At Noon Eastern today Ben Eager cleared waivers and should subsequently find himself playing in the AHL. For many Oilers fans Ben Eager represented something that was missing from the lineup. He was big and fast and mean. He was some kind of mean, well, he used to be at any rate.
The MSM machine has been churning out the press that the Oilers have been lacking size and toughness for a long time now. It’s practically ingrained into the psyche of every Oilers fan that their team might as well be extras in the next Smurf movie (love NPH). How is it possible for such a small, almost sickly, team to abandon a player that represents everything that they need? I mean Ben Eager is fast, he’s 6’2”, and he’s 236 lbs, and he’s mean. This is essentially a list of everything missing from the Oilers, right?
There’s a simple answer. No. No, it is not.
The Oilers don’t need Coke Machines on skates. They need capable hockey players. Ben Eager, for all the tools he possesses, is just not very good at the NHL level. To try and pin Edmonton’s struggles on a lack of size is really just lazy. It would be great to add skilled size, but Eric Lindros circa 1996 isn’t available right now and if he was I don’t think he’d like to play for Edmonton (he never liked Northern Canada, ask the Nordiques). The truth is the Oilers’ size is just fine. The old adage “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog” applies here. The Oilers are young and very skilled in their top 6, but they are still maturing. They don’t need Ben Eager to get a better cycle down low. They don’t need Ben Eager to backcheck harder. They don’t need Ben Eager to never quit on a play. That has to come from within.
Ben Eager is by all accounts a tough player. Concussions and the fear of getting more may have prevented him from dropping the gloves in the past two years, but even when completely healthy the ice always seemed tilted the wrong way when he was out there. He just isn’t good enough to make a positive impact on a hockey game. He was brought in to be a player, not to ride the pine. His unwillingness to fight (even for good reason) cost him his job as soon as the Oilers acquired Mike Brown. Brown is ultimately a better hockey player AND it only took him a week to take over as Oilers’ leader in Fighting Majors. Keep in mind too, Mike Brown is a SMALLER player by 3 Inches and 30 pounds.
The Oilers need to be “tougher”, but not in a 4th line mucker kind of way. They need to play with the Passion of their youth and with a Blue Collar work ethic. They need to grow up and play like professionals. In the past the team lacked skill but worked hard. It has been a long time since the Oilers were known as a team that out-worked their opponents. It just doesn’t happen that often anymore. I don’t think the Oilers are lacking a toughness because they are missing a Milan Lucic in their top 6 (29 teams don’t have Milan Lucic). Toughness isn’t a player, it’s a frame of mind.
We have all been told that the Oilers’ best players are too small to compete. Too many of the same body type. That is the biggest over-simplification of Oiler needs imaginable. The Oilers are not an overly big club, but they aren’t that small either. The MVP of the team at the halfway mark has to be Sam Gagner and he represents AVERAGE NHL size. He might be shorter than the pretend player that many fans want to replace him with, but it isn’t like he’s trying to look over NFL Linemen or dunk over Shaq. He’s a hockey player who has a low center of gravity and weighs 200 pounds. He isn’t a frail body. And most of the Oilers top 6 is essentially the same.
Yes, the Oilers lack toughness, but the toughness they desperately need won’t come from any 4th liner with a solid fist and penchant for roughing penalties. The toughness they lack is simply the battle worn toughness it takes to bring it every night. If the team wasn’t so cripplingly dependent on a group of young men all under 23 years old then we’d likely see more of it on a nightly basis. However, until time has taught those lessons to the young stars we’re left wondering if maybe they just need somebody with a little grit or sandpaper to fill the void. Ben Eager couldn’t do it, and I think we’re lying to ourselves if we believe anyone really can.
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