Yesterday, Coach Dallas Eakins admitted he made a mistake. It took a lot of honesty and courage to admit that he should have backed off the swarm defense. But what he really did was call out the entire organization and the real mess it's been in since 2007.
And that mess is defense. Anyone could have said it, but we're now hearing it from the one true source--the coach. It's really no surprise to us hard core fans.
He tried to put in "swarm double-up" defense, but as I said from the beginning of the season, they rarely ever executed it. But when they did, it worked. Problem is, if it's not executed properly, it leaves a gaping hole that teams can exploit. If the other d-man goes in too soon, the opposition can chip the puck out. That offender needs to be pinned to the boards first, then we execute the swarm. But they weren't and teams were exploiting that hole, similarly to how they did last year with Krueger's system, and while I think it was intentional... hmmm... was it?
Last year's Corsi numbers against competition level for the entire defense was WORSE than the worst guy the year before. It's as if the team completely abandoned defense altogether.
So even not executing the swarm wasn't the actual problem that Eakins admitted this team has.
The heart of the matter with the Oilers isn't just defense; it's flippin' BASIC fundamental defense. And from last year, I'm calling out Gagner, Hemsky, Yakupov, and yes, even Hall. Oh yes indeed. As Eakins said, "Oh boy, they love to score". Well, no shit.
But as I said after about game 5, this hasn't been a "defense-first" team since the Cup run in 2006 with MacT at the helm. Eakins wants our guys to love playing defense as much as they do offensively "like the Bruins". Wow, makes sense, eh? You know, stop the other team from scoring!
Do you recall that team of 2006 being flashy and run and gun, because I sure don't, save the odd Hemsky dazzle. I remember them holding teams in our end and just going up the ice in three lanes, or just battling on the boards on the forecheck and chipping it lose, including a shit load of garbage goals. Sure we had a #1 d-man in Pronger. But it was a team effort on defense and look where it got them.
We have way better offensive talent the past two years than we did then, but that means jack squat if the team doesn't play as a team defensively.
This isn't about trading for so and so or we need a #1 d-man, although it helps. It's a team culture and the reason why so many are calling for Lowe's head as he's been the constant here. And he was a talented defensemen in his day!
MacT did try to get some two way forwards this summer. Guys like David Clarkson were so very close to playing here but we got Joensuu instead, who everyone seems to like, although he's out on IR for now. Boyd Gordon, who essentially replaces Horcoff, isn't posting good numbers, but I say it's not really his fault since he takes most of the faceoffs draws in our own end with leaky wingers who give away the puck all around him.
We should stop looking at a players talent solely based on offensive numbers. We should EQUALLY look at their defense, which is what all these advanced stats are trying to show us, which is why I pay close attention to The Journal's Cult of Hockey Blog led by David Staples and Bruce McCurdy, and Michael Parkaretti's "Boys on the Bus" blog.
What they blatently point out is our cheating forwards who want to play offense first and of our top forwards, Arco, Nuge, and Ebs are good to very good two-way players. But if they're on a line with leaky guys, their numbers suffer. It's why the Hall-Nuge-Ebs works for the most part. 2/3 are good defensively. And that's the kind of balance we at least need on every line.
It's not necessarily to equate size with defense, although it helps in certain situations, but defensive positioning and attention to detail is what's most important. Ben Eager is a big fella, but defensively? Arco is a tiny guy but he is able to sneak between his man and the play effectively.
When I played, my offense was up there, but I wasn't the best defensively. My coach benched me for the first time ever and I literally sat on the bench the whole game on a road trip. After the game when everyone left the locker room, I asked him why he did that. He said, "Your defense stinks. Until you get that through your head, you'll never play again." Next game on the trip, he said, "I'm going to play you the whole game and all you're going to do is concentrate and work your butt off on defense. I don't care about your offense. Pass it to someone else and run the offense, but defense first Mike."
And so I played the whole game, and even against a really good team, not one player I defended scored. I forced errors and prevented attacks into the zone. At the end of the game, my coach said I was the best defender out there.
I'd rather have this team learn and execute defensive fundamentals first. Score 4-5 goals a game but if the other team outscores you, who cares.
All that said, turning this team around defensively is no easy task. The mentality change and offensive-first habits formed over years for some of these guys will unfortunately take time. The first 20 games are usually chalked up to teams learning systems and gaining chemistry with each other. With injuries and line shuffles, chemistry is out the window. Eakins was optimistic in thinking they'd relearn habits quickly. He was wrong and he admitted it.
At least finally we have a coach who knows what the real problem is and I believe he's the guy who'll eventually fix the offense-first culture that has plagued this team for many, many years.