Team Review: Doug Risebrough Style

Jonathan Willis
January 27 2009 07:24AM

I don’t know how many OilersNation readers follow the official Hockey Operations blog of the Minnesota Wild. I’d guess the answer is not many.

In any case I do, because Minnesota has some of the most compelling online content available at any of the official sites. The Hockey Operations blog has pieces written by the general manager and members of the hockey staff, and while they don’t reveal everything, what they do reveal is generally worth reading. Take the team review that Doug Risebrough published last week.

Risebrough’s a career hockey man -– he’s been the GM in Minnesota since the team entered the league, and had a long career with Calgary and Montreal (winning four Stanley Cups with the powerhouse Canadiens team of the late-70s). He became an assistant coach in Calgary after retiring, and would subsequently take the role of Head Coach and then General Manager. As GM of the Flames, he was fairly unsuccessful; Calgary never made it past the first round of the playoffs during his tenure, and he was on the wrong end of the massive Doug Gilmour trade with Toronto. His history with the Oilers has been mixed; as a player, Legends of Hockey relates this anecdote:

Risebrough was especially good at playing the agitator. He was a chippy, hard-nosed, aggressive pest known for his two-handers and ability to pot his share of points. He once threw an Edmonton Oilers sweater on the ice and shredded it with his skates.

After getting fired in Calgary, Risebrough spent three seasons (1996-99) in the Oilers organization as VP of Hockey Operations before taking the job in Minnesota.

Since Risebrough’s obviously a bright guy, and made his team review public, I thought it might be of interest to review the Edmonton Oilers in the same manner (with the only change being that instead of posting last year’s record at the all-star break, I’ve pro-rated the numbers from all of last season). Last year’s numbers are italicized.

2007-08 | 2008-09 Record: 23-20-3 | 24-19-3 Points: 49 | 51 WC Standings: 9th | 6th Goals For: 132 | 132 Goals Against: 141 | 138 Goal Differential: -9 | -6 Goals For Rank: 17th | 14th Goals Against Rank: 26th | 23rd Powerplay: 21st | 17th Penalty Kill: 5th | 28th ES Scoring: 27th | 12th

The record this season is nearly identical to last year’s pro-rated record, with a two-point shift resulting in a three-spot move in the conference standings, but the way that it’s happening has shifted dramatically.

On the surface, goals for and against are nearly identical to last season, but the reasons for the performance could not be more different. Last season, the Oilers were among the worst even-strength teams in the NHL. They’ve moved up fifteen spots in even-strength scoring (for and against). The power-play has experienced modest improvement, going from 21st in the NHL to 17th.

Still, despite all of these improvements, the team is running in place, and it only takes a look at one number to explain why. The penalty-kill, which has been a great strength on virtually every team of the Lowe/MacTavish era, has been a disaster. Let’s take a closer look at the penalty-kill statistics for this season and last season.

2007-08 | 2008-09 Percentage: 84.7% | 76.3% Times Shorthanded: 206 | 198 Times SH Rank: 21st | 16th Goals Against: 31 | 47 Goals Against Rank: T-7th | T-25th

The Oilers aren’t an especially disciplined team, but they’ve made some modest improvements in that department from last season. Despite being shorthanded eight fewer times, they’ve allowed 16 more goals.

Let’s compare the performances of this season’s most used players to their counterparts last season, starting with the forwards:

All Numbers/60: TOI | GA | Corsi | BlocksOn 2007-08 Reasoner: 3.10 | 4.49 | -49.4 | 23.6 Moreau: 2.78 | 5.17 | -58.6 | 14.7 Stoll: 2.67 | 6.92 | -66.7 | 20.8 Horcoff: 2.54 | 5.79 | -63.2 | 22.7 Brodziak: 2.49 | 4.82 | -48.2 | 23.2 Pisani: 2.45 | 5.24 | -55.9 | 14.4 2008-09 --- --- --- --- Horcoff: 3.08 | 9.08 | -99.5 | 22.5 Brodziak: 2.79 | 7.50 | -74.5 | 19.0 Moreau: 2.60 | 11.54 | -86.6 | 19.4 Pisani: 2.24 | 1.79 | -98.3 | 16.1 Reddox: 1.06 | 9.88 | -103.7 | 29.6 Cole: 1.05 | 1.26 | -73.3 | 26.5 Cogliano: 0.97 | 6.89 | -81.3 | 16.5 Penner: 0.94 | 8.86 | -104.9 | 25.1

Looking at the Time On Ice numbers, there’s been a difference of approach this season. Last season, MacTavish had six forwards that he used a lot when they were healthy, which meant that most of the season he was running with two pairs of forwards (because most of the players on that list had significant injuries over the course of the year).

