Evaluating the defence pairings

Jonathan Willis
December 24 2008 08:23AM

In the post below I examine the match-ups that each set of forwards and defence met against Phoenix. We’ve seen enough of the defence pairings to have a bit of a track record, so I thought I’d compare the pairings MacTavish/Huddy are rolling out now (37-71, 44-77, 5-24) versus the ones they started the season with (71-44, 37-77, 43-24), and see how each defenceman fared. All numbers are at even strength (GF = goals for, GA = goals against, SF = shots for, SA = shots against). Defencemen are considered in order of average even-strength ice-time.

Lubomir Visnovsky

With Grebeshkov –- 12GF/4GA, 101SF/94SA

With Souray -- 6GF/8GA, 126SF/118SA

With Others –- 4GF/2GA, 57SF/47SA

Totals –- 22GF/14GA, 284SF/259SA

Visnovsky has consistently good totals with every partner. That said, his recent success with Grebeshkov seems a little bit suspect; there’s a decent shot margin in their favour, but not a good enough margin to warrant outscoring the opposition 3:1. The goal-scoring numbers with Souray don’t look great; that said, the shooting margin was still quite good. I think Visnovsky is clearly the Oilers most effective defender at getting the puck moving in the right direction. It isn’t every day that a player of this quality is available for players like Matt Greene and Jarret Stoll.

Sheldon Souray

With Gilbert -– 12GF/9GA, 110SF/121SA

With Visnovsky -– 6GF/8GA, 126SF/118SA

With Others –- 3GF/1GA, 26SF/40SA

Totals –- 21GF/18GA, 252SF/259SA

The shooting numbers are best with Visnovsky, while the goal scoring numbers are best with Gilbert. I’d strongly argue that Souray and Visnovsky is the most dominant pairing possible, but also that being played with Gilbert hasn’t been bad, and may be the best case scenario for distributing the difference makers.

Tom Gilbert

With Souray –- 12GF/9GA, 110SF/121SA

With Grebeshkov –- 6GF/11GA, 100SF/91SA

With Others -– 5GF/3GA, 43SF/56SA

Totals –- 23GF/23GA, 253SF/267SA

Tom Gilbert failed to put up good totals with Denis Grebeshkov, although he likely would have. Still, given that they were being used almost exclusively in offensive situations, the 100/91 outshooting ratio isn’t as impressive as it really should be. Gilbert’s breaking even right now, and given the performance of the team as a whole, that’s probably a respectable outcome.

Denis Grebeshkov

With Visnovsky –- 12GF/4GA, 101SF/94SA

With Gilbert –- 6GF/11GA, 100SF/91SA

With Others –- 2GF/2GA, 12SF/18SA

Totals –- 20GF/17GA, 213SF/203SA

Grebeshkov, despite looking every bit like a chaos defender out there, has had a good season so far. He’s one of those defencemen who looks really bad when he makes a crazy play, but the ratio of crazy plays to good passes is actually very low. If we assume the Oilers can only really afford to pay three defencemen, than one of the current top four is on his way out of town. Depending on their relative trade values, if Grebeshkov would be willing to sign long-term at reasonable money, it might be worth trading Gilbert.

Steve Staios

With Smid -– 2GF/1GA, 70SF/65SA

With Strudwick -– 5GF/9GA, 67SF/127SA

With Others –- 6GF/4GA, 33SF/37SA

Totals –- 13GF/14GA, 173SF/229SA

Steve Staios is incredibly lucky to be anywhere near even in goals for and against. That said, he’s also incredibly unlucky to have been saddled with Jason Strudwick for so long. With Strudwick, Staios gets outshot 2:1. Without Strudwick, Staios is actually on the ice for more shots for than against. It may be premature to say that Staios is done; his results without Strudwick so far this season haven’t been half bad.

Ladislav Smid

With Staios -– 2GF/1GA, 70SF/65SA

With Strudwick -– 0GF/0GA, 15SF/23SA

With Others –- 2GF/1GA, 30SF/22SA

Totals –- 4GF/2GA, 115SF/110SA

Smid’s getting more bounces for than against, but he’s been a low-event guy so far. Of course, most of that is probably connected to his outrageously high on-ice save percentage (.982) and outrageously low on-ice shooting percentage (3.5%), but while he’s on the ice, the puck is moving in the right direction. Outside of some time with Strudwick, with Smid on the ice the Oilers have outshot their opponents 100:87. Those are very good numbers; there’s absolutely no excuse not to dress Smid every game from here on out, and the coaching staff’s decision to scratch him early looks like a mistake in retrospect.

Jason Strudwick

With Staios –- 5GF/9GA, 67SF/127SA

With Smid –- 0GF/0GA, 15SF/23SA

With Others –- 2GF/1GA, 12SF/24SA

Totals –- 7GF/10GA, 94SF/174SA

Jason Strudwick is not an NHL defenceman. The bounces have been good to him –- high on-ice save percentage and shooting percentage are the only thing that has kept him from being lit-up in GF/GA numbers. He may not even belong on the fourth line as a forward, except in a fighting capacity –- although the fourth line has outscored its opponents 2:1 with Strudwick on it, they’ve been outshot 11:5. At some point, it’s obvious where the problem is: in virtually every situation (the sole exception being while paired with Smid), Strudwick and his linemates have been outshot 2:1. I’m sure he’s a great guy off the ice (the fact that teams keep picking him up is a strong argument in favour of his character), and his road through professional hockey hasn’t been easy (over 1,000 PIM in 668 professional games), but he simply isn’t helping this team on the ice at this point.

On a Slightly Different Note

Last year, Matt Greene wasn’t doing much for the Oilers. He was drawing third pairing minutes and, while not getting killed, really wasn’t adding much value. As a result, I suggested that the 25-year-old was not likely to turn into Jason Smith or a similar shut-down defender any time soon.

Greene’s results this year have been incredible. He’s drawn top assignments for a lousy Los Angeles Kings team (for example, in the Kings last game, Greene drew the assignment of checking Henrik Zetterberg, Marian Hossa, and Dan Cleary) and not only is he holding his own, but he’s excelling. The Kings have outscored the opposition 24:20 with Greene on the ice, and outshot them 259:240.

Player development isn’t linear, and at this point it appears that Matt Greene has taken an exponential leap.

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Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, Sportsnet, 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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#51 Jason Gregor
December 27 2008, 12:28AM
Trash it!
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@ David Staples: Curious what Strudwick's numbers are as a D-man this year?

Thanks.

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#52 Jason Gregor
December 27 2008, 12:29AM
Trash it!
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In the goal causing error department.

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