The word “toughness” in hockey has changed definitions over the last 25 years. Growing up, toughness to me was watching Tie Domi and Rob Ray throw heavy punches at each other’s faces at centre ice, laughing about it while bleeding in the penalty box. Toughness was Scott Stevens leveling anyone with their head down that crossed by the blue line.
But over the years, the definition of “toughness”, along with the game, has changed. Toughness on a team can be a player giving their all to win a board battle or hitting someone to set the tone of the game. It can be having a teammates’ back when the other team is taking liberties against them. Regardless of whichever definition of toughness resonates with you, the Oilers have not shown any of it in their most recent struggles.
Draisaitl & McDavid Have Had to Fend for Themselves
When the Edmonton Oilers played the New York Islanders in a matinee match on Jan. 1, Oilers’ broadcasters Jack Michaels and Bob Stauffer spoke about the Islanders’ player and their game plan to set the tone of the game by getting in the faces of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. The plan went the way of New York, as they walked out of the first period with a 1-0 lead and eventually won the game 3-2 in overtime.
Islanders forward Ross Johnston — who averages 10 minutes of ice time per game — mixed it up with Draisaitl in the first period. At the end of a shift, he tapped the Oilers’ forward in the face, threw cross-checks, and exchanged words with the former Hart Trophy winner. There wasn’t a response from the Oilers bench, leaving Draisaitl to deal with a player that has 51 fewer points than him on the season.
Against the New York Rangers on Jan. 3, Ryan Reaves delivered a heavy hit to Draisaitl early in the first period. Credit to Draisaitl, he returned one of his own moments later. His feistiness to respond back is commendable but it’s a mismatch that the NHL’s leading goal scorer shouldn’t have to respond to. Reaves is arguably the most feared pugilist in the NHL, so it’s understandable that no one wanted to challenge him, but at the very least, someone else from the Oilers bench should’ve pushed back. Instead of fighting the Rangers’ tough guy, you can lay a big hit on one of their players, say, Mika Zibanejad, to show them “hey, if you’re going after our star players, we’ll go after yours, too”.
In the same game, Connor McDavid was battling in front of the net with Jacob Trouba, and the Rangers’ defenseman gave a half slew foot to the Oilers’ captain that dropped him to the ice. The only Oiler that responded was all of 5-foot-6 Kailer Yamamoto. He crossed-checked Trouba but was clearly no match for the 6-foot-3 Rangers’ defender. Darnell Nurse (with 18 fighting majors to his name) nonchalantly skated in afterward— no shoves, no scrums, letting Trouba off the hook.
Oilers Need to Have Toughness by Committee
The Oilers need to be tougher to play against and it starts with their role players. Zack Kassian was missing in action for four games due to COVID protocol. He does play the tough guy/agitator role and can be highly effective for a couple of games when he’s pestering the other team, but quite often his play tends to trail off for long stretches. If the team wants to right the ship, they need more consistency from him in the second half of the season.
There’s also Nurse, who does lead the team in hits (93), but the Oilers need more feistiness out of him. He’s missing the swagger he previously had when he was challenging opponents after scrums. He’d be seen laughing at players in a “hit our star players and you’ll answer to me” sort of way. In fact, he doesn’t actually have to go out and fight every single game at all, because his services are best used on the ice and not in the penalty box. Still, there are ways to play tough other than fighting. He needs to get back to his ways of imposing his size, battling aggressively on the boards, and getting in the faces of other team’s star players, as much as his teammates receive it.
Yet, the responsibility to play tough shouldn’t just rely on two players. Their current roster isn’t full of hard-nosed tough guys, having lost players like Patrick Maroon, Milan Lucic, Adam Larsson, and Jujhar Khaira over the years. So, there needs to be a pack mentality, and have toughness by committee.
Tyler Benson is on the right track— playing every shift like it’s his last. He’s been very noticeable in his last stretch of games, providing energy and physicality, and more Oilers should follow his lead to battle their way out of their losing skid. When the bounces aren’t going your way — like what has happened in the team’s five-game winless streak — you need to get back to basics. Win your board battles, hit every chance you can, and try and grind out a greasy win.
Edmonton suffered a hard-fought 4-2 loss against the Toronto Maple Leafs last Wednesday, and right now they’re in a fragile state. They’ve only scored 10 times in first periods out of 34 games, and for whatever reason, they’re notoriously slow to start the game. That’s where playing tough is essential, to set the tone of the game. When the big guns on the team aren’t able to get you a lead, someone needs to lay a big hit, get in the grill of other team’s star players, or at the very least, have their teammates’ back when an opposing player is pushing them around.
First ever Ultimate MVP fan of the NHL as declared by Upperdeck – CBC Radio Oilers’ Fan Panel Analyst – Freelance Writer. Edmonton Oilers’ Sportswriter for the Hockey Writers.