Oilers playing ‘bigger’ game with help from Maroon, Kassian

Lauri Korpikoski had the game-winner and Cam Talbot made 39 saves to get the Oilers a 2-1 win over the Jets.

It’s always been fairly easy in Edmonton.

Get drafted first overall, get the maximum rookie contract, spend a couple of years hearing about how great the future will be, then sign your six-year, multi-million dollar contract as a 21-year-old.

The job comes with nice, long summers off — unless you take that all-expenses paid European vacation every spring (a.k.a. the World Championships). But night-in, night-out, it’s been wide-open fire wagon hockey here in Edmonton — fun to play, unless you want to win now and again.

Ask Pat Maroon, who came over from the Anaheim Ducks at the trade deadline. He recalls coming to Rexall and relieving the Oilers of the two points almost every time. The game plan never changed.

“We harped on it every game: ‘Get pucks deep, go to work.’ That’s how you win hockey games,’” said the newest Oiler, a burly, 6-foor-3 winger who has two goals and two assists in three games with Edmonton. “Any small team, you don’t want to play their game — transition and letting them use their speed. Coming in here, (the plan was) getting pucks deep and letting them play defence. That’s what we did every time. Playing big, playing physical.”

Edmonton’s record against Anaheim over the past decade? Does 11-24-4 do anything for you?

It is amazing that an Edmonton club built by former Oilers who had won Stanley Cups on teams that were as physical as they were skilled could forsake the value of size when constructing this Oilers era. But while the team accrued top-six forwards like Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, management left those young stars bereft of the size and maturity to compete against teams that, as Maroon says, choose a physical game over going skill vs. skill.

Enter general manage Peter Chiarelli, who stated upon his arrival that he would build a bigger, heavier team. He began to Bruin-ize this lineup when he signed 6-foot-4 Eric Gryba and 6-foot-1 grinder Lauri Korpikoski over the summer. Farmhand Brandon Davidson, a 6-foot-2 defenceman, became a regular soon after training camp.

Then Chiarelli traded for 6-foot-3 winger Zack Kassian, a big brute with good hands who plays a little screwy. The Oilers haven’t been unpredictable in decades. Kassian is unpredictable — in a good way, most nights.

Then Chiarelli claimed 6-foot-2 winger Adam Cracknell and 6-foot-4 D-man Adam Pardy off waivers before the deadline, when he also dealt for Maroon. Meanwhile the GM moved out two of his softest players in Teddy Purcell and Justin Schultz. That’s seven big, gritty players in, and two soft guys out. Nine players — or half of the Oilers skaters on a given night.

“Toughness, for me, is not the fighting,” said head coach Todd McLellan. “It’s the battling, it’s the pushback, the grinding areas. We still have to develop that heavy, hard, relentless tenacious attitude, and having a little more size helps everybody.”

The Oilers are coming back from a 3-1 road trip where they battled and scrapped in a fashion not seen here in years. They may never be as big as the Los Angeles Kings, but with the amount of skill in this lineup, they don’t have to be.

If the skill guys learn to play harder, that is.

“Chicago is relentless, hard and tenacious in its own way too, and they’re not a big a team,” McLellan pointed out. “A mix is probably what we’re going to end up with because we have some smaller skill players here. But we’re trying to augment it with some grit, some size… a little meatier.”

Truly, it isn’t about fighting anymore in today’s game. But it is still about showing you have the fight in you. That you are willing to fight if pushed.

Lately, when Hall take a cheap hit he comes up swinging, and gives someone a return shot in the chops. Because he knows the cavalry is on its way, and he’ll not be in the main event if things escalate.

It’s a small thing, if you consider fighting spirit to be small. True, you can’t quantify a player’s refusal to finish second. But does that strip the quality of value?

“I think it’s nice for the skill guys. They can play a little bigger. They know they can do things and they’re protected,” said Kassian. “And it’s not so much about fighting either. It’s about playing the game hard, playing the game the right way.”

The other night in Philadelphia, Wayne Simmonds did what everyone has done for years: he stepped into an altercation and sent an already engaged Hall flying.

Within seconds, Maroon had Simmonds bent over the boards near the bench, while Kassian had another Flyer flat on his back on the ice. It was a small but meaningful thing. Like a meteor streaking across the sky, which wouldn’t be so cool if you saw one every day.

Edmonton won the game 4-0 at Philadelphia. Not a single Oiler had ever won a game there before, in an Edmonton uniform.

“Those guys get hit? I’ll fight whoever I have to fight,” said Maroon. “Whatever I need to do to help this team, I’ll do anything. I’m in this league and I don’t want to go anywhere. Whatever I need to do…”

If some of that can rub off, they might finally have something here.