SUN Hockey Pool

Redefining a blue-liner

DEREK VAN DIEST, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:07 AM ET

Jason Strudwick figured it out early.

He was never the fastest guy, the most talented guy or the strongest guy growing up playing hockey.

But by being a dependable guy, able to fill a certain role, the Edmonton Oilers defenceman, knew he could play in the NHL.

"When I was young, I was sat down by a lot of coaches and told that there was a role for me in the NHL if I was willing to accept that role," Strudwick said. "I just had to be a good team guy, stick up for my teammates, play hard every night and be in shape. From a young age I understood that. My dad and another coach made it very clear to me and I've heeded their advice thus far."

OFTEN OVERLOOKED

Strudwick, 33, has made a career playing a role often overlooked and always underappreciated. The local product is entering his 11th NHL season.

Last year, he played 52 games with the New York Rangers, scoring a goal and adding an assist while amassing 40 penalty minutes. He averaged nearly 13 minutes of ice time a night as a stay-at-home defenceman, who occasionally could fill a forward spot.

"The thing about the NHL is that there are four lines and seven or eight defencemen on a team," Strudwick said. "You're not all going to be power-play guys. You have to find a role that's good for you.

"There are a lot of guys that were high scorers in junior that became checkers in the NHL. That's just the way it is. You have to find what works for you.

"That's not to say you can't work your way up the line, but when you first get into the NHL, you have to do everything you can to get in."

Strudwick played his midget hockey with the K of C Pats in Edmonton before moving on to play major junior with the Kamloops Blazers. He was the New York Islanders' third pick (63rd overall) in the 1994 NHL Entry Draft.

After three seasons in the Islanders organization, Strudwick was traded to the Vancouver Canucks, where he became a fixture on the blueline.

From there, the six-foot-four, 225-pounder went on to play with the Chicago Blackhawks and Rangers before signing a free-agent contract with the Oilers this summer.

'LOOKED GREAT'

"He's looked great, I'm surprised and very pleased by the way that he's played and the way that he's moved," said Oilers head coach Craig MacTavish. "I know that it's early in the year, but I didn't expect him to be as mobile and as heady as what I've seen out of him playing defence.

"I know the rosters are going to get tougher and tougher to play against, but I think he's been real impressive."

The Oilers signed Strudwick to give them some stability and grit on the blue-line. He's expected to be the team's seventh defenceman this year, used on a platoon basis when his attributes are most required.

Most notably in games where there is expected to be a high degree of physical play.

However, so far through the preseason, Strudwick has shown to be a solid veteran blue-liner who may be able to take on more than just spot duty.

"My expectation of him coming in was that he was a world-class person, really good in the locker-room, with good situational toughness, and a guy that has some experience and versatility playing forward and defence," MacTavish said. "But I'm not at all afraid at this point of playing him. He looks like a decent player."

Strudwick has had to work hard in order to become one.

As a former bruising defenceman, he's had to redefine his game in the post-lockout era.

Unlike some of his lead-footed counterparts that were squeezed out by the rule changes, Strudwick has managed to adapt to the quicker game.

'PLAY BETTER'

"I lost about 10 pounds to get a little lighter," he said. "You have to play better positionally now, you can't use your stick as much on someone.

"But on the flip side of that, I find it easier to get the puck out of your own zone because you don't have guys trying to hook my gloves and it makes it easier trying to make a breakout pass.

"That's something I didn't expect to have, but I've really noticed that it's helped me personally. It's a little easier to get the puck up the ice."


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