This season, the plan seems to have been to use Horcoff-Brodziak and Moreau-Pisani, but with Pisani’s injury the second set of forwards has seen a mixed bag of players with Moreau, with four players all hovering around the 1:00/60 mark.

The negative Corsi number has shot up between this year and last by a tremendous amount. Some of that is due to rule changes (the negative Corsi number for teams across the league has increased), but much of it is a result of allowing more shots. Brodziak and Cole stand out as players doing a fine job at reducing the number of shots against, while Ethan Moreau would seem to be doing a decent job despite the amount of goals being scored on his watch.

It’s been suggested that this year’s unit blocks fewer shots than last season’s, and while superficially the total number of blocks looks close, it really isn’t. The block totals from last season came on far fewer shots; in other words, the percentage of shots being blocked has dropped. Using Horcoff as an example, last season 63.2 more attempts (shots, missed shots and blocked shots) were made against than for, with an average of one block per every -2.8 Corsi. This season, he’s averaging one block per every -4.42 Corsi.

If we use a weighted (for ice-time) average down the line, we get the following ratios for this season and last season:

2007-08: .36 Blocks/ -Corsi

2008-09: .23 Blocks/ -Corsi

In simpler terms, this set of forwards is about 33 per cent less likely to block a shot than last year’s set of forwards.

To sum up, I see two significant weak spots among the forwards on this year’s penalty-killing unit:

  1. Allowing far too many shots against
  2. A decreased willingness to block shots

Personnel would seem to be part of the problem; Marty Reasoner was the best player on last year’s team (and among the best in the league) both in allowing fewer chances against, and in being willing to block shots he faced. The decision to let him walk as a free agent over the summer was a mistake. Jarret Stoll on the other hand, was among the worst players on last year’s unit in both categories, so it would seem reasonable to conclude that his absence isn’t one of the primary factors in the decreased efficiency of the penalty kill.

Without knowing what’s happening behind the scenes, it isn’t possible to conclusively say that coaching is part of the problem, but the numbers would seem to indicate that a greater emphasis on shot-blocking (historically a strength for MacTavish-coached teams) would help the penalty-killing unit.

All Numbers/60: TOI | GA | Corsi | BlocksOn 2007-08 --- --- --- --- Souray: 3.77 | 3.68 | -44.7 | 25.1 Staios: 3.71 | 4.15 | -52.9 | 19.9 Greene: 2.54 | 7.20 | -65.3 | 20.6 Gilbert: 2.40 | 4.88 | -58.0 | 21.1 Smid: 2.30 | 6.03 | -64.7 | 20.9 Pitkanen: 1.93 | 3.94 | -57.2 | 19.2 Grebeshkov: 1.13 | 8.96 | -51.5 | 23.1 2008-09 --- --- --- --- Staios: 3.52 | 8.71 | -93.0 | 19.4 Souray: 3.45 | 7.91 | -89.3 | 22.1 Gilbert: 2.48 | 8.05 | -87.0 | 22.0 Grebeshkov: 1.89 | 6.06 | -86.4 | 22.0 Strudwick: 1.36 | 7.35 | -102.9 | 27.0 Smid: 0.91 | 8.21 | -69.8 | 14.4

A quick glance at these numbers would seem to indicate that the same problems observed among the forwards are also prevalent among the defense. Since the numbers are team numbers, that isn’t surprising. There’s also some difficulty with sample size; a much greater percentage of the game is played at even-strength than on the penalty-kill, so the numbers are inherently weaker.

With those caveats, however, the loss of Matt Greene would appear to have limited impact. Greene was the worst defender used last season in goals against, negative Corsi, and blocks per negative Corsi.

It is worth noting that the most used defenceman on the PK this season, Steve Staios, has the worst goals against average of any defenceman, and also has the lowest number of blocks per negative Corsi. His Corsi number is better only than the little-used Jason Strudwick. Last season, Staios trailed only Souray among commonly used penalty-killers in these categories. It would seem reasonable to conclude that the drop-off in his play at even-strength from last season to now extends to the penalty-kill as well.

2007-08 SA | GA | SV% Roloson: 157 | 18 | 0.886 Garon: 160 | 13 | 0.919 2008-09 --- --- --- Roloson: 196 | 24 | 0.878 Garon: 109 | 17 | 0.844 Deslauriers: 54 | 6 | 0.889

This is the other place where there’s been a huge change in quality. Mathieu Garon last season had a pretty average five-on-five save percentage. On the penalty kill, however, he ranked second in the league among goalies with more than 25 games (behind Dan Ellis of Nashville).

