September 03 2012 11:17AM
Theo Peckham was one of the pleasant surprises of 2010-11. The long-time prospect finally established himself at the NHL level after two previous cameos, and got serious minutes on a terrible team – typically as Tom Gilbert’s partner. His physical play was the headline addition, but for a rookie tossed into tough minutes, he didn’t implode either.
Theo Peckham was one of the unpleasant surprises of 2011-12. The sophomore defenceman slipped from top-four minutes to a third-pairing role, then from a third-pairing role to the press box carousel (along with Cam Barker). His play was often terrible, his number of fighting majors dropped, and injuries badly hurt his season.
The two seasons, put together, raise a question in my mind: what is Peckham’s likely NHL ceiling? Could he play top-four minutes at some point? Could he be a reliable third-pairing guy? Or is he in significant danger of losing his spot on an NHL roster?
To try and give some guidance as to that question, I went back over Peckham’s last two seasons and – using the magic of hockey-reference.com – sorted him against comparable defencemen at the same age.
We start with the most recent season, and we use the following criteria:
- Age: Player must be between the age of 23 and 25 as of Feb. 1 (Peckham: 24)
- Time on ice: Player must have seen between 861 and 961 minutes (Peckham: 911)
- Penalty minutes: Player must have recorded more than 50 (Peckham: 80)
- Shots: Player must have recorded less than 40 (Peckham: 25)
- Points: Player must have recorded less than 10 (Peckham: 3)
Now, I acknowledge it’s not the widest net: defencemen, especially of the defensive variety, are hard to compare historically. It gets a little easier with advanced statistics, but they aren’t available going back years and years. Still, what we’re essentially doing is generating a list of offensively limited defencemen who took penalties and got a similar amount of ice-time at the same age.
Here’s the list:
In 1999-00, Jason Strudwick essentially ended up as the sixth defenceman for a below-average Vancouver team that ran into all sorts of injuries on its blue line. Like Peckham, size, physical play and a willingness to fight were strengths over his NHL career; mobility and offence were a little lower on the resume. At this point in his career, he’d played 185 NHL games; he still had nearly 500 more to play, largely as a third-pairing defensive defenceman.
In 2005-06, Rob Davison was the seventh defenceman for an excellent San Jose squad. Like Peckham, size, physical play and a willingness to fight were strengths over his NHL career; mobility and offence were not strengths. At this point in his career, he’d played 139 NHL games; he’s played 80 since and is currently plying his trade in Austria.
In 1998-99, Craig Rivet was a third-pairing defenceman for a lousy Montreal team. As with Peckham, size, physical play and a willingness to fight were strengths early in his career. However, mobility was also an asset early on and his career continued Rivet gained a reputation for being able to move the puck effectively as well. At this point in his career, he’d played 186 games in the majors; he would find himself just short of 1000 NHL games in the summer of 2011 – many of them spent as a top-four defender. Last season, he played in the ECHL.
In 2005-06, Andrew Alberts was the sixth defenceman for a lousy Boston team. The highlights on his resume were (repeat after me) size and physical play, and he also occasionally dropped the gloves. However, Alberts also had above average skating and offensive ability for a defensive defenceman – something he showed over a four-season college career. He’d played 73 NHL games at this point in his career; he’s now at north of 400 games played at the age of 31 and still has time left in the majors.
In 2008-09, Adam Pardy was a third-pairing guy for a pretty decent Calgary team. We’ll quote Kent Wilson’s take on his play at the time:
Pardy obviously doesn't have a very high ceiling. At 25 years old, we're probably closer to his peak than his floor. That said, I liked what I saw out of Adam last year - he's big, relatively mobile and doesn't panic with the puck (aside from one or two rookies errors which I assume will disappear with experience). I doubt he'll ever become a top 4 defender, but he could become one of those valuable bottom pairing guys who is cheap, but relatively reliable.
