Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Filling in the Backend

I was going to use Keyra to cap off this segment but that old bones Lowetide stole it for one of his posts (and it wasn't a witty innuendo tie in either). The question of filling the top pivot spot was in many respects easier then the top defenceman spot. We didn't have one on the team (apologies to a version of Sam Gagner that can grow real facial hair), didn't have one in the stables, and it's next to impossible to trade for one. In terms of a number one D-man nothing is quite so clear cut. I'll approach this topic similar to how I talked about getting a #1 C: Do we have one right now? Do we have one in the system? Can we acquire one? Do we even need one to win Lord Stanleys mug?

One question at the time, answered after the jump.

The Pronger Effect

Chris Pronger had a remarkable run over the last five seasons in terms of playoff success. Starting with the post lockout Oilers run, he went:

05-06 Oilers: Finalist
06-07 Ducks: Cup winner
07-08 Ducks: 1st Round
08-09 Ducks: 2nd Round
09-10 Flyers: Finalist

Now there certainly have been better runs in the NHL, but not many recently, especially in a league with cap-driven parity. Let's be fair, each of those deep running teams had some excellent traits they brought to the table (Oilers with obscene goaltending and solid depth, Ducks with top end offence and Jiggy playing out of his mind, and Philly had one of the deepest two way lineups in the league).Regardless, Pronger had a big part of all of those runs, as evidenced by his point totals:

Season Team

2005-06Edmonton Oilers

2006-07Anaheim Ducks

2007-08Anaheim Ducks

2008-09Anaheim Ducks

2009-10Philadelphia Flyers


And any fan can tell you it was much more then that. Pronger is a PRESENCE in the playoffs, and his nasty attitude seems to rub off on his fellow teammates. That said, this is by no means conclusive proof that having a stud defender is the end-all of the Stanley Cup formula.

I took a look at post-lockout finalists, and tried to find teams without the bonafide #1 dman:

  • '06 'Canes (Aaron Ward, Hedican, Frank Kaberele, Glen Wesley)
  • '07 Senators (Philips, Redden, Corvo, Meszaros, Volchenkov) [Philips had 15gp 0p +0]
  • '08 Penguins (Gonchar, Letang, Whitney, Gill, Scuderi, Orpik) [Gonchar is certainly debatable as a #1]
  • '09 Penguins (Gonchar, Letang, Whitney, Gill, Scuderi, Orpik) [See above]

If you really want to say Gonchar is a true elite #1 dman, I won't agree, but you can make the argument at least. One thing I will say, is that combined with my previous blog post, every single finalist since the lockout has either had a league acknowledged elite defenceman or a top 15 centerman, without fail. So, do the Oilers have one already?

Can the real Ryan Whitney please stand up

I like Ryan Whitney's play as of late. Leading the league in assists by a defender certainly helps the rosy glow, but in general he has been stable in the sea of crap defensive work the Oilers have turned in at times during the season. The drawbacks that were listed on the package are still there: doesn't use his size as effectively as he could, isn't particularly nasty, sometimes looks Penner lazy. He has a number of traits to offset that: great first pass, decent hockey sense, a big man with decent wheels. I did a bit of digging to see how his underlying numbers looked. [Get your secret decoder rings out, kiddies]
  • He has a favourable offensive zonestart % (50.8, best on the team), but that probably has something to do with the fact that he is the teams clear cut best dman with the puck on his stick in the offensive zone (unless you want him to score goals)
  • He has a middling QUALCOMP (0.45) slightly ahead of Smid and Vandermeer (~0.41), but behind Gilbert, Foster, and Peckham
  • His QUALTEAM was again middle of the pack, Smid and Strudwick had worse teammates, everyone else better
  • Places where Whitney is head and shoulders above the other defenders is in terms of scoring. His P/60 of 1.63 is almost twice the next closest, Tommy-Gun Gilbert at 0.97
  • His +-ON/60 is tops on the team at 0.54 (Strudwick for instance is an unreal -4.1, and Gilbert is -1.1)
  • His CORSI REL of 1.9 was behind only Vandermeer (7.6? The same as Mike Green?) and way ahead of Smid and Peckham (-2,-2.6 respectively)
I think after reviewing all of the numbers I have exactly the same impression I gathered by eyeballing him. He's a middling defensive presence with the ability to push offence. He's playing #1 minutes, and delivering well, but not at an elite level, and at this stage in his career, probably never will.

