It was an interesting season for Milan Lucic during the 2016-17 campaign, one full of ups and downs throughout the year. After signing a massive 7 year, $42 Million contract expectations were high for he and the Oilers to finally make the playoffs after a 10 year hiatus. While they did have success and ultimately achieve that elusive playoff spot, Milan’s season in particular was still widely considered a disappointing one.
He did nothing in pre-season (he rarely does), had a slow start to the season, got better as it went on, struggled in the middle and was very strong down the stretch only to be average at best in the playoffs. Quite an up and down first year for the rugged winger. What was also somewhat baffling is that he had a bunch of career bests and career worsts all in the same season. This signals a player who attempted to change his style of play throughout the course of the season and who may have not been in the best condition physically to handle his new role on his new team.
I’ve highlighted some of the things that stood out for me in the 2016-2017 season:
- He scored 23 goals. Most goals he’s scored in a season since 2013-14 when he scored 24
- Of his 23 goals, 12 were on the PP. That’s the most PP goals he’s had in a season ever. Next closest was 7.
- He only had 11 Goals 5 on 5. The lowest mark in one season since his rookie year (not counting lockout season.)
- He was a minus player (-3). First time he’s been a minus player since 2009.
- Had more fights (6) last year than he did last 3 years.
- He had 50 PIMS. The fewest he’s had in his career minus the injury plagued 2009 season.
- He had 175 Shots the most he’s had in one season in his career.
- He had 202 hits the lowest he’s had since 2012 shortened season.
So to recap – He hit less, fought more but took less penalties, shot more than ever, scored more PP goals than ever but had lowest Goals 5 on 5 in one season of career (minus the shortened seasons).
What does it all mean? Could it have simply been him adjusting to a new coaching staff?
What I saw having followed him for years in Boston and Los Angeles was a player who was trying to re-invent himself and adjust his game playing on a young team and with the best player in the world. He couldn’t be the wild and sometimes reckless Lucic anymore he needed to adjust his game to better suit who he was playing with. Now a seasoned vet on a young team he was trying to be the steady hand and calming influence while solely relying on his reputation on the ice. He got away from the type of player he has so effectively been in the past.
It was clearly evident early in the season when he wasn’t taking penalties and wasn’t finishing his checks that Lucic was simply trying to keep up with McDavid. He struggled adjusting with McDavid’s speed and simply didn’t want to be out of position while finishing a check. I’ve heard many people say Lucic is simply too slow. His speed is actually pretty good it’s just his acceleration that is slow. Once the big man gets his feet moving and up to full speed he can skate but his big upper body and skinny legs means it takes awhile for him to get going. Perhaps the constant accelerating took a toll on him early he didn’t want to punish his body anymore than need be so laid off the physicality in order to stay fresh and keep up with Connor. It certainly seemed that way to me anyways.
On the PP, speed isn’t really a factor so he was able to capitalize with a lot of talent around him by just parking himself in front of the net. I can’t really explain why he never had more success than he did in Boston or LA on the PP. It may have been he just wasn’t utilized properly in the past but it could also been he never played with 2 players as dynamic as McDavid and Draisaitl who often draw more attention than a Krejci would for example. Whatever the case, while it was working on the PP it wasn’t working great 5 on 5 on McDavid’s line. So, after bouncing around back and forth from 2nd line to 3rd and back to 2nd he ultimately ended up playing with Hopkins and Eberle the last part of the season and they achieved mixed results.
While together, those 3 were getting points for a bit but they just didn’t have the type of chemistry you’d like a line with that much talent to have. They really struggled at maintaining offensive zone pressure – I know because I tweeted about it like crazy. They could not sustain a consistent forecheck or cycle the puck effectively or consistently. Eberle in particular looked lost. Too often he ended up in the exact same spot as Hopkins over-committing on a dump-in or exiting the zone early after a quick fly-by despite Hopkins already back covering for him. They were often out of position or outright confused at times with what each other was going to do. Here’s an example:
Textbook example of how NOT to forecheck. If Lucic’s line can’t get pucks deep and allow him to forecheck he is then usually rather ineffective. Now I realize a large part of that line’s ineffectiveness was due to Hopkins and Eberle trying to stay honest defensively so not to feel the wrath of their coach so it hurt the line’s offensive creativity. Neither though are the type of player Lucic should be matched with. He gels well with highly skilled playmakers like Krejci or Kopitar – creative centers who almost think the game like many top European players do. That’s why in my opinion Lucic should be locked in all year with Draisaitl.
