So much tal­ent, such depth; must be nice coach­ing Oil­ers

Saskatoon StarPhoenix - - Sports - DAN BARNES

EDMONTON— Pick your

poi­son. You want to throw your best defence pair out to play against the Edmonton Oil­ers line whose mem­bers scored 192 points last sea­son? Or the trio who piled up 169?

You want your de­fen­sive spe­cial­ists to be out­worked by those good Cana­dian kids, Shawn Hor­coff and Ryan Smyth? Or would you pre­fer they be juked and jived out of their jock­straps by Czech­mates Ales Hem­sky and Petr Sykora?

You’re the op­pos­ing coach. The choice is yours. And by the way, if you don’t have a pair of studly de­fence­men such as Cal­gary’s Robyn Regehr and Dion Pha­neuf, and quite ob­vi­ously not many teams do, good luck to you.

“I don’t know how you do it,” said Ethan Moreau of the Oil­ers. “If we’re all skat­ing and work­ing hard, you can’t stop us up front. How many teams have the depth to do it? We’re go­ing to be a hand­ful all year.”

The Oil­ers are ex­actly one 3-1 home ice vic­tory into that 82-game year, so per­spec­tive is im­per­a­tive. The of­fen­sive un­veil­ing went pretty well, given that three goals against Mi­ikka Kipru­soff of the Flames can rep­re­sent a week’s worth of work. But the Oil­ers ob­vi­ously didn’t blow the Flames out the back door of Rex­all Place. The game ba­si­cally re­in­forced what head coach Craig MacTav­ish thought he was see­ing in train­ing camp and ex­hi­bi­tion tilts.

“I’ve never had this many op­tions,” he said Fri­day. “There was no short­age of those.”

Said Oil­ers GM Kevin Lowe: “It kind of re­minds me of play­ing Detroit over the last few years, or Colorado. You do a good job shut­ting down one line, it’s the other line that will kill you.”

Joe Sa­kic cen­tred one of those units in Colorado, Peter Fors­berg the other. While the Oil­ers don’t have that much fire­power in the mid­dle, their top eight or nine for­wards are con­firmed 20-goal threats and de­mand some re­spect. On Thurs­day we saw how eas­ily Sykora threads the nee­dle and how pre­pared Hem­sky is to go to the net and shoot the puck. Tonight we may well see a re­sponse from Hor­coff’s line, es­pe­cially if Play­fair shifts gears and sends Pha­neuf and Regehr out against Sykora et al.

Re­gard­less of how it turns out at the Sad­dle­dome tonight, the Oil­ers of­fence will be an in­ter­est­ing long-term study. MacTav­ish has but 60 min­utes of ice time to dole out ev­ery night and how he did it Thurs­day is also in­dica­tive of what’s to come. Brad Winch­ester got 32 sec­onds of play­ing time. MacTav­ish wasn’t pun­ish­ing the kid, merely mak­ing room on the ice for his best for­wards. As he said, some­thing has to give and for now at least it’s go­ing to be the 12th for­ward.

So be it. If Winch­ester hangs his head, and I don’t think he will, some­body else will get the diminu­tive spot tonight in Cal­gary. No sweat. Much more im­por­tant is how the top three lines re­act to the dis­pens­ing of ice time. There is room for healthy com­pe­ti­tion among team­mates, none for self­ish­ness.

“It’s part of the re­spon­si­bil­ity of play­ing on a good team,” said MacTav­ish. “You have to re­al­ize and rec­og­nize there are other guys ca­pa­ble of do­ing the job.”

In the­ory, that’s ad­mirable. But what if Smyth is hav­ing a truly bad night? Is he re­ally go­ing to see his 23 min­utes be­come 18 so Raffi Tor­res can get more ice? It’s one thing for the fourth-lin­ers to swal­low their pride and ride the pine qui­etly, but the es­tab­lished stars of this team will have to set the un­selfish course first and fore­most.

“I don’t see any­one hav­ing their noses out of joint at the suc­cess of an­other line,” said Lowe. “Just the op­po­site. They wel­come it. They’re highly com­pet­i­tive and proud guys. They’ll be push­ing one an­other.”

If ice time is ceded hap­pily to the hot hands, all will be rosy. And judg­ing by what we have seen from Smyth, Hor­coff and Hem­sky over time, and from Sykora’s un­selfish play Thurs­day, the only se­ri­ous prob­lems gen­er­ated by the Oil­ers of­fence should be­long to the op­po­si­tion’s head coach.

“Whoever is hot will get those qual­ity min­utes,” said Moreau. “It’s go­ing to be re­ally com­pet­i­tive. In the past you’ve had not a lot of depth. If the of­fen­sive guys on the top two lines weren’t play­ing well, they still went out there.”

There are too many op­tions now. And much less des­per­a­tion.

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