"Take the hit to make the play," goes the old saying, words that are invariably spoken in approving tones. It's central to the game of hockey that players - the admirable ones at least - are willing to pay a price on the receiving end of things, every bit as much as on the giving.
I have an old saying myself, that "the first 50% of toughness is being able to take it", words that I repeated on occasion to my longtime seatmates during the years we admired hardrocks like Lee Fogolin and Jaroslav Pouzar, Kevin Lowe and Craig Muni. Man, those guys took a beating, and none of them ever backed down an inch.
Somewhat ironically we were equally extolling the virtues of Wayne Gretzky, who exhibited a truly extraordinary ability to avoid the hit but still make the play, the best of all possible worlds. It wasn't that he wouldn't go where angels feared to tread, he'd dart in and out of there and emerge unscathed, time and again. The needle and the damage done.
The current Oilers don't have a Gretzky of course, who does? Worse, they have a serious scarcity of the hardrock types. Smyth and Smith are gone, Steady Steve too, and in their places are an assortment of smurfs, wannabes, and wannabe smurfs. The team has been bashed by (some of) its fans for "lack of compete" even as it has been battered by injury the last four years.
Nobody will accuse the team's offensive leader of a lack of compete. Ales Hemsky is more than willing to take a hit to make a play; some might say, too willing. Whatever, his style of play and his talent make him an obvious target for opposing defenders like Robyn Regehr and Andy Sutton, or bangers like Derek Boogaard and Jordin Tootoo. Or checkers like Michal Handzus, whose vicious hit ended Hemsky's promising 2009-10 season in mid-November. Ales took the hit to make the play, but it wasn't worth that price.
How big a target is Hemsky? A breakdown of hits both given and taken by Oilers forwards over the past two seasons follows the jump.
As was the case in Part One: the blue, all raw stats are courtesy of Gabriel Desjardins; thanks again, Gabe. As before I have only listed players who ended the 2009-10 season on the Oilers and who remain part of the equation looking forward. The group is sorted by the rightmost column, total collisions, and the leader of each category is highlighted in red.
Lo and behold, despite playing just 94 games over the past two seasons, Ales Hemsky has absorbed the most hits of any Oiler forward. Only Sam Gagner, who himself ended the recent season on IR, comes close. Two more diminutive puckhandlers, Andrew Cogliano and Robert Nilsson, are next. I guess if I was playing the Oilers my strategy would be to take the body on those guys too. Or on Patrick O'Sullivan, if I could find him.
No surprise to see Zack Stortini leading the team both in hits given and in total collisions. Zack has been the healthiest of those players known for their physical game; even at fourth-line minutes for 80% of the team's games over those two years and pressboxed for the other 20%, he has done a pretty consistent job of sticking to his job description.
What is clearly lacking is a top 6 type at or near the top of that list. I look longingly at Erik Cole's 134 HF + 90 HA = 224 collisions in just 63 GP and there's just nothing even resembling a replacement. When Cole left Oilers were in strong playoff contention, since that day they have had a disastrous stretch drive followed by a disastrous season. I'm not going to hang all that on O'Sullivan - we trade an apple for an orange (or was it a pumpkin?) - but I think Steve Tambellini has something to answer for in terms of unbalancing his team, an all-too-common plaint in these parts in recent years.
Let's look at the above information expressed as rates and ratios:
Some may be surprised to see Stortini leading the charts on the receiving end, of hits taken per 60. Not me; Zorg is out there to engage in the physical battle, and is always busting his hump to win races to shoot-ins, quite willing to take a knock to move the puck along the end wall and initiate the cycle. To say he stands out on this team for this willingness is an understatement.
Of course that is the lot of the fourth-liner. I have chosen to show hit rates on both a per-60 and per-GP basis because I think the nature of the act favours those guys who play relatively few minutes. It's easier for a Stortini, a Jacques or a Stone to go out there and bust ass for 10 minutes when that's likely all there is to their night's work. Moreover, said stats are likely skewed in favour of players who get most of their ice time at evens; don't have numbers to back me up but it's my observation that there is far less hitting on special teams. Surely getting hit three times in 20 minutes takes more of a nightly toll on a body than getting hit twice in 10.
Looked at this way, we see the familiar name of Ales Hemsky leading the team in hits taken per GP, even as he is dead last on the squad by the opposite side of the same coin (HF/GP). That 1:8 ratio is unhealthy. I'm not sure I want to see Hemsky initiating more contact necessarily, but it might be in his best interest to practice discretion instead of valour on occasion. In his case by far the most important number in "hits/GP" is the one under GP. Of all the things that have derailed Oilers playoff hopes these past four years, top of the pops has to be Hemsky's variety of ailments - head, wrist, shoulder - that have sidelined him and/or limited his effectiveness down the stretch of every one of those seasons.
Ales is a rare enough talent that this fan is prepared to make that exception for him, as I once did for Wayne Gretzky. Self-preservation comes first. But I'm convinced we have to change the mix of players around him, bring in some more robust types who can look after the physical element. If we could find one who could ride shotgun in the process and keep up with Hemsky on the hockey side of things, that would solve a few problems. All of which might explain Craig MacTavish's experiment with Cole on Hemmer's left side (fail) and Quinn's with JFJ (epic fail). Both were looking for a player the Oilers don't actually have.
Which puts the ball squarely in Steve Tambellini's court. Wanted: a top-6 LW with an aggressive streak.