Ten Points: Roster decisions, the magic bullet, and the Oilers as a small market club

Jonathan Willis
August 15 2012 11:48AM

1. Potter or Peckham? The Oilers face an interesting choice this fall (if there’s hockey): do they keep both bubble defenders on the team and run with eight defencemen or do they trade one/try to slip one through waivers?

My vote was to trade Andy Sutton at the last deadline – purely because he’s not a guy who is in the long-term picture due to age and he has some value – but since the Oilers didn’t do that they now face a choice. I’ve long been a fan of Peckham and I think he can be a regular third-pairing guy if all goes right, but I don’t think that limited upside makes it worthwhile to hang on to him. Potter’s cheaper, not a penalty magnet, and has a wider range of skills, plus I think Peckham’s nasty streak gives him some value on the market that Potter lacks. I’d prefer to see Peckham dealt, particularly since this situation is going to happen again next year when Oscar Klefbom makes the jump, and probably every year after for the foreseeable future.

2. How much leash does Khabibulin get? With the Oilers undoubtedly hoping to make big strides this year, what happens if Nikolai Khabibulin struggles early on? I tend to think that in the last year of his deal the team will be less patient – perhaps even willing to plug Yann Danis in as backup if the veteran Russian falters. On the other hand, this is a contract year for Khabibulin and by all accounts his workload is going to be lighter – I wouldn’t be surprised if he turns in a serviceable performance as a backup goalie.

3. Magnus Paajarvi. There’s no doubt in my mind that Magnus Paajarvi belongs in the NHL next season on merit. Derek Zona has been pushing this at the Copper and Blue and I think he’s clearly right: Paajarvi’s a more useful NHL’er than Lennart Petrell or Ben Eager, to name two current Oilers. My one worry is development: ideally, Paajarvi’s offensive game develops, and I’m not convinced a depth role in the NHL (where he’d likely be consigned) would do that better than a top-six role in Oklahoma City. I’m more bullish on Paajarvi than most Oilers fans are, I think, and because of that I’d hate to see him consigned to a long-term checking role after one bad season where absolutely everything went wrong.

4. The statistical magic bullet. It doesn’t exist. Some of the more doctrinarian members of the statistical community think that Corsi (suitably finessed to account for zone starts and team strength) gives all the information anyone needs to make a hockey decision, but that’s simply not the case (an obvious example is the discussion here). Lots of things matter – some we know about, like role and linemates (again, looking at the Iginla example, look at the shift in Corsi with and without Jokinen and Bouwmeester – I’m not a Flames guy but it sure looks to me like role had a major impact on Iginla’s disappointing season). Finishing ability – while difficult to sustain and overrated by analysts at large, in my opinion – still needs to be taken into account; dismissing it entirely is not sensible. Then there’s the fact that things we don’t know about matter. We can’t compensate for what we don’t know but humility is required – as new evidence becomes available, beliefs will need to shift, and the idea that we’ve got it all figured out because we know how many shots a player was on the ice for is crazy.

5. The Red Queen’s Hypothesis. Named after a comment in the book Through the Looking-Glass, the Red Queen’s hypothesis is a fancy term in evolutionary thought that basically conveys the idea of an arms race: species need to be constantly improving and adapting just to stay in the same place, relative to its peers. It’s something that I think holds true for hockey: if a team isn’t constantly improving, it’s regressing. Some of that improvement – especially early on – can come from the maturation of young players, but over time clubs need to learn to use trades/free agency to augment an older core. That’s the long-term concern with the Oilers’ rebuild model, and something we’ve seen in some cities. Chicago, for example, has gone from a plus-48 team that went to the Conference finals to a plus-62 team that won the Cup to a plus-33 team that lost in the first round to a plus-10 team that lost in the first round. It doesn’t happen to all teams that make the leap (Pittsburgh, to cite one example, has had some recent playoff flops but recorded more regular season wins in 2011-12 than they had in any other post-lockout season) but it does happen to teams that aren’t able to continue to adapt after the young core comes off entry-level deals. Assuming the Oilers make the jump to contending team, will they be able to stay there? I don’t have the answer to that question.

6. Scotty Bowman. Further on that last point, it also applies to coaching. Here’s Chicago G.M. Stan Bowman talking about his dad’s coaching style in the book Behind the Moves:

The one thing my dad’s always been so good at, I think, is he’s been able to adjust…. [F]or a guy who’s ‘old school’ and has been around so long, he’s incredibly progressive and willing to try new things, willing to do things which are not the norm, and that’s what made him successful as a coach … he was very unpredictable … I think all coaches today are kind of – I don’t want to say programmed – but they’re led to do a certain thing. So if you can force yourself to try things maybe a little different or take a different approach, it’s going to give you that advantage. Ironically I think what makes him so exceptional is that he didn’t think he had all the answers…. I remember my dad would ask me – when I was in high school – after a game, ‘What did you see? Well, what do you think is wrong?’… Sometimes, I would say things, and then in the next game [his team would] do it and I’d think, ‘My God, he actually listened to what I had to say.’… He could care less where the idea came from. It really makes no difference to him. All he cares about is winning.

