EDMONTON – With several diminutive forwards expected in their lineup this season, the Edmonton Oilers will also need some muscle in the mix.
That’s where bangers like Zack Stortini, J.F. Jacques and Steve MacIntyre are hoping to come in.
The Oilers have a corps of five-foot-something forwards at training camp looking for roster spots. They include Mike Comrie, Rob Schremp, Patrick O’Sullivan, Robert Nilsson, Gilbert Brule, Andrew Cogliano and Jordan Eberle – all skilled but also on the smaller side.
At the other end of the scale, literally, is Stortini, who led the NHL with 25 fighting majors last season, Jacques, a six-foot-four, 220-pound winger, and MacIntyre, a menacing enforcer and the behemoth of the bunch at six foot five and 250 pounds.
They aren’t auditioning for spots on the power play.
“I’m a proponent of fighting but not fighting for no purpose,” coach Pat Quinn said. “It is a contact game and sometimes you get involved and away it goes. I expect our big people to finish their checks with a purpose and sometimes fights result from that.”
But Quinn says he’s never believed in carrying a player on the bench only because he can fight.
“Within the game, it does come about because you’re protecting your teammates,” he said. “We’ll always look for that. We won’t be taken advantage of.”
Quinn has hinted a depth of lightweight puck-movers and playmakers might prompt him to roll three offensive lines, leaving only two or three spots among his top 12 forwards for grinders who can bring a physical presence and keep an eye on the little guys.
“We know what our role is out there,” said Stortini, who was fourth in the NHL with 181 penalty minutes last season. “We have to bring it every night. It’s important for us to be very physical. It’s a big part of our game, to be able to play as well and go out there shift in and shift out and be effective.”
General manager Steve Tambellini said at the end of last season that he intended to build a team that was grittier and tougher to play against, but the forwards, as a whole, stand to be even smaller this season.
That could mean more work for Stortini, Jacques and MacIntyre.
“We’ve got different talents here,” Quinn said. “I’ll be looking for our team to compete with the skills we do have.
“If we end up with a lineup that really hasn’t got a big physicality to it, we’ll have to play another way to win hockey games.”
Stortini is a six-foot-three, 228-pound right-winger who never needs a written invitation to drop the gloves. Jacques was limited to seven games by back surgery last season while MacIntyre stayed on the roster for the entire year.
“We know other teams can’t take advantage of our little guys,” Jacques said. “We have a fair amount of big guys who know that and won’t let it happen.
“It’s not a matter of if the coach is going to give me a tap to go fight, it’s something we all know. If they take advantage of our little guys, we need a quick response so they know it won’t happen again.”
Shawn Horcoff, who’ll centre a first line that will have Ales Hemsky on right wing and, likely, O’Sullivan or Comrie on the left side, knows the value of having a physical element in the lineup.
“We’re going to be able to go out there and show our skill, but, at the same time, we want to be a team that’s tough to play against,” he said. “We have a lot of skilled guys. If you’re going to put them on three lines, you’re going to have to have some guys out there who are going to bring energy and create momentum-changing shifts with physical play.
“When you’re a team that has smaller, skilled guys, you don’t want teams taking liberties against those guys and running around, doing whatever they want.”
Aside from Stortini, Jacques and MacIntyre, the Oilers have veteran minor league tough guy Kip Brennan in camp on an AHL contract. Six-foot-eight, 250-pound Riley Emmerson is also looking for work.
“The game has changed so much,” said Brennan, who has 61 NHL games on his resume. “You have to be able to skate and bring different aspects to the game than just going out there, five years or six years ago, and being able to fight. You have to be able to play the game as well as be tough.”