EDMONTON —Saturday night in Edmonton we learned that the Oilers just weren’t tough enough to keep opponents from taking liberties. Today we learned what they’re going to do about it.
The Vancouver Canucks dressed a typical pre-season road squad—tough and prospect laden—against the Oilers on Saturday, which iced a home-crowd friendly lineup much closer to what will be seen when the regular season opens next week.
The game played out to a predictable script.
First, the Canucks’ Dale Weise did not hesitate to throw a shoulder at Taylor Hall’s head. Weise took the minor (illegal check to the head) and was later suspended three pre-season games. Hall narrowly escaped the kind of avoidable concussion that we see all too often when some fourth-line plugger targets a star’s head.
Later, six-foot-three Canucks' winger Zack Kassian missed his check on five-foot-10 Sam Gagner along the sideboards. Kassian thought nothing, however, of reaching out with the heel of his stick and seeing what part of Gagner he could catch. The result was a broken jaw and surgery for Gagner — who will likely miss several weeks — on what Oilers head coach Dallas Eakins called, "A disturbing play by a disturbing player." Kassian was suspended for the remainder of the pre-season plus five regular season games.
Already without Ryan Nugent-Hopkins as he recovers from shoulder surgery, Edmonton will also now start the season minus its No. 2 centre, thanks to an irresponsible play that occurred because nobody is worried about what happens when they take a cheap shot on an Oilers' player.
For years now, Oilers' opponents have looked at the pre-game lineup sheet in search of the type of player who might deter those kinds of plays, and they’ve seen an open stretch of highway. Sure, Mike Brown stepped up to fight Weise to a draw, but he stands just five-foot-10 and is a cruiserweight at best. It was an admirable response, but not enough of a deterrent to keep opponents from taking liberties with the Oilers.
But that all changed Monday when the Oilers picked up a nuclear deterrent in Steve MacIntyre, claiming him off waivers from Pittsburgh. MacIntyre played one game for the Penguins last season, racking up 12 penalty minutes. In 91 career games, the six-foot-five, 250-pound winger has four points and 175 PIM, including 17 fights. There’d be more, if more players had the stones to take him on.
As a Calgary Flame, defenceman Robyn Regehr made a nightly ritual of hammering on Ales Hemsky. Hall and Nugent-Hopkins have both had shoulder surgeries early in their careers. Now Gagner has a busted jaw. Why wouldn’t a Weise or an Andrew Alberts make an impression by running a young, small-ish Oilers skill player? The upside for them is big, the downside nonexistent. Not any longer.
"Would (Kassian) not have done it had we had a heavyweight?," MacTavish told Sportsnet.ca prior to acquiring MacIntyre. "It was a little bit of a spontaneous act. I don’t know that he wouldn’t have done it had we had, you know, a Colton Orr in the lineup.
"You don’t want to draw too many conclusions on a game (like that). They didn’t have too much of their NHL lineup in there. We won the game, outplayed them substantially…
"But it’s nice to have somebody who can be a deterrent."
And now they do.
And if for any reason MacIntyre doesn’t prove enough of a deterrent, Ben Eager, who watched the game from the press box, has a solution: "We play them a lot down the stretch, and we’re going to go after their skill players also.
"At times, the tough guys are going to fight the tough guys," Eager continued. "But, if they go after our skilled guys, you go after their skilled guys. They start taking liberties with is, I think the best way to do it is go after their skill guys."
This isn’t the same Oilers team it was Saturday night.