SUN Hockey Pool

Not tough enough?

ROBIN BROWNLEE -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 9:57 AM ET

Don't it always seem to go, you don't know what you've got till it's gone ...

While it seems a touch bizarre to call on the lyrics of falsetto Joni Mitchell in referencing NHL tough guys, her words fit where the Edmonton Oilers and their lack of a bona fide enforcer are concerned.

The Oilers made a philosophical decision last summer that they didn't need Georges Laraque, letting the baddest man on the NHL planet know he wasn't in the plans. When Big Georges took his feared fists to the Phoenix Coyotes, they wished him well and moved on.

KNOCKED SILLY

It's a decision the Oilers have regretted since, most recently Tuesday when Minnesota meathead Derek Boogaard flattened Ales Hemsky knowing there wasn't a damn thing anybody could do about it.

In a season when "team toughness" was supposed to fill the void and the six minutes a night occupied by Laraque, Hemsky has been knocked silly too often and opponents have made a habit of running at the Oilers without, it's obvious, fear of retribution.

Yesterday, coach Craig MacTavish admitted he's seen enough of it and vowed the Oilers will address the problem - likely by putting in a call to the minors for Zack Stortini or J.F. Jacques, but possibly via trade.

It's an overdue pause for second thought.

"It's no secret teams are taking liberties with Ales," said MacTavish, who hadn't seen the Boogaard incident when he met with reporters.

"We've got to address it. There's no question of that. He can't continue to take the type of hits he's taken in the last little while. We will address it in the very immediate future."

Letting Laraque go didn't cause much of an uproar among fans at the time because a lot of people thought he'd outlived his usefulness after 418 games in Oilers silks. You remember the arguments, right?

Georges wasn't a bully. He fought only by appointment. He made too much money for a fourth-liner. A no-trade clause? Good riddance.

What people didn't put enough value in was the deterrent factor, what having Laraque on the bench meant. I don't recall Hemsky getting starched every second game with No. 27 around. I don't remember Derek Morris jumping Marty Reasoner like he did in Phoenix.

Worse yet, Laraque wanted to stay here. The only reason he made the no-trade clause request in the first place - yes, it was ill-conceived - is because he didn't want to take a lowball offer and then get traded anyway.

"You either find somebody who can do it or you do it internally," MacTavish said of his options.

"We have Zack Stortini, who's an option for us and maybe one we'll take soon and bring him up. You can't consistently let teams continually take liberties with Ales, in particular, and a couple other guys."

Team tough? This team isn't tough enough. Not with Ethan Moreau out until March. Not with Steve Staios out Tuesday.

What, Jason Smith was supposed to get his head knocked off by Boogaard? Right. That would have sent a message. Talking about adding insult to Hemsky's injury.

"It's my responsibility to make sure we have a healthy Ales Hemsky in the lineup," MacTavish said.

"If guys are taking shots as Boogaard did in Minnesota, then we're going to have to address it."

In hindsight, it's obvious the Oilers made the wrong call on Laraque. They had the toughest guy in the league and let him go.

For those who reasoned Laraque didn't fit in the new NHL, wrong again. Fact is, there isn't anybody among the top 10 tough guys who is as good a player as Laraque.

TIED WITH LUPUL

By the way, with 19 points, Laraque went into last night's games tied with Joffrey Lupul in points. He has more than Fernando Pisani, Reasoner, Patrick Thoresen, Brad Winchester and Toby Petersen.

"You look at the minutes our fourth-line wingers have got the last little while," said MacTavish, asked about re-thinking the need for an enforcer. "They're four or five minutes themselves.

"We see a need right now for some toughness. We have to make sure our guys are protected."


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