Sunday, November 23, 2014

Norris



I disagree with the perception that he’s weaker on the defensive side of things. He showed me at the end of last year that he was managing the decisions on when to go, when to probe offensively, when to get back. I know he’s going to be a player that can be counted on in both ends. I think that Justin has Norris Trophy potential and I don’t think there are too many people who disagree with me in that regard.

 Craig MacTavish is an articulate guy and, in my opinion, a pretty smart guy. The statement above may have been spin but it's a statement that is haunting him now and will haunt him until Justin Schultz figures out how to play NHL defence.

 So it may haunt him forever.

 Norris, as he is now called, has done something that very few Oiler players can do. He has united the fan base. Those who think that Tom Gilbert was marshmallow soft and those who think that Gilbert was a legitimate top pairing NHL defenceman. Those who loved Ryan Jones as a heart and soul guy and those who thought his act was all fly the zone and fake hustle. The fans who thought Ales Hemsky was a perimeter playing coward and those who remembered him playing six weeks with a broken foot in a faint hope playoff drive and the countless times he was mugged by Robyn Reghyr and kept coming back at him.

 The fans who hate Petry and those who love him. The fans who think Eberle is Mr Clutch, on a par with Hall and Ted and those who think he's an overrated complimentary player who should have been traded a couple of years back at his peak value. Those who think Luke Gazdic is useful and those who think he is wasting a roster spot. The see em gooders and the fancy statters and everyone in between.

 Everyone may love Raymond but like poor Chris, everyone hates Norris.

 Why?

 Well Justin Schultz personifies everything that is wrong with an Oilers' team that is hitting rock bottom, again. Then again the reality is the team has bottomed out so many times since they traded Ryan Smyth away that this particular stretch is probably only in the top ten of awful death marches. The coach awaiting execution, the players, blank faced and frustrated, the bad goaltending, the popgun offence, the massive defensive breakdowns, the angry fans, the silent owner and, as has been the case since the beginning of this historic awfulness, the one constant, Kevin Lowe in management. We've seen it so many times before. The only difference this time is that the team is so much better, on paper at least, than all of the earlier versions and the possession stats tell us that progress is being made, finally, but the results are not there and after all of these years everyone is sick of the losing. Hell, we were sick of it in 2009.

 Back to Schultz. If you were to take everything that is wrong with the Edmonton Oilers, everything that has gone wrong over the last near decade (!!!!!!), and were to mold that clay into a player, that player would be young Norris himself.

Management's Failings

 Management is the reason why the Oilers are where they are. The entire roster has turned over. Eakins is the fifth coach to oversee this mess. The team has changed owners, general managers, assistant general managers, directors of scouting, scouts, assistant coaches, minor league coaches, even the training staff (remember that!). When you are awful for nine years you can say it's on the players or the coaching but management puts the team together. The fact that Craig MacTavish was willing to give Norris the contract that he did, the fact that they see him as part of the core, the fact that they even mention his name as a Norris winner. That speaks to a lack of judgement when it comes to talent. And the fact that Norris is playing more than any other defenceman, well I have no doubt that this is management's call too. And it's going to cost Dallas Eakins his job.

 Losing Losers Who Lose

 Losing losers who lose go through coaches every year or so and so soon the Oilers will be on their sixth head coach in seven years. I don't think Eakins gets canned until the end of this awful stretch in front of them although I am not as sure as I once was of this. I figured the Oilers would not want a new coach to come in and get his ass handed to him right away but the crowd is starting to look for blood.

 And so there will be another coach and it will be Nelson or Messier I think. Dan Bylsma is out there but he will have his pick and if I were him I would be looking for a contender looking for a change after an early playoff exit - San Jose, Anaheim, Montreal - rather than a perennial doormat. No, it will be another rookie NHLer or a desperate retread and so another new system, another new voice for the players and have you ever noticed that good organizations don't swap out their coaches annually? As the old joke goes though Scotty Bowman and the ghost of Toe Blake wouldn't be able to make a winner out of this club.

 Is Eakins a good NHL coach? I don't know. His record is shit as his detractors point out but the record of every Oilers' coach since 2006 has been awful and like every Oilers' coach since Chris Pronger hit the road he has been given an incomplete roster to work with. I do know that he is a smart hockey man and a good man and it's a shame that his first NHL job is going to end up like this. Results matter and they aren't there but I don't see a new man coming in and things being any different unless the new man is allowed to play Justin Schultz behind Mark Fayne and Jeff Petry. The fact that Norris, like last year, leads the D in TOI is absolutely unacceptable and I have no doubt at all that this is a directive from management. I am not a betting man, never have been. I would lay a lot of money that Schultz's icetime is a MacT mandate. The results have been as expected and so we will see a new coach.

