Fixing actual problems

Jonathan Willis
September 02 2008 01:49PM

By now, we’re all familiar with Kevin Lowe’s moves this summer. Marty Reasoner, Jarret Stoll, Matt Greene, Joni Pitkanen and Raffi Torres were moved out, and Erik Cole, Lubomir Visnovsky, Jason Strudwick and Gilbert Brule moved in.

It wasn’t a bad summer; with the exception of the Torres trade and allowing Reasoner to walk, I would argue that every one of those moves will make the Oilers a better team next season. The two moves not aimed at progress next season cleared some cap space and allowed some younger players to get ice time.

Let’s look at two statistics. I know not everyone believes in statistical analysis of the game, but these two are very simple and obviously connected to a team’s ability to win.

Goals for, 5-on-5: 146 (11th in the league) Goals against, 5-on-5: 169 (27th in the league)

Of those two statistics, where do the Oilers have the most room for improvement? They actually scored more goals than the Pittsburgh Penguins five-on-five, so at even strength offense really isn’t a huge problem.

Defense, on the other hand, is. Only the Los Angeles Kings were a worse team at stopping goals at even strength than the Edmonton Oilers in the Western Conference last season. Healthy seasons from Shawn Horcoff, Fernando Pisani, Ethan Moreau and Sheldon Souray should help that number, as will an early reliance on Mathieu Garon, but at this point the playoffs are hardly a sure thing.

The loss of three players who handled a bizarre amount of defensive work (Reasoner, Stoll, Torres) is going to leave players like Marc Pouliot and Kyle Brodziak in ugly positions. I’ve talked about this before, but Reasoner took 141 more draws in the defensive zone than he did offensive zone. Jarret Stoll took 181, and Raffi Torres was fifth among forwards by this number, with 35. Basically, these guys started in their own end a lot more, something that leads to goals against, and those faceoffs still need to be taken.

Behind the Net gives us the quality of competition numbers for Oilers forwards. Looking at them, Stoll faced the toughest, Reasoner the third-toughest, and Torres the fifth-toughest minutes among Oilers forwards. All played with below-average line-mates to boot (particularly Reasoner—thanks for coming out, Geoff Sanderson). Even ignoring the numbers, and just watching the games, serious fans should easily remember how often these guys were on the ice against the opposition’s heavy hitters (Iginla, Sakic, etc.). Those match-ups still need to be taken by somebody. Reasoner and Stoll were getting killed (-17 and -23, respectively), but why would Brodziak/Pouliot be able to do any better in the same situation?

I am of the opinion that the Oilers will make the playoffs, but if they don’t, I doubt very much that it will have anything to do with a lack of offensive prowess. It will be because the team lacks players who know what to do in their own end, and that isn’t a role that rookie/sophomore players excel in.

Marc Pouliot wasn’t an NHL player for the majority of last season. Kyle Brodziak finished -9 in relatively sheltered minutes, far easier minutes than Stoll/Reasoner played last season. Andrew Cogliano played the easiest minutes of the bunch, and still had 3 goals scored against him for every 60 minutes of even strength ice-time. This team doesn’t have a centre capable of playing tough minutes outside of Shawn Horcoff, and if they miss the playoffs, we’ll look back and see that this hole is a big part of the reason for it.

—Jonathan Willis is the owner of Copper & Blue, a blog dedicated to all things Oil, and a frequent contributor to OilersNation.com.

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Jonathan Willis is Managing Editor of the Nation Network. He also currently writes for the Edmonton Journal's Cult of Hockey, Grantland, and Hockey Prospectus. His work has appeared at theScore, ESPN and Puck Daddy. He was previously founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue. Contact him at jonathan (dot) willis (at) live (dot) ca.
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#1 Chris.
September 02 2008, 06:14PM
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This team will live and die by special teams. I agree that the new lineup may have some defensive shortcommings five on five...

BUT FOR THE LAST EIGHT YEARS...I HAVE BEEN SOOOO SICK OF HEARING FROM MACTAVISH THAT WE LOST THIS GAME OR THAT GAME BECAUSE HE WASN"T ABLE TO ROLL ALL FOUR LINES!

