve Yzerman, Niklas Lidstrom and Pavel Datsyuk. Instead, they beat you with relentless pressure all over the ice. They shut down your attack, took the puck away from you and came whipping down the ice, passing and pressing until they got the next goal in the game.

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In 1997-98, Detroit had second fewest fights in the NHL, 36 in 82 games. By comparison, the top team for fighting, Vancouver, had 108 major penalties. In the playoffs, not one Detroit player got a fighting major in 22 games. But somehow this team still won the Stanley Cup.

In 2001-02, it was the same story. Detroit took the fewest major penalties in the NHL that year, just 23 (leader Florida had 120). In 23 playoff games, Detroit had zero fighting majors. But again Detroit won the Cup. And this was in the rough and tumble dead puck era of hockey, you might recall.

In 2007-08, same, same. Detroit had the fewest majors in the regular season, just 21, and had just one fight in 22 playoff games. And yet it won the Cup, this in an era when many NHL teams still had an enforcer or two on the roster.

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This year only two Edmonton Oilers have taken major penalties, second fewest in the NHL. League leaders Vancouver and Philadelphia have 20 majors. Edmonton is ahead of both those teams in the standings.

I’m not going to suggest there aren’t problems with the Oilers this year. They’ve not found adequate replacements for Duncan Keith and Kris Russell on defence. Their goaltending has been iffy due to Jack Campbell’s poor start. Two of their star players, Leon Draisaitl and Darnell Nurse, have gone through defensive slumps. Brett Kulak has so far struggled mightily to step up into a Top 4 d-man role, especially in his own end. The team has leaked goals against at an appalling rate, so much so that it seems like a minor miracle if the Oilers can hold on to a third period lead.

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There are most definitely issues to be fixed.

And while finding some tough character to clobber anyone who comes near Connor McDavid certainly sounds satisfying, I suspect Holland has other priorities. I’m not going to call him out for having it wrong.

Physical play is important. Team toughness is important. But these Oilers will win deep into the playoffs when its goaltending is consistently good and its defensive tenacity and fundamentals starts to approach its high end offensive skill and execution.

The Oilers found this kind of game in beating Los Angeles and Calgary last year. They can find it again in 2022-23, even if they’ve yet to do so.

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