Building next year’s bottom five

Jonathan Willis
May 23 2013 09:53AM

While the Oilers have no shortage of problems in their top-nine forward group, things get really ugly afterward. How should the fourth line and the reserve forwards change next season?

The Scoring Chances

I’ve taken the scoring chance numbers I recorded this season and split the Oilers into three groups: the top line, the middle six, and everybody else.

  • Top Line (Hall, Nugent-Hopkins, Eberle): Out-chance opposition 53-to-47
  • Middle Six (Gagner, Yakupov, Hemsky, Paajarvi, Smyth, Horcoff): Out-chanced 58-to-42
  • Everyone Else: Out-chanced 64-to-36

The top line is fine, the middle six needs a significant overhaul, and the rest of the forward corps is an absolute trainwreck. Most of the discussion this off-season has dealt with the middle six; we’re focused on “the rest” here.

The Incumbents

The chart above shows how the incumbents performed; Ryan Smyth is included as he’s doubtless bound for a lesser role on next season’s team – his performance is also split into games where he played wing and games where he played centre.

On The Outside

Let’s start with the ‘definitely gone’ crowd. Darcy Hordichuk never really got a chance and was replaced; he won’t be back. Lennart Petrell’s contract is up and despite excellent work on the penalty kill, he shouldn’t be back and likely won’t be. Eric Belanger has another year on his deal but seems likely to be bought out. Chris VandeVelde was very carefully used by Krueger (he actually led the Oilers forwards in offensive zone starts), couldn’t score in the minors, and his contract is up.

Anton Lander should start 2013-14 in the minors; not only does he give the Oilers depth but he hasn’t done anything to force his way on to the NHL roster. Ben Eager likely starts there too, assuming he isn’t bought out, given his demotion earlier in the year. Mark Arcobello too seems bound for the minors, assuming he gets another contract.

The Model

Assuming the Oilers run 14 forwards next year, what positions will they play? Obviously, there will need to be one winger for each side and a centre in the starting lineup. There are two spare slots: one will likely go to a tough guy and the other is the reserve forward. Given what happened this year, that reserve spot should probably go to a centre. So ideally, next year the Oilers enter the season with two centres, two wingers, and they probably leave a spot for an enforcer.

Ryan Smyth will get one of the winger spots; Craig MacTavish has already said he’ll be back, and he was significantly better at left wing this season than at centre. Mike Brown is under contract for another year; he often seems a ‘stick optional’ player around the puck but the Oilers have employed far worse players at the enforcer position; he’ll likely get the job. That leaves one winger spot for Teemu Hartikainen and Ryan Jones; Hartikainen has scored in the minors and might yet have upside, while Jones is an unrestricted free agent. The Oilers could trade Hartikainen, but given his minor league performance I would argue it makes sense to give him another chance: his trade value isn’t likely to be especially high and they may as well see if he has more to give. I like Jones on the fourth line, despite a poor year, but the Oilers need the versatility offered by a centre so it likely makes more sense to go out and get one rather than keep Jones.

That leaves two centre spots open. I was surprised how decent Jerred Smithson’s scoring chance numbers were; it’s basically a result of the Smyth – Smithson – Brown line going +17/-13 down the stretch (with Brown occasionally skipping shifts in favour of a different winger). Smithson’s long-term record isn’t all that impressive, but as a reserve centre he might be fine – he’s big, wins faceoffs and kills penalties. If the Oilers can get him cheap and don’t see somebody else they like more, he’d be a somewhat okay 13th forward.

That leaves the fourth-line centre position open, and that’s one the Oilers should be able to address via free agency. Somebody relatively big and capable of killing penalties, with some offence and the ability to play a cycle game would be ideal; Maxim Lapierre in Vancouver is the obvious name available via free agency but he isn’t the only possibility. In addition to other unrestricted free agents (Marty Reasoner, Kyle Chipchura, Adam Hall, Jeff Halpern, etc.) a quality player in the AHL or Europe might appeal, too.

Smyth, Hartikainen, Brown, and two new centres. As long as the Oilers find qualified help at centre, that should be a good enough group to get the job done at the bottom of the roster, and giving Hartikainen a year playing a regular shift with Smyth isn't likely to be a bad thing for his development long-term. The one caveat: the new centre they add for the fourth line might be worth investing some money in, because unless Smyth recovers from a poor year or Hartikainen takes a step forward, he may well be the first option to move into the top-nine when injuries hit.

Streakcred

Don't forget that it's not too late to play StreakCred - the new playoff pool game from the Nation Network. You can win a trip for 2 to Oktoberfest in Germany among the awesome prizes up for grabs. Now it's only $10 and a portion of the proceeds go to Edmonton Charities. Sign up here.