 Potential and Development

 When Norris was snatched up by the Oilers we were excited and we had good reason to be. He was a prize UFA and he had the numbers to back him up. Since then we have seen no progression, no progression at all. Whereas Tom Gilbert and Jeff Petry and Martin Marincin stepped into the NHL and showed immediately that they got it, Schultz shows no idea at all that he can play defence in this league. He makes glaring errors time and time again, jumping into the play at the worst times, making ridiculous pinches (the one the other night was the absolute worst play I have seen by an Oiler defender ever) and letting opposing forwards get behind him constantly. Throw in his lollygagging and that he gets outmuscled constantly and you wonder how he is playing at all because based on his defensive play he is probably about ninth or tenth on the club's depth chart. Which leads us to accountability.

 The Golden Boys

 Eakins loves to talk accountability but when David Perron spoke up the other night (and now suddenly he is being shopped pretty actively - these guys are unreal) it was pretty clear that he was calling out the coach and some of his teammates and that Norris was one of those teammates. There are always different rules for the stars, that's the way it is, but the Oilers have taken it to a different level. Marincin gets sent down and then when he comes up he sits in the pressbox. Jeff Petry gets scratched. Nail Yakupov gets scratched and sees his icetime cut constantly. Magnus Paajarvi could never get his sideburns right either. Meanwhile Hall, Ted and Eberle skate whatever happens and you can add Norris to that group.

 I remember that years ago there were rumours of a rift between the Oiler veterans and the kids. Back then the kids were Gagner and Nilsson and Cogliano and I surmised that guys like Moreau and Staios, who had busted their asses forever, were pissed that these kids came in, had a couple of good years (or in Nilsson's case a few good weeks) and then got paid more money than they ever saw. Back then Gagner was the golden boy. The result was a guy who last year, after seven years in the league, still was making the same mistakes he was as a rookie. Defence takes some smarts and a lot of effort. Gagner, a smart player, never figured it out and I would bet one of the main reasons is that he never got called on it.

 What do you think Mark Fayne and Jeff Petry and Martin Marincin think when they see Schultz get beat time and time again and get sent over the boards regardless? What do you think Benoit Pouliot and Boyd Gordon and Matt Hendricks think? And Ryan Nugent Hopkins?

 We know what David Perron thinks. And he's the guy getting traded apparently.

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 So thank you Justin Schultz. You demonstrate for us management's falings and the franchise's inability to develop young players and to hold them accountable. You, more than anyone, are going to be responsible for another coach coming into this mess and the reality is it is very likely that Jeff Petry, supplanted by you despite being a better defenceman than you will ever be, will also be gone by the spring.

 Bravo Norris. Bravo.


Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Remember


 Remember. Today and every day.

 Thank you.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

I Know A Little German, He's Sitting Over There!


 Oh hi! How are you? It's been a while. Sorry about that.

 I wrote my last post and thought 'here we go! Back on the horse! Going to be churning them out now'.

 BUT NOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!

 Life is busy.

 My kids are growing up.

 My youngest is in grade one and she is becoming a big kid, relatively speaking of course. I enjoy the kids getting older but the one thing that I miss about the younger years (I've touched on this before) are the accomplishments! In the space of days they suddenly can do something big! And so in September, in the space of a few weeks, our youngest learned how to read, how to swim and how to tie her shoes. Isn't that unreal? Just amazing. That disappears as they get older, the milestones I mean. They become fewer and far between and in a lot of cases just not as exciting, at least for us parents. We're not going to be celebrating their first drink or first sexual experience with as much enthusiasm.

 The boy is trucking along. He has started his first season as a full time goaltender and he is on a quality club again. So far so good although I have to admit the drinking helps Jenn and I get through it, even if it means taking the subway home afterwards. He's a solid dude though, for sure. He is taking swimming as well. We require all of the kids to do so until a certain level and then they are allowed to do a second activity in its' place. The lessons are brutal, the coaches work them like dogs, when our oldest finished it she was all Andy Dufresne on us. So the boy started this fall and we figured he'd have two more sessions to finish up but we met with his coach yesterday for midterms and if he masters two techniques, easily within his reach, he'll be a graduate. His coach, a real hardass, was all cherry pies and unicorns talking about the boy. 'Hardest worker' and 'most focused' in the class, despite the fact that for the most part, he despises it, which the coach knows. Very proud of my son. Sometimes shit isn't fun. If you can put that aside and still grind it out, you've got some real character.

