Less beauty, more beast in NHL

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:30 AM ET

Maybe they won't be the NHL's 97-pound weaklings, after all.

It has long been the knock on the Edmonton Oilers that they are hopelessly easy to play against -- not skilled enough to scare opponents with their offence, not tough enough to drag a game into the back alley.

Stocked with too many "tweeners," as head coach Craig MacTavish used to refer to the middle-of-the-road players in his lineup, they too often found themselves outmuscled by the tough guys and outgunned by the skill guys.

Everything about their forwards was soft, except their hands.

They stopped some of the bleeding, literally, by bringing Steve MacIntyre to Zack Stortini's aid last season, and it certainly kept the league's predators honest. But there's a difference between fourth-line agitators and nuclear deterrants and the functional, 60-minute toughness the team has been missing.

Through seven games of training camp, however, there seems to be a harder edge to the forward unit -- at least a harder option at head coach Pat Quinn's disposal.

With J.F. Jacques growing into the physical presence that they'd always hoped, Ryan Stone shoving his way into the picture and Dustin Penner playing harder for Quinn than he ever did for MacTavish, the Oilers are shaping up to be a lot tougher to play against.

"We're seeing Jacques become the guy he was expected to be and Pens looks like he's going to have a good year," said defenceman Sheldon Souray, Edmonton's toughest guy on the back end.

GOOD MIX

"If those two things shape up the way you hope they will, we have two pretty good power forwards -- not to mention some of our energy guys a little later in the lineup. We could have a good mix if things work out."

More grit was at the top of GM Steve Tambellini's off-season checklist. When he wasn't able to acquire any in the summer, there was considerable concern.

Two weeks into camp, though, key guys are stepping up.

"Our management was hopeful these boys would be able to step in and provide a little bit different look, and to this point they certainly have," said Quinn.

"Jacques has had what I would call a good camp, so has Stone, who gives you a physical presence. Young Gilbert Brule, same thing."

REFRESHING

Fans who watched the last preseason game with Calgary had to find it refreshing to see Robyn Regehr looking over his shoulder against the Ales Hemsky line, wondering which direction Jacques was coming from.

Even Brule, all five-foot-10, 175 pounds of him, brings an element Quinn likes to see.

"He's not a giant, but he's not afraid to stick his nose in the right spots," said the coach.

"It's the old story; it's not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog. You have to be willing to do those sorts of things. I don't mean going in and getting beat up; just don't concede the puck without contesting it in some fashion."

It's nice, though, when your dogs are big, and are willing to fight for those battles in the corner and that precious real estate in front of the net.

"If we have big bodies who can skate and get in on the forecheck and make life a little bit more miserable for other teams than we have, it's going to be a huge advantage for us," said Souray.

Between Jacques, Stone, Penner, Souray, Stortini, MacIntyre, Ethan Moreau, Ladislav Smid and Jason Strudwick, the shouldn't have to take too many backward steps this year.

"We have a lot of small forwards, but we have a lot of big guys, too," said Jacques. "People tend to forget that. Mac and Zack ... Stoner has been really good from the start of camp. Smid is probably 225. We're getting a great balance of small and fast and big and strong."

ROBERT.TYCHKOWSKI@SUNMEDIA.CA


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