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Georges Laraque had some thoughts on the impact of the Oilers’ newfound toughness

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The Edmonton Oilers are coming off of their most successful season in more than a decade and there are a lot of theories for why the turnaround took place.

One of the more popular talking points was the addition of players like Milan Lucic, Patrick Maroon, and Kris Russell that helped bring some toughness and grit to the lineup and cut down on the number of liberties that were taken against star players like Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.

To be fair, players like Maroon — and even Zack Kassian who was in his second year with the team — did have really good seasons and were helpful in a lot of areas.

And while Lucic’s contract looks like it could one day be an albatross on the team’s salary cap, he is still a pretty good player for the time being.

The other theory — the one I buy into — is that fully healthy seasons from Connor McDavid and defenseman Oscar Klefbom, as well as a true breakout year from Draisaitl and rock solid play (and incredible durability) from goaltender Cam Talbot, helped carry the team. A couple of superstars, a top-pairing defender and a good starting goalie that can play 70-plus games will do a lot to improve a team.

One person that seems to be putting more stock into the first theory is ex-Oilers enforcer Georges Laraque.

Laraque was on Oilers Now with Bob Stauffer this past week and talked about the intimidation factor and how the additions of players like Lucic and Maroon led to healthier seasons from McDavid and the rest of his skilled teammates.

An excerpt, via the Edmonton Journal:

You said some of the people in the media they don’t like tough guys, and they say stuff, ‘They don’t like it, we don’t believe in this and that.’ This is the trend between people that know the game and people that don’t know the game. There’s many people in the media that cover the game that talk about hockey and stuff but they don’t know anything. And you read them and they want to make it look like they do, but they don’t. The stats you just said right there (on the health of the 2016-17 Oilers) gives you an indication right there of what’s been going on with that team. Why do you think McDavid got 100 points this year? Do you see how much room he’s getting? Yes, there’s a little bit of stuff there and there sometimes, but most of the time he was healthy because of that presence.

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Yeah, they had a young team that played all the game and, yeah, they had enough toughness that prevent guys to take liberties with those guys. Look at before, the Oilers when they had Zack (Stortini) and other guys that were up and down, people were taking liberties with that team and they were always hurt. Now those days are done. People, when they go to Edmonton, with Darnell Nurse, Lucic, Maroon, all those guys there, people don’t want to take liberties with those kids because there’s a lot of guys can answer the bell… And we’re not even talking about fighting here. We’re talking about a presence that prevents guys from taking cheap shots because they know there would be retribution if they did so.”

This all goes back to the old “deterrence” argument that gets thrown around a lot, and it is no surprise that a former player like Laraque who was paid to be that sort of deterrent (or paid to try to be that) would buy into that. But arguing that Connor McDavid has space and scored 100 points this season because Patrick Maroon or Milan Lucic was on the team is quite a leap. He had 100 points this season because he is probably already (at worst) the second best player in the league and is as dominant as any player to enter the league in decades.

As we talked about when Pittsburgh acquired Ryan Reaves from the St. Louis Blues in an effort to cut down on the physical abuse they took, arguments like this one here by Laraque aren’t really isn’t based in any sort of reality. It is true that McDavid was fully healthy this season and managed to get through without the type of significant injury that cut his rookie season in half, and it is also true that happened in the same season that Lucic and Maroon arrived in Edmonton.

But that does not mean the two results are related. After all, when Lucic played in Boston alongside Shawn Thornton the Bruins were routinely on the receiving end of cheap shots that sidelined players. Just ask Marc Savard, Nathan Horton and Loui Eriksson, for example. The “Big Bad Bruins” mentality didn’t keep Matt Cooke, or Aaron Rome or John Scott from taking them out with cheap shots.

These discussions always create a bunch of misleading arguments about toughness and physical play. There is nothing wrong with adding physical players or players that can play with a bit of an edge. But you can’t expect them to keep your star players healthy because the guys that set out to do that damage are going to do it no matter what. Plus, hockey is a collision sport that is going to result in players being injured. It doesn’t always have to be a cheap shot.

But adding toughness just for the sake of adding toughness when there is no skill to go with it is not going to make your team any better.

The Oilers weren’t better this past season because a player Patrick Maroon showed up, played physical and tried to prevent teams from taking liberties.

