Depth, Or A Lack Thereof

Jonathan Willis
December 22 2008 12:07PM

The team’s 23-year old top scorer managed 28 goals and only 57 points. Only one defenceman managed more than 24 points. Despite this, the team’s coach chose not to focus on the lack of offense from the team’s top guns.

"It's not so much the star players you have," he said. "It's what you have that hold up the star players."

That team lost in the third round of the playoffs that year, after winning their division in the regular season. The second line recorded plus/minuses of +30, +23, and +20. Three defencemen finished in the double-digits in plus/minus, and another two recorded a +8 and +9.

How was a team so lacking in star power so successful? Having a good goaltender was a key ingredient, but it wasn’t the primary one. Looking down the roster, it’s easy to see that the depth players on the team did a good job, not necessarily of scoring, but of doing their jobs. The third line was a true checking line, and though its centre only managed 26 points, he finished +8, a testimony to his ability (and that of his linemates) to shut down top opponents. The defence was young but capable; with the exception of one 29-year old veteran, the oldest regular was 26 years old.

That team was a prime example of the success possible when role players are capable of playing their roles. The 2008-09 Edmonton Oilers are an example of how easy it is to fail when the depth players on a roster aren’t getting the job done.

So it goes

Looking at the top line, the problem isn’t Shawn Horcoff or Ales Hemsky (or even Dustin Penner). As an example, consider the game in San Jose that the Oilers won a few nights back. Joe Thornton played on a line with Patrick Marleau and Devin Setoguchi –- three players who have combined for 108 points through 33 games -– and shift after shift, the line of Ales Hemsky, Shawn Horcoff and Dustin Penner were sent out against them, eventually finishing the night with 60% of their ice-time against those players. It wasn’t an aberration, either -– night after night, Horcoff, Hemsky and their winger (usually Penner) find themselves out against the other team’s best opponents.

Despite this, they’re destroying their opposition –- I posted the numbers for Hemsky and Horcoff a few days ago, and on average they outshoot their opponents 132 to 100. All three are plus players, and Ales Hemsky in particular (a sublime talent who doesn’t get his due) isn’t just thriving but is on pace to set career highs in goals and points.

Outside of those three players, the Oilers top four on defence features players both excellent (Souray, Visnovsky) and serviceable (Gilbert, Grebeshkov).

Where, then, does the problem lie?

On the team mentioned at the outset, the third line and the first line played most of the quality opponents. The third line was blessed with some outstanding checkers, while the top line was nowhere near as good as the Oiler’s top three. The second line forwards played against the soft parade, and looking at their plus-minus, it’s quite obvious that they were wiping the floor with them.

On the Oilers, however, this hasn’t even begun to happen. The group of players after Hemsky, Horcoff, and Penner haven’t been able to make use of the fact that the top line is handling the toughest assignments. Let’s look at these players individually.

The OK

Penner probably fits in this class, but he’s far from alone. Andrew Cogliano, Ethan Moreau, and most of the fourth line players (Brodziak, Pouliot, Stortini) belong in here too. Cogliano’s putting up points but he’s being used extensively in the offensive zone against lower-tier opponents, and getting outscored on top of it. Still, given his linemates, he hasn’t been bad. Ethan Moreau started off strong and has cooled, but he has played against some quality and his points/60 is behind only Hemsky and Penner. On the other hand, he’s easily the team leader in stupid-penalties-taken.

The fourth line players have routinely been sent out with line-mates with less than NHL talent (MacIntyre’s the best of a group that includes Boulerice, Sestito, Liam Reddox, and a pair of converted defencemen) and sent out in defensive situations to boot, so it’s a bit rich for the coach or fans to complain about the lack of production from the fourth line. They haven’t been bad.

The Disasters

Robert Nilsson and Sam Gagner: Robin Brownlee has a good write-up on Nilsson a few posts down, and it’s unsurprising that MacTavish would target Nilsson for criticism. Nilsson’s been playing very similar minutes to both Gagner and Cogliano; i.e. in the offensive zone against weaker players, but he’s been outshot and outscored anyway.

