For whatever reason - perhaps I’m just crazy- I find the endless discussion surrounding the Oilers fourth line, and specifically Luke Gazdic, to be fascinating. I’ve been told time and time again since the middle of last summer that I spend too much time focusing on one small aspect of the team, a line that plays just five minutes a night, and I’ll admit that may well be true; but there are two sides to any debate and trust me, it’s not just the voices of my side of the fence that won’t let the discussion die.
For me at least most of the debate about Gazdic has taken place on Twitter. And while I find Twitter to be a lot of fun and quite useful for every day fan interaction, it is not a very effective means of debating anything. 140 characters doesn't give you much to work with and when four or five people get into a conversation (which happens every time Gazdic’s name is whispered anywhere on the internet) the user names alone eat up a third of every tweet making any reasonable interaction nearly impossible. There are no such limits for me here at the Copper & Blue though, so I thought I might as well address some of the more common Gazdic related comments here with as many characters as I please.
Gazdic isn’t why the Oilers sucked this season; you can’t blame all of the team’s problems on him – In all honesty I shouldn’t even have to address this, but, like some weird variation on Godwin’s Law, if you talk about Gazdic long enough this will inevitably come up. The Oilers finished 24 points behind the eighth place Stars, nobody thinks that’s all Gazdic’s fault. Nobody. Why "Player X isn’t very good" gets twisted into "Player X is why the team sucks" in the minds of some is simply beyond me.
Gazdic isn’t the Oilers biggest problem – A variation of the argument above and 100% true, also irrelevant. If the Oilers could address just one problem with their roster per offseason then prioritizing the team’s problems might have some value, but that’s not how things work. If Gazdic is a problem, and you have to admit that he is if this is your argument, then why would you be okay with not addressing the problem? Gazdic is a very easy problem to solve too, just don’t offer him a new contract; no trade required, no buyout, nothing. He could be gone tomorrow, it’s that simple.
Gazdic doesn’t hurt the team when he's on the ice – I don’t know what games people were watching when they say this. What I saw on the ice wasn't very good and regardless of what numbers you choose to look you'll find him among the worst in the NHL: goal percentage, shot percentage, Corsi percentage, his WOWYs. Tyler Dellow has written about the Oilers bottom six and what happens following defensive zone faceoff losses, and again Gazdic looks very, very bad. He may only be on the ice for a small amount of time each night – 5:48 on average – but the Oilers get demolished when he’s on the ice, plain and simple.
Stats can’t measure Gazdic’s real contribution to the team – The theory is that he makes the Oilers tougher to play against because he hits and fights and the numbers simply don’t/can’t measure that. This is where the two sides of this argument really clash. In his limited ice time Gazdic fought 15 times last season, that’s the third highest total in the league, and he can throw a punch with the best of them, but unfortunately it’s been shown, more than once, that fighting has no real impact on the outcome of games; certainly not enough to make up for the deficit created by his being on the ice in the first place. And as for hits, I’ve got nothing against physical play, but a player who is actually hard to play against is the player that always has the puck, not the guy who does nothing more than finishes his checks.
His teammates like him and they say he helps the team – Have you ever heard a player publicly state the opposite when it comes to a teammate? Of course not, because that would make things pretty awkward in the dressing room afterwards. Maybe Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Jordan Eberle really do think that Gazdic’s presence on the fourth line helps them in some way, but because no player would ever publicly say the opposite I’m not willing to take these statements at face value.
He did everything he was asked to do – This is actually a fair statement, I think he met the expectations that the coaches had for him. This is why to some extent I had a tough time arguing with Bob Stauffer and Reid Wilkins when they gave Gazdic grades of B and A for his play this season. If biggest thing they looked at was meeting expectations, then it’s difficult to argue that Gazdic deserves a grade significantly lower. The problem as I see it though is that what he was asked to do doesn’t make the team any better, and all the other things that happen when he plays actually makes them worse. So I agree that he did what he was asked, but for me that’s too narrow a view of his contributions to the team.
He’s a rookie, he’ll improve – Depending on the context in which this is used there are a couple of problems with this argument. First, if you’re discussing Gazdic’s contributions, or lack thereof, to the team this season whether or not he’ll be a better hockey player In the future doesn’t matter. If Gazdic spends the summer working on his game and suddenly becoming a much improved player we can’t bring him back to the 2013/14 season and start again. And if your argument is that the Oilers should keep because he’ll improve, then my question is why do you think that? He played 67 games for the Oilers this season; was he better in the last ten than first ten? I don’t think so. The coaches didn’t seem to think so either because he wasn’t getting any additional ice time. But next year he’ll be better just because? He's played 256 games in the AHL and 67 more in the NHL, hardly an insignificant number of games, and still his skating and puck possession require a ton of work. How much more time does he need? There’s no guarantee that he won’t improve but I certainly don’t think it’s a lock to happen, and even if it does there is a lot of improvement needed before he’s not a complete drag on the team. I certainly won’t be holding my breath.
Listening to Gazdic do radio interviews he seems like a genuinely nice person, so I don't want this to seem like a personal attack on the guy, but having watched him play for a season I simply don't see why there is a desire to keep him on the team, his numbers don't justify it and my eyes don't see it either. The NHL is the very best hockey league in the world, unfortunately for Gazdic I don't think he's quite good enough to play in this league.