I believed it then and after watching it for a year I believe it even more so. To get the most effective Lucic you need to put him with Draisaitl and let them feed off each other. It might be that European style I don’t know but they seem to think the game the same way. With Draisaitl he does not have to re-invent himself or worry about having to keep up with McDavid. He really just needs to get back to what he does well. Provide physicality, get pucks deep and work the cycle. More importantly he needs a center who compliments his skills, who is good at puck support and is not always second guessing. That’s Draisaitl. Forget if any chart tells you otherwise, Lucic looked his most comfortable 5 on 5 when he was with Leon. We saw it late in the playoffs when the two along with Slepyshev were really clicking. Unfortunately, due to a lack of other RW options we didn’t get to see it enough during the regular season but hopefully this year will be different.
Now despite Lucic having an ‘Off year’ the entire 16-17 Regular season wasn’t a total waste though. There were flashes of the old Lucic where Grapes so famously coined the phrase “Don’t poke the bear!” as wonderfully illustrated by of our friends over at beerleagueheroes: Don’t poke the bear!
THAT Lucic is exactly what Oilers fans wanted to see more often than not throughout the year and playoffs. A pissed off Lucic is a highly effective player but he has to be put with certain players or you are limiting his effectiveness.
Now I know that many people have been critical of Milan since he joined the Oilers. The length of his contract is certainly a concern but not for a few years down the road at least. If the Oilers win a Cup before he has a dramatic drop off it will and should be considered a great move to acquire him. The thing is, while some fans and critics panic at his disappointing 16-17 campaign they just automatically assume it’s all going to be downhill from here. Well, that’s not how it always works. Milan has a lot of pride and had a lot going on with him that could have negatively impacted his ‘down season’.
Here are a couple factors that undoubtedly had a negative impact on Lucic that shouldn’t affect him this year and moving forward. These aren’t excuses they are facts:
1. His best friend Craig Cunningham almost died early in the season. Milan was visiting him when he could but obviously that had to weigh heavily on him while he was playing. His father had committed suicide the previous summer that could have also been affecting him psychologically. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to suggest Milan could have been drained emotionally to an extent that hampered his play for quite some time.
2. He was adapting to his 3rd team in a 3rd different city for a 3rd straight year. Getting used to a new team, new system, new teammates takes time it isn’t always a seamless transition and it usually doesn’t just happen overnight. He bounced from line to line never really settling in till the end of season and even then it didn’t really work out come playoff time.
3. Expectations and Pressure were much higher to start the year. Thanks to a rich, 7 year contract the expectations could never be higher for Milan and he was asked to provide veteran leadership for a young team who hadn’t made the playoffs in 10 years. The hired gun was expected to produce in a big way which may explain why his shot total was the highest of his career and his hits the lowest. This year the focus will be more on McDavid and Draisaitl’s big money contracts and pressure on the entire team to at least repeat last year’s performance. Milan is no longer the talk of the offseason.
4. His conditioning may not have been up to par. This is purely speculative but even if his conditioning was where it usually always was, he would probably agree now playing on a team with 97 he needs to take it up a notch or two. Maroon re-dedicated himself after his first season in Edmonton playing with McDavid and it paid huge dividends for him. I fully expect Milan to follow suit and if Twitter is any indictation it appears he has already begun doing that.
— Milan Lucic (@27MilanLucic) June 5, 2017
If Milan comes into camp in better condition this year it will help tremendously like it did for Maroon. Last year, he likely felt all the pressure that comes with a rich new contract, heightened expectations, playing in a new system with new teammates but also his best friend almost dying and his father passing recently. That’s a lot to ask of anyone trying to adapt to a new team and city again for the 3rd straight year. The fact he still scored 23 goals and didn’t miss a game I think speaks highly to his character and perseverance. There is no doubt in my mind he brought tremendous confidence to that dressing room. The accountability, professionalism, the leadership he provided unquestionably rubbed off on other guys and changed the dynamic of that room. No doubt about it. Ask the guys in that room how much confidence they all had with him around. He has the heart of a lion. The team constantly rebounded from disappointing losses all year, never made excuses and always held each other accountable. A lot of that can be attributed to Lucic surely.
I can’t predict what the future holds or what kind of season Lucic will have this year but if I had to guess …. I’d say expect to see the bear poke his head out a lot more this year now that the weight of the world is off his shoulders. That is great news for the Oilers and bad news for the rest of the league.
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