Fast-forward to this season, where Garon’s numbers dropped off the face of the Earth shorthanded. Garon’s even-strength save percentage is actually better than the number he posted last season, but the huge decline in his penalty-killing numbers dropped his save percentage overall. It’s probably worth questioning if Garon’s decline was hurting the penalty-kill, or if the penalty-kill’s decline was hurting Garon –- I’d guess a little of both. Roloson’s save percentage is down a touch from last season short-handed, so I’d imagine that the Oiler brass felt Garon was the bigger piece of that equation, which is the biggest reason he was traded.

In Conclusion

I would suggest that the Oilers would be well-advised to make improving the penalty-kill their chief priority. The trade of Garon would seem to imply that they felt he was a big part of the problem, but even if they’re right about that, they can’t afford to stand pat. I’d suggest the following list of changes:

1. Trade for an elite penalty-killing forward.

This team misses Marty Reasoner a lot, but players of his ilk are generally easy to acquire on the trade market. There isn’t any excuse for failing to upgrade the personnel in that area, and little excuse for allowing Reasoner himself to walk this past summer.

2. Reduce Steve Staios’ level of responsibility.

Staios, one of my personal favourites on this team, has looked shaky for much of this season. Injuries, age, personal situation; whatever the reason for the decline, it’s highly visible five-on-five, and the statistics (and common sense) would seem to indicate that it’s also a cause for concern on the penalty-kill. The reduction in Staios’ ice-time could be accounted for by increases in responsibility for Tom Gilbert and Denis Grebeshkov.

3. Make Erik Cole an integral part of the unit.

The revolving door on the second set of penalty-killing forwards should end. Erik Cole’s numbers are consistently good (in context with the rest of the team) and are far superior to those of Penner and Reddox, neither of whom should be playing short-handed. This change, combined with the addition of another penalty-killing forward, would give MacTavish three reliable tandems: New Guy–Brodziak, Horcoff–Pisani, Moreau–Cole.

4. Re-emphasize shot blocking

The drop-off in blocks is noticeable to the eye, and when looking at the statistics it’s evident as well. It’s been well documented that MacTavish has made shot-blocking a priority for this team in the past, but it wouldn’t surprise me if all of the injuries this team has suffered over the past few years has altered that approach. Whatever the reason, this team is blocking less shots short-handed, and it would seem to be an area they could improve on.

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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 freeze
January 27 2009, 08:00AM
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Thanks for the tip on the Ops Blog. I'll check it out.

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#2 Ender the Dragon
January 27 2009, 08:25AM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

The decision to let [Marty Reasoner] walk as a free agent over the summer was a mistake.

I thought so at the time, and for more reasons than just his shot-blocking and face-off capabilities. Still, Brownlee had this to say last week:

RobinB wrote:

I might have mentioned Reasoner, but unless I fell down the stairs and hit my head that day, not in the context of him being a candidate to come back.

I wonder why Brownlee would say that; I don't know if it would be feasable or if Reasoner would welcome the opportunity, but Marty took a lot of pieces with him when he left and his stats this year show that he still carries them with him. While Reasoner-style players are available on other teams as well (as JW pointed out above), I think Reasoner himself could be a very affordable play-off rental for the Oil this year.

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#3 RobinB
January 27 2009, 08:47AM
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@ Ender the Dragon: No questioning Marty's contributions from my end. Unless I'm mistaken, the comment you cite came in response to somebody suggesting I'd said the Oilers might be looking at getting Reasoner back for a third stint. I have heard no such thing from anybody with the Oilers.

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#4 Mike L
January 27 2009, 08:54AM
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(with the only change being that instead of posting last year’s record at the all-star break, I’ve pro-rated the numbers from all of last season). Last year’s numbers are italicized.

It is hard to prorate them, when their best stretch of the season came in the last 20 games when they went 14-5-1. That makes the numbers much more misleading I would suspect.

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#5 shep
January 27 2009, 08:56AM
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a gm mentioning ev goals/60? has this happened before?

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#6 Ender the Dragon
January 27 2009, 09:04AM
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@ RobinB: Perhaps I misinterpreted the context. In the previous thread regarding Lacavlier, I just posted Reasoner's numbers with a brutal Thrashers team this year. He's looking very attractive as a guy to have with you on a play-off run. I was just mulling over what we might have to offer to an organization who's obviously a seller even at this point in the season.

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#7 RobinB
January 27 2009, 09:19AM
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@ Ender the Dragon: I might ask the Oilers if they've contemplated the same thing. Like I said, I haven't heard his name -- and with a popular guy in the room like Reasoner, there's a good chance his name would trickle out from one of the players if they'd heard anything.

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#8 Ender the Dragon
January 27 2009, 09:33AM
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@ RobinB:

Robin, if I haven't said it enough, I really enjoy having you on this site. As WG alluded to yesterday, the fact that you are willing to ask these kinds of things on the Nation's behalf really speaks as to what kind of guy you are. And the offer you made to Swany and his kid last week; nothing but class. Much appreciated, sir.

