Archive for 2016-12-18

Edmonton Oilers Hidden Gems on the Fourth

When you have potentially the best player in hockey on your team, it's easy to let the little things go unnoticed. Connor McDavid is so fun to watch that almost all eyes are drawn to him. Last night's game against the Arizona Coyotes reminded fans that this version of the Edmonton Oilers isn't just one person.

Zack Kassian

It's tricky to describe in one word what the resurgence of Kassian means to the Edmonton Oilers. Perhaps the folks from Twitter can do a better job than I.

Kassian's play has been everything any fan could have hoped for as an Oilers fan. After years of watching their beloved Oilers get pushed around and manhandled by bigger teams, Kassian has found a home on this Oilers team and his timing is impeccable. He's engaged every game, he's physical, has skill and stands up for his teammates. The game against Arizona was the Zack Kassian show and it was fun to watch.

On Wednesday, he had an assist, should have had a goal and dropped his gloves ready for any comers after he blasted Ekman-Larsson for rubbing out Matt Hendricks. The look on his face was one of pure determination — as if to say with is eyes, "If you are going to try and play physical with my guys, I'm going to make you pay for it." He has only two goals on the season, but he should have five.

That the Oilers picked him up in a trade that sent goaltender Ben Scrivens to Montreal makes adding him even sweeter. Scrivens is long out of the NHL, but Kassian is starting to show that perhaps his career is just on its second wind.

Mark Letestu

Letestu has been something of a blessing. Last season there were folks who'd suggested that he wasn't necessarily a great hire by Oilers-GM Peter Chiarelli. Those folks aren't saying much anymore.

With seven goals and 17 points in 32 games, Letestu would be on pace for over 40 points in an 82-game season. That's amazing considering he was never signed to be anything more than a fourth-line energy player who could win a couple faceoffs.

He's playing short-handed, he's now turned the Oilers power play into a weapon and he's reliable at key moments in the game. He's the epitome of the depth forward in the NHL and he's providing nothing but value for the Oilers.

Matt Hendricks

Hendricks is a bit unique to this group as his career is on the back nine and this could likely be his last year as an Oiler. If he stays, it will be due to his leadership skills and never quit attitude which is clearly rubbing off on this Oilers team. If he stays, it will also be at a significant discount over this current salary.

Last night it was fun to see Hendricks score. He's had a rough season having missed the first chunk due to injury and with so much depth on this team, Hendricks may be in tough to find a regular role here going forward. That said, if this fourth line continues to have the success it's been having over the last couple games, there's absolutely no reason to make a change.

McDavid Creates Challenges For Referees

McDavid isn't just a special player when it comes to fans. His speed, skill and leadership draws the attention of opposing players and coaches. Coaches like Bruce Boudreau, Ken Hitchcock and Mike Babcock have all praised his performances and admired what he brings to the Edmonton Oilers. Some have publicly come out and thanked their lucky stars that McDavid didn't have a better performance when playing against their team.

Something is going on the NHL and for Edmonton Oilers fans, it's something they're starting to get frustrated with. McDavid has been the topic of a few debates, most of them centered around the fact that calls from the referees are not going his way.

The Rules

Some will call it whining when fans complain that their players aren't getting the calls. In this case, fans aren't asking for special treatment. Most are simply calling for the rules to be called as they're written. Lately, that hasn't been the case.

Take for example the Oilers recent game against St. Louis. The Oilers ended up squeaking out a victory — winning in overtime — but prior to getting there, McDavid had a breakaway in which it's clear that there were at least two slashes and one potential hook by Alex Pietrangelo. No call of any kind was awarded to McDavid and the Oilers and it was obvious if not a penalty, the argument could have been made McDavid should have been awarded a penalty shot.

The non-call by the referees in that situation was embarrassing for the NHL. I'm sure the league doesn't want its officials blowing calls so badly. Doing so limits scoring, it detracts from things like penalty shots, which is great for the league and overall it simply unfair to a team that could have lost the game with a bounce that might have gone the wrong way later in the game.

Edmonton Oilers' Connor McDavid (97) bleeds from the lip after a high stick (Jason Franson/CP)

Why Did It Happen?

The question is, why does something like this happen? How does a play so clearly a penalty get missed by the referees when anyone, even those in the nosebleeds, can see the infraction? My take is pretty simple and it's the same as some with a lot more inside hockey knowledge than I.

Connor McDavid is so dynamic and fun to watch, that not only do players, coaches and fans get caught bewildered by his talent, so do the referees. David Staples put a sample of some of the most egregious plays against McDavid that resulted in no call.

Sometimes when you have a player who can do one hundred things 99 percent of the rest of league can't do, people want to see how the play ends up. When McDavid was on a breakaway in this situation, is it possible that the ref Chris Lee didn't make the call because he wanted to see if McDavid could fight off the play and score anyways? I think that's not only possible; but probable.

NHL Superstars

McDavid isn't the only player in the NHL that might have this issue. The league is full of young talent now that has skills like never before. Auston Matthews, Johhny Gaudreau and others make the life of a referee more difficult.

Should these stars get calls that other players don't get because, by the nature of their talent, they'll draw more penalties? There has always been an unwritten rule that the "new guys" don't get the calls the veterans do. They haven't earned the trust of the refs. Would calling so many penalties be looked at as a bias for the young stars that are now dominating the game?

The argument is that not calling these penalties hurts the NHL. This is a league that badly wants its stars to shine. Players like McDavid are a major reason the NHL is so profitable. Not calling these obvious penalties hurts the excitement of the game.

The Answer

The NHL needs to have a conference with its referees and simply remind them to call the game by the rules. Don't give advantages to superstars because they are superstars. At the same time, don't avoid making a call because the superstar has more talent and can fight through more than the average player.

Most importantly, when you're officiating a game where one of the best players in the game is part of the contest, don't get caught watching how dynamic he is. Understand that at least once or twice in a game a player like McDavid will "wow" everyone in the building. As a referee, you have to take awe in that moment after the play has ended and not during. Referees are human and sometimes what McDavid can do seems inhuman. Still, refs need to stay grounded and remember a rule is a rule no matter who it's called for or against.

But, who cares what I think right? For now, I'll just keep my mouth shut until I feel like spilling my guts again.

Jim Parsons is a business owner, husband, father and sports fan. For more information about founder and Oil Spill articles author Jim Parsons, click here.

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