The Oilers were better because a player like Patrick Maroon showed up, played physical and scored 27 goals for them.

Canadiens reward Antti Niemi with extension after turnaround

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There weren’t many positives in Montreal during the 2017-18 regular season, but Antti Niemi‘s play was certainly one of them. On Tuesday, the team announced that the veteran has signed a one-year, $950, 000 deal. He was scheduled to become a free agent on July 1st.

Niemi’s journey to the Canadiens organization was a bumpy one. After being bought out by the Dallas Stars last offseason, he signed a one-year contract with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He started the year as Matt Murray‘s backup, but he quickly found himself on waivers in October after a string of poor performances (he had an 0-3 record, a 7.50 goals-against-average and a .797 save percentage during his time with the Pens).

The Florida Panthers decided to put in a waiver claim on the 34-year-old netminder, but not much changed in his play during his brief time in the Sunshine State. He suited up in just two games with the Panthers before going back on waivers in November.

With Carey Price out of the lineup, the Canadiens decided to roll the dice on Niemi and that’s when things changed for the better. By reuniting with his former goalie coach in Chicago, Stephane Waite, Niemi was able to get his career back on the rails. The pair won a Stanley Cup together in 2010 and, again, they showed that they form a great partnership.

In 19 games with an injury-riddled Canadiens team, Niemi had a 7-5-4 record with a 2.46 goals-against-average and a .929 save percentage. Those numbers are remarkable when you consider just how bad the Canadiens were in 2017-18.

As great of a story as this is, this new one-way contract doesn’t guarantee that he’ll be one of the two goalies on the NHL roster come October. Carey Price will be the undisputed starter going into camp, while Niemi and Charlie Lindgren battle for the backup job. Both players are on one-way deals, so the Habs will be paying one of their AHL goalies a lot of money no matter who heads down to AHL Laval next fall. Both contracts can totally be buried in the minors without counting toward the salary cap.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Where will Mark Hunter go after leaving Maple Leafs?

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The hockey world hasn’t heard from Maple Leafs assistant general manager Mark Hunter since the team promoted Kyle Dubas to GM last week. Well, on Tuesday, the team announced that the two sides have mutually agreed to part ways.

“Following extensive discussions with Mark, he and the Toronto Maple Leafs have mutually agreed to part ways,” said Leafs president Brendan Shanahan. “I’d like to sincerely thank Mark for everything he’s done for this organization over the last four years and I wish him nothing but the best in the future.”

Many speculated that Hunter wasn’t happy about being passed over for the general manager opening that eventually went to Dubas, and this kind of confirms that theory. During his tenure with the Leafs, Hunter was in charge of the pro scouting, amateur scouting and player evaluation. He played a big part in Toronto’s rapid rebuild.

So now, Hunter is free to pursue other opportunities outside of the Leafs organization. But according to TSN hockey insider Bob McKenzie, he can’t join another team until after the NHL Entry Draft and free agency. That seems fair considering he has a lot of intel into Toronto’s off-season plans and because he’s departing with term left on his contract.

It’ll be interesting to see if Hunter decides to join forces with former Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello, who officially became the Islanders president of hockey ops on Tuesday morning. After all, current Isles GM Garth Snow is on thin ice, so there could be an opening for a new general manager in the near future. Assuming they move on from Snow, Hunter could be in line to get the job if he decides to go there. If Snow sticks around, he could still join the team in a different capacity.

If things don’t work out with the Islanders, Hunter could always join another NHL team with a front-office opening. Getting a GM gig might be a little difficult considering there aren’t any more openings right now, but that doesn’t mean he can’t get a good gig elsewhere. The Montreal Canadiens have already made some changes to their management group by allowing Rick Dudley to move on to Carolina. Could Hunter be a fit there? It would be a heck of a statement for him to go from Toronto to Montreal.

Of course, if Hunter doesn’t like the NHL offers on the table, there’s also a possibility that he could return to the OHL with the London Knights. When the Leafs came calling in 2014, Hunter was serving as part owner and general manager of the Knights (he remains a co-owner of the team with his brother, Dale, and Basil McRae).

