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