Pardy had played 60 games at the time; he’s now up to 183 and still in the NHL. On the other hand, he was also Mr. Healthy Scratch for the Stars last season, so how much time is left is a fair question.
2003-04 saw Brad Ference play third-pairing minutes for a terrible team in Phoenix. New Jersey picked him up coming out of the lockout, but his strengths were not the strengths of the “new NHL” and they stuck him in the minors. Ference played 63 NHL games in 2003-04; he’s appeared in just five since.
I’m not going to do the same case-by-case basis on this list as I did for 2011-12, but I thought I would include it anyway for the sake of discussion.
Criteria were as follows:
- Age: Player must be between the age of 22 and 24 as of Feb. 1 (Peckham: 23)
- Time on ice: Player must have seen between 1120 and 1520 minutes (Peckham: 1320)
- Penalty minutes: Player must have recorded more than 50 (Peckham: 198)
- Shots: Player must have recorded 50 or less (Peckham: 41)
- Points: Player must have recorded less than 20 (Peckham: 13)
One final note about that 2010-11 season, a point that got some attention at the time but not enough: Tom Gilbert’s ability likely obscured Peckham’s mistakes. I’ve never thought it a coincidence that Gilbert was criticized harshly for his work in 2010-11, or that Peckham was praised when both were on the same pairing; expectations were a lot higher for Gilbert than they were for Peckham.
- When Tom Gilbert played without Peckham, the Oilers recorded 49.5% of Corsi events to the opposition’s 50.5%. In other words, they were close to break-even (no small feat on a team that terrible, particularly given the minutes Gilbert typically played).
- When Gilbert and Peckham played together, the Oilers recorded 46.3% of Corsi events to the opposition’s 53.7%. They were playing tough minutes together, but the opposition ran the show.
- When Theo Peckham played without Gilbert, the Oilers recorded 42.2% of Corsi events to the opposition’s 57.8%. Put another way: when Peckham played without Gilbert, the Oilers were flattened.
A Craig Rivet-like career is the gold standard on this list. Rivet came from the same family of defenders as players like Jason Smith and Steve Staios: rock-solid defensively, physical, good enough with the puck that he wasn’t lost when needing to handle it or make a pass, and fast enough to defend against speed.
I originally had hopes when the Oilers drafted Peckham – and particularly seeing him excel on some terrible AHL teams – that he might one day be a player like that. He was awfully raw and his skating was pretty bad early on – though it’s improved noticeably with time – but that ceiling still seemed possible.
It seems a lot less likely now. Watching Peckham play last year, it seemed like the progress he’d made getting on to the team in 2010-11 had reversed; that he was slower and having as much difficulty reacting to the play of scrubs as he had to better opposition a year prior. I found myself nodding reading Robin Brownlee’s piece on Peckham in mid-July, because it made sense.
Reading that piece again today, in the light of the data above, it almost feels to me like Peckham’s at something of a crossroads. If he can rebound back to his 2010-11 level – the level of a good end of roster option on a decent team (or, top-four on the 2010-11 Edmonton Oilers) than there’s no reason he can’t have a career. I doubt he’ll be a top four guy, but if he can be tough and physical while cutting down on lost assignments and bad penalties, then a long career is in the cards.
If he can’t? It’s a numbers game. The Oilers have eight defenders at the NHL level already, with guys like Klefbom and Marincin and Teubert en route. It’s a lot harder to break in with a new team once a player is in his mid-20’s than it is in his early-20’s. Brad Ference, the only guy to appear on both of the lists above, was probably a better player in his late-20’s than he was earlier in his career but despite getting lots of opinions (he went from Florida to Phoenix to New Jersey to Calgary to Detroit) he was never able to get back on to a major league roster.
Peckham needs to establish himself as a useful third pairing guy whenever NHL hockey kicks off again. Then he needs to do whatever it takes to hang on to that job. If he can’t do that, then it’s entirely possible that the bulk of his NHL career lies in the rearview mirror.