The Pacific Division in the NHL has long been known as one of the biggest and toughest divisions in hockey. Up and down the lineup, teams from that division seem to have a roster that includes skill, size and toughness. For the last few years, Anaheim, San Jose and Calgary have been known to push around smaller opponents like the Edmonton Oilers and teams like Los Angeles had become so effective at the size and skill game that other franchises modelled themselves after the Kings blueprint, trying to emulate their Stanley Cup success. As a result, and in order to compete, after a single season and another summer of change, General Manager Peter Chiarelli created an Edmonton Oilers roster that is a nastier and tougher team to play against.
Edmonton plans to head into the 2016-17 season with, as Connor McDavid would describe it, a little more swagger. The Oilers possess high-end skill and speed, but now, every line has a player who can and will stand up to some of the toughest the NHL has to offer. The Oilers are no longer a one-dimensional team; they are a team of skill, size, grit, speed and toughness. If we take a look at one specific area — toughness — who ranks among Edmonton’s toughest?
5) Matt Hendricks
Prior to this season, Hendricks was likely considered one of Edmonton’s toughest forwards. Primarily a fourth line player, Hendricks was called upon to create energy, motivate his team and stand up for the entire Oilers roster when there weren’t a lot of Oilers players willing to stand up for themselves or each other. Hendricks didn’t win every fight, but he was always a willing combatant.
Whether it meant taking on an opponent in his own weight class, or one well outside of it, Hendricks was ready to bleed blue and orange for the Oilers and he expected his team to respond accordingly. In 2015-16 Hendricks fought eight times including tilts with players like Erik Gudbranson, Dustin Byfuglien, Alex Petrovic. According to hockeyfights.com, Hendricks was 1-3-4.
The fact that Hendricks has moved down to fifth on the Oilers’ list is not only a welcome sight for Oiler fans but is great news for Hendricks himself. Always willing, Hendricks was better when he could tie up his opponent and have the fight ruled a draw. It will be a nice change to have some help in the toughness department.
4) Zack Kassian
Of the tough guy group, Kassian is probably the biggest question mark to maintain employment in the NHL. While he didn’t produce fantastic results in terms of offense or playing time in 2015-16, he did have a sort of rebound year, in that he was able to play the entire season trouble-free and eliminated off-ice problems that have plagued his career to date. He’s also got a track record of being able to put up 10-15 goals per season when healthy.
Kassian does possess talent, and he’s by no means a plugger or enforcer, but he’s an effective agitator with the ability to score for an NHL club. He’s a 6’3″ 217-pound forward capable of playing a fourth-line role, or fill in among the top-nine, or even playing a top-six role. For the small contract he demands ($1.5 million) he’s a smart gamble to provide depth, grit and attitude on a roster that needs it.
Kassian had two NHL fights and two AHL fights last year and he fared ok in all instances. More importantly, Kassian was often able to draw additional penalties from his opponents, giving the Oilers powerplay time when all was said and done. It’s his skill as an agitator that makes him effective. He’s the kind of player you like to have on your team but hate to play against.
3) Patrick Maroon
Maroon came over from Anaheim via trade at last season’s deadline and scored 14 points in 16 games. He’s a big winger with good hands, strong net presence and enough skill to play up and down a lineup with players like Connor McDavid or Mark Letestu. He can also fight and isn’t afraid to drop the gloves with anyone.
Maroon’s fight card has been full for the past three seasons. In 2015-16, he fought eight times, in 2014-15 he fought eight times and in 2013-14 he fought 13 times. Every year he’s either in the top ten or just outside of it in terms of the number of fights, but among those players with whom he shares that company it could be argued he’s the most talented.
For someone who could be one of Edmonton’s 2016-17 offensive threats, it’s interesting to note how often Maroon fights the heavyweights. Last year alone his fighting partners included Luke Gazdic, Chris Neil, Milan Lucic, Jared Boll and Shawn Thornton.
2) Darnell Nurse
Nurse is a defensive prospect who projects to be a top-two blueliner with a nasty edge a la Chris Pronger. Oiler fans are head-over-heels for this player and he clearly has become a fan favorite despite less than ideal statistics on the ice. His defensive awareness isn’t there yet and his ability to read the play is still a bit lacking, but he has speed to burn, a winning attitude and a team-first mentality.
One thing he already does well at the NHL level is fight. With four NHL tilts in his rookie year, Nurse proved that he’s not going to let anyone take liberties with his Oiler teammates. Nurse has taken on a number of dance partners, both willing and, in some cases, unwilling. Roman Polak can attest to the toughness of Darnell Nurse as Polak was on the receiving end of some of Nurse’s aggression and had his face caved in.
1) Milan Lucic
It’s hard to argue that Milan Lucic, one of the Oilers’ newest forwards, shouldn’t be moved immediately to the top of the list as the toughest. His reputation as a tough guy in the NHL precedes him and so does his ability to be one of the most skilled left-wingers in hockey for a man so willing to throw-down.
If you look at his quantity of fights, it’s actually less than some of the other players on this list each year, but there are likely two reasons for this. First, Lucic is an extremely talented player. In any fight, if you can take a better player to the box with you, in a way, you’ve won the fight, win or lose. Unfortunately, if Lucic is headed to the penalty box, he’s often the better player of the exchange. This isn’t always the best scenario for the teams he plays on.
Second, Lucic’s reputation leads people to avoid him. Of the three fights in the NHL he had last season, he clearly won all three. In 2014-15 of the three he fought, he clearly won two, with only tough-guy Chris Stewart barely getting the better of the exchange.
The reason Lucic tops the list of Edmonton’s toughest players is because he can fight, but it`s also because he’s a top-line forward in the NHL. His game isn’t just about how tough he is, he’s consistently been a 50-plus-point player which makes him elite for tough guys in the NHL.
The Edmonton Oilers had a plan that began last season and an objective they wanted to complete this summer. They started to add size throughout their lineup, becoming grittier, heavier and meaner. It is yet to be seen whether that translates into wins and an eventual playoff birth, but there is no denying that Edmonton has no intention of being pushed around in the Pacific Division, where being big and leaning on teams is an effective way to win hockey games.
Jim Parsons is a freelance writer who covers the Edmonton Oilers and news and rumors posts here at The Hockey Writers.
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