Play-by-play men like to say that a team “needs its best players to be its best players”; well, a team also needs its skilled players to be better than the dregs of the league. Sam Gagner’s been the better of the two, and his numbers are coming around (positive Corsi, barely being outscored now), but he hasn’t been nearly good enough given how MacTavish has coddled that entire line. If this is a development year, it’s fine for the coach to play these kids like he has; if it’s a year where this team needs to make the play-offs than MacTavish has picked the hill he’s going to die on, and it’s going to be because he’s placed so much in the hands of these players.

Erik Cole: Easily the biggest disappointment on the roster, Cole came to the Oilers with a history of success against top competition. The only positive result that Cole has managed is an amazing ability to draw penalties (and that’s a non-trivial contribution). Despite this, Cole has been used against lower-level opponents, albeit with middling linemates and he hasn’t produced anything. With Cole on the ice, the Oilers are twice as likely to be scored on as to score. There are lots of excuses (played on his off-wing, different linemates) but the fact remains: Erik Cole is paid to be a difference maker, and he hasn’t even been a capable support player.

In Conclusion

There’s an awful lot of middling-to-poor performances down the roster; a team can’t succeed with so much of its depth barely handling their jobs. Toss in some shaky goaltending (Mathieu Garon’s been inexcusably bad) and supplement the poor even-strength play with an abysmal penalty-kill and a middling powerplay, and all the ingredients are there for an unpleasant season.

Also, while players have disappointed, it is Craig MacTavish and his staff who have consistently handed cherry minutes to players who haven’t used them –- and if this team fails to make the playoffs as a result, they deserve to suffer the consequences. It’s also the coaching staff that needs to be held accountable for the lack-lustre special teams.

The team mentioned above (300 points for anyone who can name it) had success with a middling top line because there was great strength down the roster. The Oilers have squandered a decent performance by their top line with middling or poor performances from the rest of their top nine forwards.

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Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, the Edmonton Journal and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.
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#1 Adam Dyck
December 22 2008, 03:26PM
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Sharks, either '03 or '04.

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#2 Jonathan Willis
December 22 2008, 03:27PM
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Adam Dyck wrote:

Sharks, either ‘03 or ‘04.

Holy crap. First try.

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#3 Adam Dyck
December 22 2008, 03:28PM
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To add to the post, being strong up front with no depth is a reversal of Edmonton's traditional situation. The reason we had such great success in 2006 wasn't that Smyth, Pisani and Horcoff were so spectacular, it's that our third and fourth lines could go head to head with their counterparts on any other team in the NHL.

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#4 Jonathan Willis
December 22 2008, 03:31PM
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@ Adam Dyck:

Lots of underrated players in that group - Hemsky, Samsonov and Stoll did alright with the softies, but that third line (Torres, Peca, Pisani) was something else entirely and there was lots of depth.

That defensive corps could play the game any which way too, and of course Roloson played the best hockey of his career.

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#5 Adam Dyck
December 22 2008, 03:31PM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

Adam Dyck wrote: Sharks, either ‘03 or ‘04. Holy crap. First try.

I remember Marleau finished with identical numbers twice in a row there, and yet the team had a radical jump in overall success. That's what makes that team so memorable.

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#6 Jonathan Willis
December 22 2008, 03:32PM
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And to clarify - it was the 2003-04 San Jose Sharks. The second line was Nils Ekman (22-33-55, +30), Alyn McCauley (20-27-47, +23), and Alex Korolyuk (19-18-37, +20).

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#7 Adam Dyck
December 22 2008, 03:33PM
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Those +/- stats are something else.

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#8 Jonathan Willis
December 22 2008, 03:35PM
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Adam Dyck wrote:

I remember Marleau finished with identical numbers twice in a row there, and yet the team had a radical jump in overall success. That’s what makes that team so memorable.

Ron Wilson did a good job squeezing everything out of that roster; no high-end talent (Marleau, Cheechoo, Damphousse and Sturm are the biggest names) but an elite checking line and a second line that just killed the soft minutes. Mike Ricci was a heck of a player for a while there.