Recently around the Nation Network

Yesterday, the Vancouver Canucks fired head coach Alain Vigneault, as well as his assistants. In his writeup on the dismissal, Thomas Drance offers this assessment of Vigneualt :

Alain Vigneault is the winningest coach in franchise history, and a stellar bench boss - in my estimation - who will presumably be hired by another NHL franchise in short order.

 Click the link above to read the whole piece, or feel free check out some recent pieces here at Oilers Nation:

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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 Ryan Z
May 23 2013, 11:56AM
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@Will

The same thing we expect out of the other 3 lines.

Outwork, out-chance the opposition.

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#52 Ryan Z
May 23 2013, 11:59AM
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@The Soup Fascist

But we need both!

Move wingers, picks, or prospects for C help.

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#53 Ryan Z
May 23 2013, 12:01PM
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Tikkanese wrote:

I barely remember Boulerice. He barely played here and I barely saw him play elsewhere before he came here. I thought he was basically just a bad light heavyweight goon?

Lapierre is a disgrace to the game of hockey. Fits right in with half of the Canucks roster! Dives, whines, yaps constantly, doesn't back up his yapping, hides behind the linesman and teammates and yaps even harder, dirty, cares more about being the center of attention than what's happening on the ice, isn't liked by his own teammates, turtles, constant threat to take misconducts for chirping. Basically an all around bad example for up and coming hockey players and humanity in general.

The stats I'm guessing say otherwise but from what I've seen he isn't even much of a hockey player either. Pretty much a Mac-T non factor other than his extra curricular activites that do more harm than good.

Haha wow you really captured everything.

I can't see too many people arguing with you there. Even Canucks fans would agree.

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#54 15w40
May 23 2013, 12:07PM
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@The Soup Fascist

If that deal of Horcoff plus an asset would get you Hanzal then I would think MacT would make that trade instantly - well at least I would depending on what the something was.

Horcoff + Lander?? Horcoff + Arcobello or Rajala??

If they could swing a deal like that and still have the other players in play (Gagner/Hemsky) to help shore up the defense - that would be ideal IMHO.

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#55 Ducey
May 23 2013, 12:17PM
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Tikkanese wrote:

I barely remember Boulerice. He barely played here and I barely saw him play elsewhere before he came here. I thought he was basically just a bad light heavyweight goon?

Lapierre is a disgrace to the game of hockey. Fits right in with half of the Canucks roster! Dives, whines, yaps constantly, doesn't back up his yapping, hides behind the linesman and teammates and yaps even harder, dirty, cares more about being the center of attention than what's happening on the ice, isn't liked by his own teammates, turtles, constant threat to take misconducts for chirping. Basically an all around bad example for up and coming hockey players and humanity in general.

The stats I'm guessing say otherwise but from what I've seen he isn't even much of a hockey player either. Pretty much a Mac-T non factor other than his extra curricular activites that do more harm than good.

You could say all the same things about Matt Cooke but he is very effective. He is playing big minutes in the playoffs.

I'd like to think Lapierre would tone it down a little if he was on Oiler and be more Esa like.

Lapierre is not my first choice, but he is a big upgrade on what they rolled out last year.

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#56 mayorblaine
May 23 2013, 12:22PM
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Brown may not be what the Oilers need, but he is what the fans need.

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#57 Next up, is Connor McJesus.
May 23 2013, 12:26PM
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Horcoff and Pitlick for Vermette, I like the piss'n vinegar in his game. Steve Ott would make a decent 3rd lc, with the Sabres needing to move a couple bodies out.

If the Sabres are needing to move one of their blueliners out. Who is the likelier candidate, Erhoff or Myers?

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#58 Ducey
May 23 2013, 12:30PM
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Bob MacKenzie is saying that Manny Malhotra intends to make a comeback next season...

He might be a good option for 4th line C. He put up 18 pts after his eye injury and kept a very good face off %

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#59 gcw_rocks
May 23 2013, 12:36PM
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For the bottom six, I would like to see:

MacArthur - Horcoff(?) - Stalberg/MPS Smyth - Gordon - ??? With hartkainen and brown the extras.

Not sure who else for the 4th line RW. Don't see anyone in free agency who stands out. Maybe a trade?

Marcel Goc would look pretty nice in Horcoff's spot.

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#60 Eddie Edmonton
May 23 2013, 12:48PM
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Why is Smyth back next year? ? It has to be a more of a PR move than an actual roster one. Smyth was done 2 years ago.

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#61 rickithebear
May 23 2013, 01:03PM
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JW:

The sloan pocession paper I referenced on Lt's site last week and you wrote about today:

Clearly shows a dump and chase systems leads to being outchanced

Face off win % has a high affect on Goal differential.