 As to my oldest, well she is 11 now and how the hell did that happen? SERIOUSLY!!!

 She went out for Halloween with her friends, that is, without her parents and siblings, for the first time. She was ten minutes late coming home but called to let us know which was great. She is growing up and it's wonderful and amazing and heartbreaking. She disappears into her room to listen to music and the other day she told Jenn 'YOU ARE RUINING MY LIFE' and according to my father in law if Jenn was any indication we only have about, six, no eight, no, wait ... eleven more years before she comes out of it.

 And then he smirked while Jenn glared at him. I wasn't smiling though.

 This is why I drink people!

 As for your handsome hero and the prettiest girl in the room, well we're doing alright. Good health this year and it's been busy and fun and a good time had by all. These few weeks mark the big one for the year though, Jenn turned forty a few weeks back and next week she goes to Vegas with some pals to run her first ever marathon and then if she can walk she will be partying some.

 Now I have to pull over to nap if I am driving over twenty miles so when it comes to runners my opinion is basically they are mentally deficient so I have no idea what she is thinking. (I keed I keed). Seriously though. Crazy shit. She has trained her ass off. She is as fit as she has ever been. The only worry is she has to finish it within a certain time. She could totally just do it but the time limit is a worry. I hope she does it. Oh man.

 My own tastes are less about the running and more about the drinking and so last year Jenn, who has been traveling some for work and some not for work, said you should go on a trip and you don't have to say those words to me twice. After my family and friends and the basics - eating and drinking and the sex - I love nothing more than travel. The only caveats were I could not go to a few places that she wanted to experience with me - Italy, Spain, Prague, Helsinki (seriously!) - and I could not go by myself, this more out of concern that if I hurt myself there be someone there with me than any fear of me getting into, ahem, trouble.

 I have a pal in Ireland and had never been to Galway and so that was a possibility but I have been three times to Ireland and we are now owned by a company based in Dublin so more trips there await me. And then in discussions with one of my oldest friends it turned out that his annual conference this year was going to be in Germany, Frankfurt to be precise.

 The plans took twists and turns. First we figured on Budapest, then I was thinking the south of Germany, then it turned out the conference was going to be in Hamburg and so it became Hamburg and Berlin.

 It was mental.

 You haven't lived until you've done karaoke in a St. Pauli dive called Thai Oasis at 5 in the morning after fourteen hours of groses biers. And never mind Hamburg, which was a riot, I'd been told that Berlin was amazing and we were not disappointed. As my pal noted as we wandered through Kreuzberg 'it's like they took all of my favourite bars in the world and put them in one neighbourhood'.

 It was grand. To travel and share that experience with an old friend, there are few things better. There are few things to recommend about getting older but the one is that as you get along in the journey your give a shit meter ends up in the garbage or at least mine has. I say and do what I want as long as I'm not hurting anyone. I still have a long way to go (knock on wood) but there is certainly no use in waiting around for tomorrow's glory to come. Drink it in. It's short.

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 As for the Oilers. Oh those Oilers.

 The roster is the best it has been since 2006/2007. Veterans sprinkled throughout to augment the kids, this is what MacT has done. Fayne, Nikita Nikita, Purcell, Pouliot, Gordon, Hendricks, Ference, Perron.

 That's a lot of quality.

 And yet. And yet.

 LT, the most positive guy out there, opined in his post today that the idea is still not about winning and it's hard to disagree. As he notes, if this team was serious about competing they wouldn't have left the gate with Arcobello and Draisatl as two of their top four centres.

 Yet they did.

 And so here we are. Staring down the barrel of nine years out of the playoffs.

 But what I want to talk about is the coach and the number one defenceman.

I'm an Eakins guy. Have been since the beginning. Not a popular position today I know. Not popular at all.

 Here's the thing. Eakins is a smart guy. Eakins is a thinker. He is a guy who asks questions. He is not an arrogant guy. These are things I know about Eakins from people who know Eakins.

 That's what I know. Here's what I think.