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#9 Jonathan Willis
December 22 2008, 03:36PM
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Adam Dyck wrote:

Those +/- stats are something else.

As are the names attached to them - David Staples has done a good job knocking plus/minus, but with context it can be useful. But obviously, (with the possible exception of McCauley) those guys aren't the greatest defensive players on the planet; they just got used to their strengths in the most favourable possible setting.

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#10 Wanye Gretz
December 22 2008, 04:02PM
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Was the team you mentioned the 1976 Moose Jaw Warriors by chance Jon?

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#11 Grant Edwards
December 22 2008, 04:03PM
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"Night after night, Horcoff, Hemsky and their winger (usually Penner) find themselves out against the other team’s best opponents. Despite this, they’re destroying their opposition."

This is the type of well reasoned actual non fluffing editorial pieces that keep me coming back to this website over the Journal or the Sun. You can't argue with this Willis guy.

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#12 Jonathan Willis
December 22 2008, 04:19PM
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@ Grant Edwards:

Would "carrying the play" be better?

The rhetoric's a little over the top, granted, but they've done a remarkable job against some very good opponents.

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#13 Jonathan Willis
December 22 2008, 04:44PM
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Grant Edwards wrote:

This is the type of well reasoned actual non fluffing editorial pieces that keep me coming back to this website over the Journal or the Sun. You can’t argue with this Willis guy.

Did I mention that the reason Hemsky DESTROYS his opposition is because HE'S A MONSTER?

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#14 oilerman53
December 23 2008, 12:27AM
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I think for all of the scoring the top line is doing now they should have started the year together. Penner looked lost at the start of the season, Cole should have been started on his strong wing from the get-go, this team has too many weapons to be where they're at right now. Instead of pushing the best players we've been getting a steady diet of Reddox, Pouliot and whoever MacT has a crush on.

Poor coaching to begin this season and poor coaching up until this point. When you look at the unreal talent were getting from Hemsky and the kind of back-end we posess, this team should be scoring way more then they do. If nothing changes at the half way point then I want heads to roll. I don't wanna see them limp through the season then make a charge toward the finish line every year. Give these boys a system and proper roles and coach them to each of their strengths, is that so much to ask? Mr "Deuce Bigelow" Katz, start questioning some credibility and start the win or be fired dick boss thing.... please for Oiler fans.

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#15 Jonathan Willis
December 23 2008, 07:34AM
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oilerman53 wrote:

Instead of pushing the best players we’ve been getting a steady diet of Reddox, Pouliot and whoever MacT has a crush on. Poor coaching to begin this season and poor coaching up until this point.

I agree there's been some poor coaching decisions - but I think you're wrong as to what they are exactly. Pouliot, for example, has looked great with Cogliano, and really any time he's been given decent linemates/icetime. Unfortunately, up until now MacTavish has been pushing Gagner/Nilsson into those spots regardless of performance; at some point you need to try the other young skilled players up there. He did last night and Pouliot was one o the best players on the ice for either team.

As for Cole, the thing about him is that he's the kind of player who supposedly plays a two-way game; not only can he score, but he can contain the opposition. MacTavish was using him in a defensive role until he got his scoring going, but he hasn't been able to score or defend. We can complain about MacTavish not using him offensively, but the fact is that Cole hasn't done either of the things he was brought in to do.

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#16 Milli
December 24 2008, 08:43AM
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Makes sense. It seems to me, that if CracT would keep the 4th line together (51, 43, 46) and leave the first line alone (don't change it, don't shuffle it, just friggin leave it as is) and give cogs and pouly and ? (but not Moreau) time to develop some chemistry (and I don't mean to be jebus lover, but, I gotta wonder why he isn't on this line) then all we'd be looking for would be a shut down line. Crazy, a MacT team that can't kill a penalty and dosn't have a shut down line. Aren't these MacT's strenghts?

And whats up with Gretz? Is he a GINGER KID, or is he hard on the booze? so red faced all night!!!

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