As far as Charlie Huddy is concerned, there aren't too many teams who boast more skill on the blue line this season than the Edmonton Oilers. And, he's probably a good guy to ask given the number of seasons he played alongside Hall-Of-Famer Paul Coffey.
"I had some pretty good years playing with Paul," understates Huddy, the assistant coach in charge of defence. "It's a hard position to play; you really have to be able to communicate together and know where he's going and where he's coming from. I think that's one of the things that I did with Paul, he was obviously a great skater and puck-handler and loved to carry the puck, I would just kinda work off of him to see where he was. If I was playing right defense I might end up, if the puck came back into our end, on the left side to make it easier for him to get to the right."SKILL THRILL
The Oilers will boast back end skill in the form of Lubomir Visnovsky, Sheldon Souray & Tom Gilbert. Add in Denis Grebeshkov and Ladislav Smid
who are also more than capable of an offensive game and steady stay-at-home men in Steve Staios and Jason Strudwick, and you've got yourself a pretty well-rounded group.
"We've added some good skill back there and, knock on wood, hopefully we can keep all those guys healthy and we'll be pretty solid back there," says Huddy. "We've got guys that can move the puck back there on the back end and we all know how important it is to make that good first pass and get out of your own end and get goin' the other way. We saw it last year with Gibby (Tom Gilbert) and (Denis) Grebeshkov being able to do that and I think we're that much better with Visnovsky back there; he's going to bring a different element to the game again for us back there."
Oddly, as the team continues to stack up skill on the back end, the experiment with Joni Pitkanen failed. I suggested to Huddy that Pitkanen was the most talented blueliner to play for the Oilers since Paul Coffey; he didn't disagree. So, why didn't it work? "It was just a matter of being able to fit in with the gameplan," Huddy explains. "Sometimes guys have their own reads on how they should play and things like that. At some point you have to be able to follow a gameplan, and not that Joni didn't, but once he got out there it was kinda one direction."
Ultimately, as Huddy suggests, one of the Oilers' biggest beefs with Joni was that he just wasn't able to figure out when to give it the green light and when to tap the brakes. Huddy has a bit of an interesting take on that reality, putting forth the hypothesis that Pitkanen was simply trying too hard. "Credit to Joni, he wanted to win hockey games," Huddy emphasized. "A lot of times when you have the ability to skate like that and handle the puck and get up ice as quickly as he could, he always felt he could get something out of it."TOUGH AS...?
The one question mark that immediately jumps to mind when examining the depth chart for the Oilers defence is toughness. That's not to question the heart of the players by any stretch, but playing on the back end sometimes requires a certain amount of strong-arm tactic. If Sheldon Souray and Steve Staios both stay healthy, that's half the battle; and, Huddy says, don't forget Jason Strudwick. "I don't know what the plan is with Strudwick, if he's gonna be in and out, but he's big and strong back there and he can make things happen. We saw a little bit of Souray last year about his toughness in the corners and in front of the net when things were happening there. And, Stevie Staios, not a big guy but he's aggressive back there and he's not afraid to let forwards know he's back there. I don't think we're gonna be soft by any means back there."
There's one defender we haven't mentioned yet. Ladislav Smid
made great strides last year in his physical game and showed a definite eagerness to muck it up if someone got too close to his goaltender or too physical with a teammate. "He's got a lot of fire in his eyes and he's a tough guy back there," says Huddy. "I remember having a few conversations with him...'Ladi, every time the whistle goes you can't get into action with somebody, you gotta kinda pick and choose your spots. It can't be after every whistle.' We love his heart and love the way he plays and he's not afraid to let the other team know it."CHOOSE YOUR COMBO
It's only the beginning of September so nothing is set in stone, but Huddy has mapped out the defence pairings that he'd like to try to start the season. It's ultimately Craig MacTavish's decision, but if Huddy had his way today this is how they would shape up:
Sheldon Souray - Steve Staios
Lubomir Visnovsky - Tom GilbertLadislav Smid
- Denis Grebeshkov
Jason StrudwickDan's Dish:
We're now less than 2 weeks away from the first radio broadcast of the 2008/2009 season. On Monday, September 15th Rod Phillips, Bob Stauffer and I will be at Clare Drake Arena bringing you live coverage of the annual game between the Oilers Rookies and the University of Alberta Golden Bears. Hear it live on 630 CHED beginning at 7pm! You can listen to Dan on Inside Sports weeknights from 8 to 11 on 630 CHED.