The Oilers' Excellent Defence Tandem

Jonathan Willis
February 15 2010 04:48PM

Detroit Red Wings v San Jose Sharks

With the Oilers sitting dead last in the NHL, naturally some players are looking a lot worse on the ice than they really should.

Bad teams are like that; a few years ago, for example, Rob Blake was 38 years old and coming off two seasons to forget with the Los Angeles Kings. He’d finished either last or second last on the team in plus/minus for two years running, with a total rating of minus-45 over two seasons. His offence was down to less than half of what it was at the peak of his career; he’d previously never failed to put up at least 46 points in a season where he hit the 70-game mark, but now he’d done it twice in a row. Many, including myself, suspected that the aged defenceman was due for retirement.

Then Blake signed with the San Jose Sharks. He bounced back to the 45-point plateau, recorded a plus/minus just one off the team lead, and recorded four points in six playoff games. He’s slowed a fair bit this year, but he has proven that he wasn’t ready to retire in the summer of 2008.

Blake isn’t the only one, and Oilers fans saw plenty of guys run out of town following the 2007-08 debacle that resulted in a sixth overall pick. Two forwards who saw the brunt of both quality matchups and defensive zone draws – Jarret Stoll and Marty Reasoner – were sent away, with the suspicion about Stoll being that a concussion had ruined his career, and with Reasoner often decried as a useless forward who only stayed in the lineup because of Craig MacTavish’s irrational love for the player.

Stoll rebounded when taken out of a checking role in Los Angeles; he’s a physical player capable of keeping his head above water at even-strength and a real asset on special teams for the Kings. Reasoner meanwhile has been kept in checking assignments in Atlanta, and has consistently put up some of the best plus/minus totals on the team despite the difficulties of his role. He had even been rewarded with some time on Ilya Kovalchuk’s line before Kovalchuk was dealt to New Jersey.

The Oilers have some players who are in reality much better than they have seemed this season. Two of those players have spent significant time this season as a defence pairing. Before I explain who they are, I’d like to show some numbers.

At even-strength this season (as per timeonice.com), the Oilers have 1368 shots for and 1527 shots against – meaning that for every 100 shots the Oilers take, their opposition takes 112. Adding in blocked and missed shots, for every 100 shot attempts the Oilers make, their opposition makes 115 – that’s a significant territorial advantage and no surprise to anyone who has sat through the majority of the team’s games this season.

Things change with this pairing on the ice, however. For every 100 shots the Oilers take with them on the ice, the opposition manages only 89 – a ratio which works out to 112:100, or the mirror image of this lousy team. It’s a similar story when we add in blocked and missed shots to show territorial advantage – 100:88 or 100:113. Those are incredible out-shooting numbers, particularly given how bad the rest of this team is.

The names of those two players? Sheldon Souray and Tom Gilbert, playing as a tandem. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the two is that despite their commendable on-ice shot rate, they are minus-11 as a pairing, on the ice for 11 goals for and 22 goals against. That’s a combination of two ugly factors: a .885 on-ice save percentage and a 5.1 on-ice shooting percentage. We might assume that Gilbert and Souray are allowing exceptionally high-quality shots against and at the same time handicapping the offence, but given their personal track records that seems highly unlikely. The numbers are also ridiculously bad; 5.1% is a worse shooting percentage than any team in the entire league, while a .885 SV% is worse than even Vesa Toskala’s .898 in Toronto.

In my opinion, the most likely explanation for the horrible percentages is a combination of two items: playing against high-end players with low-end players, and some bad luck. The first point is easy to confirm; according to behindthenet.ca, Gilbert and Souray face the toughest opposition with the worst teammates. That matches nicely with what we’ve seen on the ice. The second point is a little tricky, but some numbers from last year help confirm it. Of the 263 defenceman to play more than 10 games last year, exactly 12 had a worse on-ice shooting percentage than Gilbert and Souray do this year; Gilbert and Souray themselves had a 10.03 and 8.20 on-ice shooting percentage, respectively. The story is similar on the save percentage front; nine of 263 defenceman posted a sub-on-ice .885 SV%, and both Souray (.927) and Gilbert (.913) were well clear.

The point to all this: despite what a glance at their shared plus/minus might tell the casual observer, Souray and Gilbert have actually been quite good as a pairing. It seems highly likely that both of them are quite a bit better than their numbers this season, and if the Oilers do decide to trade one or both, they’d better not do it for 10 cents on the dollar.

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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 Eric Johnson
February 15 2010, 05:13PM
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Phurst!

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#2 Eric Johnson
February 15 2010, 05:18PM
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I am really looking for a strong year for Gilbert next year. The only reason I woudl like to see the Oilers move Souray is to clear his Salary and get some strong picks or prospects.

If he doesn't get moved, Give him the "C" and when his contracts up make him a solid 3 mil per season to finish off his career as an Oiler.

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#3 Crash
February 15 2010, 05:18PM
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This line of thinking is also the reason why IMO that Ales Hemsky is not a 90+ pt player in the league...facing the toughest opponents with the worst teammates and for most of his career, likely one of the worst 1st line centers in the NHL

I only wish that people would use this years standings to realize just how much he brings to this team as a go to guy.

For the record people around me could confirm that I for one wanted the Oilers to hold onto Stoll and let Horcoff walk...Stoll = solid faceoff man and is a dangerous right hand shot from the point on the PP.

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#4 OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F
February 15 2010, 07:52PM
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How did Lubo stack up?

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#5 Archaeologuy
February 15 2010, 08:10PM
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So what you're saying is the Oil should Trade Grebeshkov over Gilbert if given the chance?*

*I know that's not what you're saying, but it does seem like an extrapolation of the results

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#6 Nicholas
February 15 2010, 08:16PM
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Of course not!

If you listen to the majority on the internet, Gilbert is worthless and soft, therefore should be traded for a bag of pucks.

It doesn't matter that he leads the team in blocked shots (and is top 15 in the league, no less) it is clear the fanbase would rather our D run people through the boards rather than actually play defence.

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#7 Unavoidable
February 15 2010, 09:21PM
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Toskala's save percentage is actually .874... worse than what you've listed.

Also, I don't really know if we can say any of the Oilers' defensive thandems are "excellent". I just wouldn't throw that word around at all this season.

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#10 Mr DeBakey
February 17 2010, 12:52PM
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You post this on February 15 2010 04:48PM:

"What I'm saying here is that both Tom Gilbert and Sheldon Souray are capable top-four guys, and that despite their results this year (negligible offence, ugly plus-minus) they're both good players on a bad team."

Less than an hour later Brownlee posts:

"He has to find a way to move either Sheldon Souray or Tom Gilbert at something approaching fair value (which won't be easy given the seasons they've had)."

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