a·cu·men [ak-yuh-muhn] noun: keen insight; shrewdness

Welcome to Oil Acumen. All Oilers, all the time... Occasionally other stuff.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

05/25/11 26.0 And End to Enforcers

That was a great tilt. Unless you're Raitis Ivanans... Or a Calgary Flames fan, for that matter.

But great as that fight was, it was really the only time all season that big Steve MacIntyre made an impact. You can't help but cheer for the guy because he has a feel good story; coming all the way through several minor leagues and battling his way onto the Oilers' roster. The theory is that having a big guy like MacIntyre would deter other NHL teams from taking liberties with the Oilers' young talented forwards. It makes sense on paper, but it hasn't worked in practice. It's time to stop trying to force a square peg into a round hole, and eliminate the designated Super-heavyweight "enforcer" position from the Oilers roster.

The Edmonton Oilers lost 281 man games to injury this season. That number is way down from 530 last year, so on the surface of it one might assume that the MacIntyre experiment is working. You tend to have less crime when there's a cop on the beat, right?

Even more tellingly, very few of the Oilers' injuries came from opposing players taking liberties, and none of the major injuries were incurred that way. But they weren't the year before either, and that's without MacIntyre.

In 2009-10, Sheldon Souray got hurt by Jarome Iginla and then proceeded to break his hand in a fight with Iginla after he got back, but that's not an opposing player taking advantage of a weaker Oiler. Marc Pouliot was out with a groin injury, Pisani's colitis flared up, Khabibulin tweaked his back, Ryan Stone somehow hurt his knee, Smid aggravated an old neck injury, Jacques re-injured his back. The list goes on, but those are the major ones. There were a lot of injuries that year, but not having an enforcer was not the reason for any of them.

But, you say: Ales Hemsky was taken into the boards by Handzus, which put #83 on the shelf for the rest of the season! And you'd be right. The hit was certainly from behind, but once again the contact only aggravated an existing injury. It was only a matter of time before Hemsky would need the surgery that he ended up needing. And most importantly of all: what could an enforcer have done about the Handzus hit? Is Steve MacIntyre going to jump over the boards and fight Michal Handzus? Not likely.

Which brings us to the findamental flaw in the theory of enforcers: they don't police the average player.

Heavyweights generally fight other heavyweights because anyone else would be crazy to do it. Sure, MacIntyre could have gone out the next time Handzus had a shift and started ragdolling him all over the ice, but for them to actually fight would be unlikely. According to hockeyfights.com, Handzus has a grand total of 3 fights in his career, so he isn't making a living taking on the heavyweights of the league. It's seen as somewhat dishonorable to just pummel a smaller or unwilling player, but thanks to the instigator rule it's not only dishonorable; it's stupid. It doesn't help the enforcer's team to engage in a tit-for-tat battle when it costs the team a penalty and possibly a goal.

There's a constant arms race going on in the NHL. If your nearest rival gets better scoring, you have to get better scoring. If your rival gets bigger then it follows that you must match. But it doesn't make sense to have an enforcer - even if everyone else does - unless he can play a regular shift.

It makes perfect sense to have a guy like Dave Semenko, who served famously as "Gretzky's bodyguard," but that's because Semenko could be deployed on a line with The Great One. An enforcer is almost useless if he isn't actually out there with the better players on the team. To have a guy who will play an average of 3 minutes per game (or less) over less than half a season is a waste of a roster spot, and doesn't protect anyone anyway. The Oilers tended only to use MacIntyre when the other team had a heavyweight, and the opposite is probably also true. If there's no one for the super-heavyweights to fight, they don't even play.

The reason that the Edmonton Oilers sometimes get pushed around by other teams is that the team lacks toughness throughout the lineup, not for a lack of an enforcer. What the Oilers really need is a pest - someone who can get into the heads of the opposition's best. Pests are useful because they can get other teams off of their games, force them to make mistakes and take stupid penalties. As an added bonus, pests can usually play a little too, which gives the coach more flexibility with his lines.

There's an article on this blog damning Matt Cooke, who is a pest, but Cooke is not the type of player the Oilers need. There are players who walk the line and those who cross it, and Cooke is of the latter variety. If only one could go back in time and bring back Esa Tikkanen... While that won't happen, Jarkko Ruutu might work.

This article is not an indictment of fighting in hockey or the men who make their living doing it. It isn't intended to discuss the moral dilemma of whether it's right to expect people to bash each other's faces in while teetering on razor-sharp skates and probably not wearing helmets. Fighting does have its place. Oiler fans remember Derek Boogaard well, and feared when the Boogeyman came to town. What Boogaard brought was an intangible of striking fear into the opposition, and that did have value. But the simple fact is that there aren't many Derek Boogaards in the league, and that's part of why he'll be missed.

Many of these types of players wouldn't make the NHL at all if it weren't for fighting, and so fans have an easy time rooting for them. Not to mention the fact that it isn't hard to want to watch the teams use their nuclear arms against each other and see what happens. It's like a heavyweight boxing match and an NHL game all in one.

But it doesn't necessarily help the team win. In fact, looking for an enforcer can be a quick fix that distracts from the real goal, which is to instill toughness everywhere in the lineup. To expect one man to shoulder that whole burden is asking too much, especially if coaches can't or won't play them.

It's much more intimidating to face an entire team that can clobber you at any moment with a bodycheck than to just have one bully you have to avoid. Team toughness is a relentless attack that grinds the opposition down (especially in the playoffs), and that's what the Oilers need more of.

As for Big Mac, we all wish him well and thank him for that fight on opening night. And for this hit:

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