PENTICTON, B.C. — The Edmonton Oilers were less than 10 minutes into the Connor McDavid era here Friday night, when Vancouver’s Jake Virtanen laid their star prospect out. It was a clean, hard body check that surely has a place in the game — but for the Oilers, it presents a thorny question:
In 2015, how do you protect Connor McDavid?
Years ago, Oilers head coach and GM Glen Sather installed Dave Semenko on Wayne Gretzky’s left wing as an ever-present deterrent to anyone who might wish to play too physical on Gretzky. He also had three or four other players in his lineup who were avid fighters.
“If you hit Wayne, you knew one thing,” Semenko said in an interview for my upcoming book, The Battle of Alberta: “Somebody’s coming.”
“We had a pretty tough team,” Semenko said. “It was the thought of what could happen if any of our players were cheap-shotted, or ran at. We kept the peace by the possibility of violence.”
Of course, hockey isn’t nearly as violent a game in 2015. And even with a heavyweight like Luke Gazdic in Edmonton’s lineup, the effectiveness of the traditional “policeman” has been severely mitigated since Semenko’s day.
“I don’t agree that a guy should have to fight after a clean hit anyhow,” said New York Rangers scout Justin Sather, Glen’s son, who adds that the days of a heavyweight fighting below his weight class have all but vanished. “I don’t see where it helps when, after someone hits McDavid, a player like Gazdic comes out and fights the other team’s tough guy.”
Besides, likely half of NHL teams won’t employ a player in Gazdic’s or Semenko’s role this season. So, if heavyweights only fight each other in today’s game, then how is Gazdic supposed to stop a player like Virtanen from drilling McDavid?
“(Protecting McDavid) is something I’m definitely going to try and do,” Gazdic told me last week. “I’m not sure I’m going to be playing first-line left wing with him, but I just want to make sure that when he’s out there on the ice he knows (intimidation) isn’t something he has to worry about. There aren’t too many guys who’ll be taking runs at him, and if they do, there is going to be a price to pay.”
Sather the Younger isn’t sold.
“I just don’t think that presence deters anyone from hitting (McDavid) anymore, unless (Gazdic) is on the ice with him,” Sather said. “You’ve got to have team toughness. That’s the only answer.”
Talk to some of the hockey people watching games at the South Okanagan Events Centre this week, and the question seems to boil down to this: Who do the Oilers have that can both play with and protect McDavid?
“Do the Oilers have Milan Lucic?” asked one scout, with a smile. Of course, they do not. Nor has this team been particularly team tough in recent seasons, something new GM Peter Chiarelli will no doubt address over time.
Because the other way to stop teams from abusing McDavid is to abuse their star players in return, and that is a trait that has not been in the Oilers DNA. Take the example of the Vancouver Canucks and the Sedin brothers. While the Canucks have exerted their physical will against Edmonton over the last decade, playing against the Oilers has been a bruise-free experience for Henrik and Daniel.
“Today’s game is so fast, and the players are so smart now … he’s going to have to learn how to protect himself by being smart,” said Calgary scout Ron Sutter. “He’s a really, really smart player, and I don’t see there being an issue with that.
“Matchups. That will be the place where you’ll be able to protect him the most — from behind the bench.”
When Virtanen drilled McDavid on Friday, there wasn’t a player on the ice big enough to drop the gloves with the beefy Canucks prospect. On his next shift, big Mitch Moroz sent Virtanen flying with a big body check, but that alone did not serve to scare off any Canucks rookies from continuing to play McDavid physically.
Frankly, the whole protection racket is predicated on an environment that does not exist in hockey anymore. Fighting is almost gone from the game, and forcing an unwilling player to fight simply does not happen in 2015.
So McDavid is simply going to have to learn to avoid situations that leave him vulnerable, and absorb more contact than Gretzky had to.
“He’s going to have to get used to that,” agreed Bakersfield coach Gerry Fleming, who coaches the Oilers prospects in Penticton. “It was his first pro game. I’m sure that’s not going to be the last time that happens and I’m sure it wasn’t the first time it’s happened to him.
“He’s a good player and there are going to be guys who come at him hard,” Fleming said. “It’s a man’s game.”