Over the last week I've taken a look at who will be the Oilers fourth line centre and which players are likely to grab the last couple of spots on defence. I find it a little strange that there are so few jobs up for grabs on a team that, honestly, wasn't very good last season, but for better or worse, that's the way it is. Looking at the tweets and some of the stories coming out of training camp so far, I think there might be one other job that is being contested at camp this season, and that's the job of the Oilers tough guy, a role that will be filled by either Mike Brown or Ben Eager.
Before I go too far here I feel that I should make it clear that I have not suddenly changed my feelings on the value of enforcers. I still think they're useless in every way, and I will go buy a beer, or use the opportunity to skip the bathroom line, every time a staged fight happens at an Oilers game this season. But my personal feeling aside, it is a roster spot that is potentially up for grabs, and one that depending who gets it, might tell us a little something about the type of team Dallas Eakins wants to put on the ice.
In the battle for this job the inside track almost certainly belongs to Brown right now. Brown was acquired by the Oilers last season in a trade for a fourth round pick. Brown played in 23 game for the Oilers following the trade recording one goal to go along with 53 penalty minutes. Included in those 53 penalty minutes were seven fighting majors, a total which amazingly constitutes more than half of the Oilers fighting majors last season, a remarkable accomplishment for a player who dressed for just less than half of the team's games.
If it's not already clear, Mike Brown is not a hockey player. But if you look at any roster prediction for the Oilers and you'll see him occupying either a spot on the fourth line or listed as a spare forward; either way he's getting pain NHL money to play hockey. Going into training camp I assumed this would be the case as well and really had no intention of writing this post because I didn't see any way Brown wouldn't be here, and that meant Eager would simply pick up where he finished off last season, playing in Oklahoma City. Nothing more to talk about.
But a couple of things have happened since then that make me think that Brown might not be the forgone roster choice that we all thought he was. The first was Eager's arrival at camp. As noted by several members of Edmonton's MSM, Eager came to camp about 15lbs lighter than he had in previous years. (It's interesting that being in shape is a story, but being overweight isn't.) Now I don't know that conditioning was an issue for Eager in the past, but if this is a sign that he's in better shape than previous years it could certainly help him get in good with Eakins who is borderline nuts when it comes to fitness.
The second thing that got me thinking came from Eakins himself when he was talking about toughness and fighting. After an initial scare regarding the team looking for a heavyweight it was clarified that Eakins is not looking for a "gun slinger," and if he's going to have an enforcer that guy will need to be able to play and not just fight. In his first press conference of training camp (I can't seem to link video from the Oilers site unfortunately) he also mentioned a couple of time that players need to be able to get in on the forecheck. The way I interpreted what he was saying is that was much more interested in an aggressive style of play than he was with intimidation.
I think an aggressive style is something both that both Brown and Eager can do, but if you're only going to pick just one, then as far as I'm concerned you pick the better player, and the better player is without a doubt Eager. The problem some fans and a lot of the media have with Eager, and I think this was a big part of why he sent to Oklahoma City last season, is that because of the concussions he's suffered he isn't going to be doing a lot of fighting any more. Ironically, during his time with the Oilers, Eager has been the most effective when he's simply focused on playing hockey, and when he gets concerned with intimidating the opposition he becomes completely useless and spends most of the night sitting alone in the penalty box.
Eakins' track record with the Marlies seems to back up the things he has said about one dimensional enforcers. Of course Brown isn't the most one dimensional fighter around, but in terms of playing hockey he's nowhere close to Eager. So who comes away with the job? Listening to Eakins I think it might be Eager. From an organizational standpoint though, you've got think Brown since there still seems to be a desire to punch our way to wins, as evidenced by the fact that the Oilers invited the face-punchingest young face-punchers* they could find to training camp. It's that interaction between the wishes of the coach and wants of the organization that is really interesting here. In fact, it's probably more interesting than who actually gets the job because of what it might mean for how the team will be built from this point on.
* This was lifted from an email from Derek. It was too good not to use.