"I uh...Strongly feel that we uh were beginning to get some momentum there uh, five on five uh, then in the second with all the penalties uh...", and so on and so on.

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#2 Doogie2K
September 02 2008, 08:35PM
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You forgot Glencross.

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#3 Vomi
September 02 2008, 09:11PM
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Your article is entitled "Fixing actual problems", yet you do not propose any solution the fix the problems...

There are some pretty good role players still available on the free agent market. For exemple, Yanick Perreault, even though his best years are long gone, is still one of the best at winning faceoffs.

What do you think we should do?

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#4 Jonathan
September 03 2008, 07:04AM
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Your article is entitled “Fixing actual problems”, yet you do not propose any solution the fix the problems…

Bring in defensive specialists 5-on-5. That's players in the Marek Malik category on the back-end and Bryan Smolinski on the front end I don't think either is ideal and would prefer to see a trade happen, but both would help address issues.

There are some pretty good role players still available on the free agent market. For exemple, Yanick Perreault, even though his best years are long gone, is still one of the best at winning faceoffs.

Perreault can't get a contract because he doesn't know his arse from his elbow in the defensive zone (he's a faceoff-winning offensive specialist). Faceoffs are a concern, but less of a concern then the lack of quality shutdown centres.

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#5 mjsh
September 03 2008, 08:13AM
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It would look to me like the numbers you talk about are the reason those guys are gone. Stoll and Torres were sat down last winter for poor play. My guess is that we will not miss them that much. The other team cannot score if the Oilers have the puck all the time.

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#6 Sean
September 03 2008, 08:25AM
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Reasoner and Stoll were getting killed (-17 and -23, respectively), but why would Brodziak/Pouliot be able to do any better in the same situation?

I'm not saying your wrong - I agree there is cause for concern but we are talking about replacing players who got killed and didnt contribute much offense at all. We arent talking about replacing FCP's minutes. Brodziak improved significantly over the year and Horcoff is returning from an injury. I'm optimistically hopeful this will be enough but otherwise bringing in a soon to be UFA player should be a feasible option.

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#7 Jonathan
September 03 2008, 08:50AM
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It would look to me like the numbers you talk about are the reason those guys are gone. Stoll and Torres were sat down last winter for poor play. My guess is that we will not miss them that much. The other team cannot score if the Oilers have the puck all the time.

Stoll and Torres got sat because they got pissy when MacTavish put Stortini on the line ith them. Raffi Torres had a capable season as a checker last year.

As for having the puck all the time, even if the Oilers are the best faceoff team in the league (say 55% on draws), the other team starts with the puck 45% of the time. Who, outside of Horcoff, is going to check Stastny/Sedin/etc.?

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#8 Jonathan
September 03 2008, 08:51AM
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I’m not saying your wrong - I agree there is cause for concern but we are talking about replacing players who got killed and didnt contribute much offense at all.

But these guys got killed because of the situation they were in, and we never brought in players who could handle those matchups. Stoll/Reasoner weren't the solution, but to this point in time, the Oilers don't have one.

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#9 Fiveandagame
September 03 2008, 10:52AM
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I agree this is an area of concern. But you also have to look at the improvement in Defense and goal tending.

If you put Garon's GAA in half of the games Roli probably shouldn't have played in at the top of the year and we're in the playoffs. You also have to take into account the improved positional play of both Gilbert and Grebs. It won't be the Steve Staios show back there. The poor guy was hung out to dry back there last year.

What I find encouraging is that Defense can be taught while offensive prowess is a talent. The Mighty Oil are blessed with a vast array of guys who are dangerous on close. With a formidable Power Play we will be a tough team to beat. You may score 3 goals on us every game, but we're going to score 5. (A system that seemed to work pretty good in the 80's.

I personally see a correlation between the Oilers of this year and Buffalo two years ago. Impressive amounts of offense and three lines that can score. Thomas Vanek was their 3rd line center and put in over 80pts and 40+ goals. We could be that type of team.

I also think you'll see the Oil make a depth move come the deadline where they bring in a shut down forward for their 3rd or 4th line similar to the role Peca played for us in the 06' cup run.