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#9 mwhite.dking@nf.sympatico.ca
January 27 2009, 09:58AM
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Robin and Gregor are kicking around here so here's something for them: can you ask someone if it's an org directive to no longer look to block shots? Is Willis's hunch correct and a list of injuries has made the team shy about blocking shots and/or the coaching staff loathe to stress that old art?

Also, yes, bring back Reasoner as a rental.

Why the heck not? It's not like the Thrash not to lose any more games to call off the season, either. Let's get the guy back post-haste.

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#10 Reggie
January 27 2009, 10:28AM
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On point about the PK is the following Face Off % from the last 2 years (from NHL.com)

Stoll

08/09 FO% 56.5% (32nd overall) 07/08 FO% 55.1% (33rd overall)

Reasoner

08/09 FO% 52.3% (65nd overall) 07/08 FO% 52.8% (58rd overall)

Horcoff

08/09 FO% 52.2% (66th overall) 07/08 FO% 50.6% (90th overall)

08/09 FO% 51.6% (78th overall) 07/08 FO% 51.5% (74th overall)

Adding another 4-5% in the faceoff cirle would help immensely with the PK number. The rule change of the face off always starting in the defensive zone for a penalty is hurting the Oilers.

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#11 Chris
January 27 2009, 10:36AM
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Careful Nation... Bringing back Reasoner would validate MacT's stand on his necessity; thus proving MacT IS competent, and DOES understand how to use his assets. Who do you think MacT could pair with Reddox and Reasoner on the first line?

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#12 Ender the Dragon
January 27 2009, 10:55AM
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Chris wrote:

Who do you think MacT could pair with Reddox and Reasoner on the first line?

Chris, that's not nice. Slightly humourous, I'll give you, but still uncalled for. If you want to hack on someone, aim for the target with the big head pictured in the next WG post . . .

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#13 Wanye Gretz
January 27 2009, 11:12AM
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Dang it Willis. We are going to hire you out as a special consultant to the NHL. I of course will take a 89% managment fee - but you will be entitled to a danish on Monday mornings.

You break it down like no other. Even if you are telling me that Reasoner is the solution to the problem and taking my main man Staios off the ice - I still salute you.

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#14 oilerdago
January 27 2009, 11:21AM
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Great article Jon. When you address issue #1 I think you'll also address issue #4 at the same time. Just some marginal improvement in this area (a couple of goals over the final 36 games) may make the difference between a playoff date with San Jose/Detroit in Round 1 or Calgary/Chicago.

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#15 Colin
January 27 2009, 12:23PM
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Amazing Article Willis, it spells everything out for the reader quite nicely.

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#16 Andrew W
January 27 2009, 02:23PM
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@Jonathan Willis

If Reasoner - or another face-off winning facsimile of him - were to come to the Oilers, wouldn't the SH forward pairings of New Guy-Cole, Horcoff-Pisani, Brodziak-Moreau be better? This would put a decent face-off centre on each line, and keep Brodziak-Moreau in tact (if they're still together - I can't keep up with the MacBlender).

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#17 TV
January 27 2009, 02:29PM
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Very interesting read J.W. I also thought the bullet points were pretty close to being bang-on, sans the #1 option.

It does not change or sway my stance on Reasoner whatsoever. Trading an asset for player you let walk away for nothing over the summer, & who is a upcoming UFA, specialized PK'er who brings nothing to the table 5on5 except a lack of speed & physicality, is only subtraction by addition IMO.

There are better, younger, faster & financially comparable guys out there to get if it gets to the trading of an asset for 1 of those types of players at any point this season.

x6

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#18 Milli
January 27 2009, 04:14PM
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Good read, very interesting. When Reasoner left, I never batted an eye....it seemed like an "oh ya he's gone, but we got soooo much talent now....." then when Stolly got dealt, I understood, but thought, I bet he's gonna light it up and we will regret that trade....

Here we are just coming outta the break and we'd be a totally diferent team if we had even a decent Pk. Think how many points not letting 15 goals in would equal....Maybe a shot at knocking Calgary Lames out for the Division....CRAZY, a CracT Team with a brutal PK....

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#19 Antony Ta
January 27 2009, 06:22PM
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Great post J. Willis. That Risebrough is a genius.

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#20 Smokin' Ray
January 27 2009, 06:47PM
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Seriously Willis. How on earth does your wife let you have so much time for this? That would have taken me a week to come up with that. Share the secrets...

Great read as always. What's on the menu for tomorrow?

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#21 enlinoDew
October 12 2009, 06:26PM
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Hi People How are you doing?

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