 I think that there are politics being played and that management has given Eakins some mandates that don't necessarily coincide with winning and that this is being played out first and foremost on the blueline.

 A coach wants to win and a coach can look at the numbers past and present and watch tape from past and present and any coach, anybody really, can see that if you are doling out ice time to the Oilers' blueline that you would start with Petry, Fayne and Marincin, move on to Nikitin and Ference and then go from there.

  And yet the number one defenceman on the Oilers in terms of icetime, same as last year, is one Justin Schultz. Last year he averaged the most icetime on the blueline, nearly two minutes over Petry in total, and over one minute over Ference (!) and Petry at even strength.

 This year he is averaging over 22 minutes a game, over a minute more than Nikitin, over three minutes more a game than Petry, over five minutes a game more than Fayne. You know who else averaged more ice time than Petry and Fayne? Brad Hunt.

 And this again carries over to even strength, though Petry is less than a minute less there.

 Now you tell me this. You watch the games. Schultz not only plays a ton but he is getting a serious push in terms of where he starts. He is getting put into a position to succeed. And yet when he is on the ice the rink ends up getting tilted into Edmonton's end.

 Why?

 Because Justin Schultz is not a very good NHL defenceman.

 Now here's the thing. Schultz had played a total of 134 games in the NHL up until now. So we are not talking about the finished product or at least probably not. He might be Andy Delmore, as many believe, but we don't know that yet. Defencemen can develop in many ways.

Your Bobby Orrs and Ray Bourques and Nick Lidstroms happen. Drew Doughty was a year and a half in the league and playing for Team Canada and playing well at the Vancouver Olympics.

 Chris Pronger struggled famously his first few years in the league. Larry Robinson played for a year and a half in the minors, Duncan Keith played two. Zdeno Chara spent time in the minors too, though less than a season.

 And on and on it goes.

 Will Justin Schultz become a Norris trophy winner? Probably not. We don't know yet what he will be. The worrisome thing is that he doesn't look like Oscar Klefbom or Martin Marincin or Jeff Petry. He doesn't look like he gets it. Those guys had (and have) their ups and downs but they looked like they had an idea from the moment they stepped onto the ice in the NHL.

 When Tom Gilbert came up for his first cup of coffee in the death march of the spring of 2007 before he got injured he looked like he belonged. Right away. The next fall he came into camp without a spot and he out played nearly everyone and stepped right into the top four. Right off the hop. He knew what he was doing right away. Bam!

 Schultz, well he reminds me of Ladi Smid. Love Ladi Smid. Love him. And he became a decent NHL top four defenceman for about two years before he went off the rails. But it took forever for him to get there. And Schultz, well, he may be a guy who just needs seasoning to become a star. Or to become a reasonable top four guy. Or maybe he's Andy Delmore. We don't know yet.

 And yet the coach plays him more than anyone else.

 Why?

 The coach wants to win. This isn't kids' sports. It's the pros. Dallas Eakins wants to win because that is the goal and the more he wins the better it is for him.

 And yet he plays Schultz (and Brad Hunt) more than Petry and Fayne and Marincin and everyone else and Petry and Marincin sit in the press box for various reasons (not enough intensity seems to be the latest for the big Slovak) and by the way when is the last time anyone accused Justin Schultz of showing a modicum of intensity?

 Don't get me wrong. I like Schultz. He has talent. I want him to do well because if he does well then it stands to reason that the Oilers will do well.

 But he should be playing a lot on the power play and after that he should be playing third pairing minutes at ES, sheltered as best as they can, until he masters that. Play Fayne and Petry and Marincin and Nikitin and give the team a chance to win.

 Right?

 But that is not the plan. The Oilers' management are tying their fates to Justin Schultz, he is the hill that they are going to die on and Eakins is the guy that is going to be the first to pay the price.

 I don't agree with everything Eakins has done. I don't know that he will be a good NHL coach. But management has tied his hands behind his back. Just as they did to Ralph Kreuger and Tom Renney and vem old Pat Quinn and ironically Craig MacTavish himself.

 If you don't give your coach the tools to win. Or even worse you give him a decent roster and still instruct him to play guys a certain way, then your sending him to a knife fight with a spork. And that's a damn shame.

 Dallas Eakins isn't blameless for the Oilers' woes but if he had the last say here I would bet a lot of money that playing Schultz more than anybody else is not his idea. And I don't bet. Ever.