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#10 Gord
September 03 2008, 12:05PM
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Johnathan, I see the same problem on the back end as you see on the front end. Other than Smid and Staios, all 4 d-men are better known as offensive defensmen.

As far as forwards line up, I don't think MacT isn't going to have an option - Horc will have to center the checking line with Pisani.

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#11 Jonathan
September 03 2008, 01:11PM
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I see the same problem on the back end as you see on the front end. Other than Smid and Staios, all 4 d-men are better known as offensive defensmen.

I'd like to see a Marek Malik-type, as I mentioned earlier, but it's less of a concern for me because I think all of Gilbert, Grebeshkov, Souray, Staios and Visnovsky can handle second-pairing opposition without getting killed, so a by-committee approach might work there.

As far as forwards line up, I don’t think MacT isn’t going to have an option - Horc will have to center the checking line with Pisani.

The problem with that is that leaves you with only one competent checking line. Maybe Penner - Horcoff - Pisani play that role and Cole - Gagner - Hemsky try and take second difficulty minutes, but without splitting Pisani/Horcoff I worry we're putting too many eggs in one basket.

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#12 OregonStateFan
September 03 2008, 01:48PM
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I can see everything coming down to injuries this season. MacT's system is fairly defensive (heck, everyone is employing some version of the trap) and if the team can get through the first 20 games without getting destroyed, they've got a good chance of making through the season without changing any of the current cast.

Most of the problems appear to arise from players moving into roles they aren't comfortable with. Just because Brodziak was playing easy minutes doesn't mean he's going to be eaten alive each time he's facing some serious talent. Weak competition does not mean weak players.

The Oil made huge strides in making themselves better compared to the rest of the conference, so sit back, relax, and watch us make 1st or 2nd in the conference.

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#13 Jonathan
September 03 2008, 02:33PM
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Just because Brodziak was playing easy minutes doesn’t mean he’s going to be eaten alive each time he’s facing some serious talent.

Except that Brodziak was getting scored against at a heavy rate by this weak competition (3.44 goals against per 60 minutes of ice-time) and while I think Brodziak will improve, I think doing so aainst even tougher competition may be a stretch.

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#14 Jonathan
September 03 2008, 02:34PM
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The Oil made huge strides in making themselves better compared to the rest of the conference, so sit back, relax, and watch us make 1st or 2nd in the conference.

I'm assuming you mean division, because there's no way this is a top-two team in the conference. Even so, I don't think that we're well clear of Colorado/Vancouver/Calgary; we may have a slight edge, but it's too close for comfort.

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#15 mjsh
September 03 2008, 03:26PM
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As for having the puck all the time, even if the Oilers are the best faceoff team in the league (say 55% on draws), the other team starts with the puck 45% of the time. Who, outside of Horcoff, is going to check Stastny/Sedin/etc.?

I really like Brodziak Pisani and Cole or Cogs as the third line checking line. I have high hopes for them..

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#16 OregonStateFan
September 03 2008, 03:51PM
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Except that Brodziak was getting scored against at a heavy rate by this weak competition (3.44 goals against per 60 minutes of ice-time) and while I think Brodziak will improve, I think doing so against even tougher competition may be a stretch.

I like to think that this is just growing pains. It's not like he's spent 4 seasons or more in the NHL already and is getting creamed. MacT seems to lump praise on him from time to time, and that has to mean he's responding to what the coaches are telling him to improve on.

I might be wrong and we might be screwed, but I don't think there's any reason to panic yet. Let's just see how this year's lineups pan out. Maybe Moreau can stay healthy...

I’m assuming you mean division, because there’s no way this is a top-two team in the conference. Even so, I don’t think that we’re well clear of Colorado/Vancouver/Calgary; we may have a slight edge, but it’s too close for comfort.

Whoops, I stand corrected. I did mean division.

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#17 Jonathan
September 03 2008, 04:07PM
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I like to think that this is just growing pains. It’s not like he’s spent 4 seasons or more in the NHL already and is getting creamed. MacT seems to lump praise on him from time to time, and that has to mean he’s responding to what the coaches are telling him to improve on.

I think Brodziak's going to be a quality player. The thing is, it usually takes a few seasons to get there, and I'm not at all confident he'll be ready next year.

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