7. The only reason the Oilers can rebuild the way they have is thanks to the fans. This should be obvious. If, at the end of the day, the Oilers rebuild succeeds in creating an elite team, it will be thanks to the loyalty of fans, who have continued to pay good money year after year to watch a terrible NHL team. In other markets, a drop in attendance (and consequently a drop in revenue) would have forced a shorter rebuild.

8. The Oilers are a big-market team. The Edmonton Oilers are the seventh-most expensive team to watch in the entire NHL (warning: PDF). Despite this, and despite being a terrible hockey team, they sell out every night. How many markets in the league would support that? It doesn’t matter how many people live in the city, or what the size of the potential television market is, or any of the rest of it: all that matters is the number of people willing to pay to watch hockey. It’s higher in Edmonton than it is in the majority of NHL markets; ergo, the club is a big-market team.

9. It is in the Oilers’ interest to appear to be a small-market club. The Edmonton Oilers are negotiating with the city for support in building a new arena. Naturally, the city wants to hang on to NHL hockey; it’s easier for the Oilers to extract money if the perception is that there’s some danger in relocating. Obviously, there’s an incentive for the team’s ownership to play up that risk. Of course, as we’ve just pointed out, a team that sells out the building despite prices well above average and a club well below average is pretty much a dream scenario for an NHL owner.

10. Donald Fehr’s long-term goal. It’s been suggested to me that the NHLPA’s objective is to limit damage in this CBA negotiation and try to set things up for a decisive win the next time around. I don’t think that’s the case. I think the NHLPA needs to get into a position where they have leverage in CBA negotiations if they are to exist as a viable entity long-term; to do that, they need to create a scenario where the vast majority of owners are making money – because owners making money will lose more money every time there’s a labour stoppage. The best way to do that is to stabilize small markets – hence the push for revenue sharing. Once all NHL teams are generating significant income, the league will have much less incentive to lockout players.

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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 DieHard
August 15 2012, 07:59PM
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Jay Gray wrote:

The biggest reason I believe the Oilers are so successful on the financial side of things is people in my age group 25-40 grew up when Gretzky and the boys were running things. We grew up as Oiler fanatics, and in turn are willing to shell out any extra money to show our support. Whether that be on tickets, merch, memorabilia, etc.

Yes and the Eskies too.

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#52 DieHard
August 15 2012, 08:01PM
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DonDon wrote:

Jonathan

The question you did not post is does the owner finally want to see this version of the Oilers start to win games and compete game in, game out.

At this point it is difficult to determine. The only changes have been drafting Yak, being lucky enough to pick up Schultz the Younger in FA and replacing Renney with Krueger as head coach. Otherwise, it has been stand pat, again.

I hope we get some idea in training camp. If the roster constitutes the same old, same old, then we can prepare for another lottery pick and a disappointing season, sans playoffs, a version of the movie Groundhog Day.

No the owner does not!

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#53 Randall Shermer
August 15 2012, 10:19PM
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Don't the business guys generally mean number of potential customers when they say "market size"? If true, it might help to make that distinction or else stop using the term "market size" if you're meaning "market value" or something similar.

I could be wrong about the terminology but it raises perhaps a useful point. A good company (with a monopoly in the market, but that's a whole nother issue) should be able to pull the most out of the market it's in, right? So if the Oilers are squeezing mega coin out of its base and the (recent cup winning) Bruins and Hawks are slumming it in the same general revenue neighbourhood, isn't it a little unfair to lump the Oilers into the "big market" rather than simply acknowledge that Edmonton IS a relatively small market but one in which the Oilers are knocking it out of the park?

I get that the Oilers are a "have" team, but if the point is still unclear, I invite you to compare the population and attendance figures for Edmonton in 1995 to the present day ones.

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#54 Hammers
August 15 2012, 10:49PM
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Totally agree on your assesment on Magnus . Everyone talks about signing Hall & Ebs and that needs done but the sleeper is Paarjarvi. Renney mishandled him last year and I for one hope Ralph does the right thing this year . He is still a potential top 6 or at worst top 9 . He is the type of player they could sign for about $ 2 mill and could be our best all around forward . Look at his Corsi . The guy needs a break and I would love to see him with Horc & Yak putting Smyth with RNH & Ebs . Oh well we will see but not untill January I think .

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#55 French Toast Mafia
August 16 2012, 08:27AM
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Quicksilver ballet wrote:

For two yrs now we've continued to try and hammer this square peg into a round hole. Paajarvi's just not a fit here. Not only is he one of the easiest players in the league to intimidate, his battle level is low and he's consistantly steering clear of the difficult areas on the ice. The Oilers have enough non confrontational players in their lineup.

Might not be a popular decision but the Oilers would probably be better off bringing JF Jacques back with the fab 5 here to support. Atleast he ventures into the areas Paajarvi dare not go.

The Oilers believed in Jacques, Quinn believed in Jacques, and now with a new team/coach/system, who knows what could be achieved. There's little doubt the Oilers need a JF Jacques type player rather than another soft underacheiver like Magnus. Jacques would certainly be an inexpensive training camp invitee experiment.

Can't believe my innermost thawts made its way into this entry.....this summer can't end soon enough.

You have gone to an all time low with that one. JF Jacques... Common

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#56 Word
August 16 2012, 05:55PM
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$7.50 for a 24oz beer in Washington??? I think I'm in love.

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