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Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Islanders hire Lou Lamoriello as president of hockey operations (Update)

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It’s expected this week that the New York Islanders will officially announce the hiring of Lou Lamoriello to run their hockey operation department, according to Arthur Staple of The Athletic.

It’s unclear at the moment what specific role the 75-year-old Lamoriello will have within the organization. It’s possible he takes over the role of president of hockey operations or general manager, or potentially both. His son, Chris, is the Islanders’ assistant GM.

Last month, the Toronto Maple Leafs announced that Lamoriello would not return as their GM after three seasons at the helm.

Staple also confirmed a Hockey30 report that Lamoriello met with Islanders captain John Tavares last week ahead of this move. Tavares is set to become an unrestricted free agent only July 1.

There are many questions to be answered as we wait for the Islanders to announce this move. First, what does this mean for the beards of Nick Leddy and Andrew Ladd, as well as the mustache of Cal Clutterbuck?

Next, where does current GM Garth Snow stand? He’s been running the show since 2006 and has a contract for at least four more seasons. The team has made the playoffs only four times during his tenure and advanced out of the first round once. The fan base demanded change once this season went off the rails, with billboards purchased in Brooklyn calling for Snow’s firing. During an end-of-season press conference in April, Islanders co-owner Jon Ledecky said Snow and head coach Doug Weight would be staying for now, but that he would be “evaluating all aspects of our hockey operations.”

The next question is the biggest and that has to do with Tavares. He’s said time and time again that he wants to re-sign, but hasn’t inked an extension and hasn’t given any indication what factors would sway him one way or the other. A new arena on Long Island is coming. But is this change in management and whatever Lamoriello told him in their chat enough to convince him to not explore free agency and commit to staying with the franchise? Only time will tell. But this change could be a good first step forward for the franchise.

UPDATE: The Islanders made the news official on Tuesday morning, with Lamoriello getting the title of president of hockey operations. “He will have full authority over all hockey matters with the organization” was also noted in the press release. Farewell, Garth?

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

PHT Morning Skate: How Reaves became a playoff hero; Which non-playoff teams can make 2019 postseason?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• The fact that the Vegas Golden Knights are in the Stanley Cup Final is good for all hockey fans and it’s a great story. (Vice Sports)

• No American team has sold for merchandise than the Golden Knights. Stores couldn’t keep the Western Conference Champion hats and t-shirts on the shelves. (Vegas Review-Journal)

• Penguins GM Jim Rutherford was furious that Caps forward Tom Wilson refused to fight Jamie Oleksiak after Wilson broke Zach Aston-Reese‘s jaw with a hit. “When Jamie challenged Wilson, he couldn’t run quick enough to get away from him.” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

Ryan Reaves has had to adjust his game to stick around in the NHL. Things haven’t always worked out for him, but he eventually became a hero for the Golden Knights in the third round. (ESPN)

• If the Golden Knights were to win the Stanley Cup, Vegas casinos would lose a ton of money. (MLive.com)

• Hockey Graphs looks at whether or not the NHL has become more competitive by analyzing advanced statistics between 2007-08 and 2017-18. (Hockey Graphs)

• The St. Louis Blues’ home rink will have a new name going into next season. For the next 15 years, the arena will be named “Enterprise Center”. (NHL.com/Blues)

• Down Goes Brown looks at which non-playoff teams could make it to the postseason next year and which ones could even get to the conference final. (Sportsnet)

• Preds defenseman Ryan Ellis has one year remaining on his current deal. What will his next contract look like? Based on some comparables, expect him to earn at least $5.5 million. (On the Forecheck)

• A young boy who suffered serious injuries in a school bus crash received an incredible gift from the New York Rangers that included a stick signed by Henrik Lundqvist. (NBC New York)

• The IIHF has voted to allow both the men’s and women’s Chinese hockey teams to take part in the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. (China.org)

• Have you ever dreamed of being an NHL scout? Well, take a look at what scouts look for when assessing potential talent. (The Hockey News)

• Anaheim’s farm team, the San Diego Gulls, have signed head coach Dallas Eakins to a multi-year contract extension. (San Diego Gulls)

• Despite struggling at the end of the season, Devan Dubnyk had another solid year for the Minnesota Wild in 2017-18. (Hockey Wilderness)

• Up top, check out the highlights from last night’s game between the Capitals and Lightning.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.