Someone might want me to talk about Tom Gilbert but among Dmen playing 20gp or more he has the second worst 5v5 GAON/60 in the league (4.03 goals allowed per 60, only Randy Jones on Tbay was worse, 4.98). Perhaps it is just a bad stretch, magnified by overall bad team defence, but hes old enough that I don't think he will be the second coming of Bobby Orr any time soon. He can be a great 3-4 guy I think, but I'd have a hard time buying any argument that leads me to believe he can be a stud #1 D spearheading a Stanley Cup winner.

Ladislav Smid was a high draft pick, and is often referred to in Taylor-Hall-Speak as a beauty (comon, he is), but he's yet to be one on the ice. He's young enough (24) to still push into a higher echelon of defenceman, but the numbers show him as a rough opposite to Whitney. Capable of excellent +-ON/60, GAON/60 (he's been a leader of both stats at times in his career), but never driving offensive results (likely topping out at best as a low to mid-level offensive contributor). I'd speculate that Peckham will also fall into this category - hard to say much more considering his limited NHL exposure.

In other words, my opinion is no, we do not have that elite defenceman in the current roster; we probably never will get it from the current group.

In Stu We Trust

I'm going to go a bit unscientific here to help condense the post a bit. I posit that finding a #1 dman is very possible in later rounds. Allow me to list some names: Shea Weber, Lidstrom, Duncan Keith, Rob Blake, Chelios, Coffey, Zdeno Chara. Past, current, and potentially future Norris winners that were found in later rounds. One thing of note is that generally speaking, if they weren't found in the first round, they were found in the second or third (historically the 40-60 range). Don't analyze it, just nod and repeat after me: you do not need lottery picks to get stud dmen in the draft. Which means that regardless of what the conclusion is about plugging the dmen hole in the Oilers, Stu will certainly have a few more shots at finding a 5-years-down-the-road stud dman in the draft.

That said, a quick look at potential stud dmen yields two names:

Martin Marincin (WHL 29gp 9-23-32 +5)
Jeff Petry (AHL 25gp 4-11-15 -8)

Marincin is the darling of the Oilogosphere right now, with his huge rookie (18 year old) WHL numbers are causing drool to drip onto scouting reports that go something like (from Redline):

Tall Lanky D with a huge frame to fill out. Good skating ability for his size; Pivots well and shows good agility, though he lacks balance and acceleration. Skates with head up and looking for plays - smooth puck handler with good passing touch. Reads play quickly and makes good decisions. Doesn't force things that aren't there.

Astute observers will notice I cut off all the drawbacks they listed (Lacks an aggressive mindset and rarely ventures off the blue line at offensive end. Inconsistent defensively, etc), but some of the concerns seem to be evaporating with his strong WHL showing. I label him as a potential Beauty.

Petry is older (22), but has all of the right traits to potentially be the elite guy. He's got a great frame (6'3), a howitzer shot (100mph+ in skill competitions), and seems to think the game well from all accounts. His somewhat rough transition to the AHL is some cause for concern, but he now has some real traction in the league and it shows in both his recent point totals and his ever increasing +/-.

I think there is probably enough potential in both that the Oilers don't need to do anything rash at this point in the game: BPA drafting and trades that make sense.

In Conclusion

The Oilers have probably a two year window in which to determine if they need to be more aggressive in acquiring top back end talent (corresponding to the entry level deals of the rookie trio). By that time the balance of youth and experience on the team will probably mean it is ready to start playing playoff hockey, and with that we will need the pieces on the backend to ensure solid defensive hockey. If it doesn't look like it is forthcoming in the system, they might have to make a splash on the UFA market or push some of the winger talent outbound to secure that player.

Up next: The last line of defense, or, why we need a Chinese goalie so we can use the nickname 'The Great Wall of China'


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