The dump and change has a negative goal scoring difference of 20GA-1GF.

we need a high Face off count from our centers

A reverse/hold pocession game, instead of dump change, driven by higher pocession forwards.

Our forwards: Smithson 55.4% #11C Hall 54.7% would be 15th for centers belanger 53.7% Lander 49.1% 50th Horcoff 49.05 51st Gagner 43.9% 2nd last RNH 41.9% Last

Gagner lacks the FO ability to be an outscoring center. Thus MacT's idea of moving him to Wing. RNH does not look any better!

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#62 Rocket
May 23 2013, 01:13PM
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@rickithebear

Agreed.

It seems dumping the puck in is what players do on the end of their shift when they want to get off the ice. Puck possession into the opposing zone establishing a cycle seems to work better for scoring chances.

Winning faceoffs in the opposing zone obviously also helps a lot. Just look at Joe Thornton in game 4 vs. The Kings.

I would cut RNH some slack though, I think he'll get better at draws.

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#63 andrewmk20
May 23 2013, 01:15PM
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@Jonathan Willis

What are your thoughts on Chipchura, Hall, and I know he's not a FA but I like Ryan Carter as well. All three play hard and are capable of dropping the gloves if needed.

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#64 Bicepus Maximus - Huge fan boy!
May 23 2013, 01:17PM
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rickithebear wrote:

JW:

The sloan pocession paper I referenced on Lt's site last week and you wrote about today:

Clearly shows a dump and chase systems leads to being outchanced

Face off win % has a high affect on Goal differential.

The dump and change has a negative goal scoring difference of 20GA-1GF.

we need a high Face off count from our centers

A reverse/hold pocession game, instead of dump change, driven by higher pocession forwards.

Our forwards: Smithson 55.4% #11C Hall 54.7% would be 15th for centers belanger 53.7% Lander 49.1% 50th Horcoff 49.05 51st Gagner 43.9% 2nd last RNH 41.9% Last

Gagner lacks the FO ability to be an outscoring center. Thus MacT's idea of moving him to Wing. RNH does not look any better!

A well executed dump and chase works pretty well. Especially against a strong forechecking team. A poor dump and chase is simply a dump-in with no speed or support to chase after the puck. It also doesn't really work against the trap.

The dump and change, on the other hand, is a complete waste of possession.

The Oilers are guilty of both. They certainly need to address their puck management ideology.

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#65 Tikkanese
May 23 2013, 01:21PM
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Why all the hate on Smyth? If he stays on the wing and not stuck in the Belanger Triangle he is still an effective player, very good at the PK still, can do the Smytty in front of the net on the 2nd PP sometimes... let alone it's Ryan Freaking Captain Canada Smyth and is the exact attitude and work ethic we need to pass onto the kids. I'll take 5 more years of the "slow" Smytty(he's been slow his entire career...) over the Petrell's, Vande Velde's, Reddox's, Belanger's, Stortini's, Hordichuk's, Eager's any day.

He wasn't to slow to play with Seguin and Krejci in the Spengler Cup before the season started last year and looked quite good with them on the bigger ice to boot. He can still play, just not with Belanger or at center.

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#66 Will
May 23 2013, 01:24PM
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Any guesses where Brad Richards ends up next year? I can't believe he's a healthy scratch in the playoffs.

If they use a compliance buy out on him, I could see him in Ottawa to replace Alferdsen. It's also highly likely he would take a contract hit and would sign to a team for a much more reasonable 5.5 mill.

If he is any way shape or form available, that is who I hope the Oilers go after.

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#67 FastOil
May 23 2013, 01:28PM
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15 pts would make Steckel the second highest scoring 4th liner out of the 4th lines of Boston, Chicago and Pittsburgh.

If points scored cost salary, in a cap world I think the ideal bottom 6 and bottom half D are players that can actually play, and contribute on PK, with decreasing offense the further down the depth chart they are.

The decreasing offense is what makes them affordable. Hopefully they commit to the team emotionally and sign value contracts. Otherwise keep them away from good players in contract years.

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#68 Rocket
May 23 2013, 01:32PM
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Steckel and Hall are interesting. small upgrades to be sure but they might help. I always kinda liked Reasoner but if we're trying to bring back ex-Oilers, why not target Stoll instead? Probably because of his contract but still.

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#69 nunyour
May 23 2013, 01:36PM
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of all the players mentioned,Brown is the only one that will fight,the oilers need to get tougher I think?

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#70 Rocket
May 23 2013, 01:37PM
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nunyour wrote:

of all the players mentioned,Brown is the only one that will fight,the oilers need to get tougher I think?

Totally. Softest team in the league.

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#71 Spydyr
May 23 2013, 01:40PM
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Rocket wrote:

Totally. Softest team in the league.

12 Fights all year. Some players had more than 12 fights.

Do you think perhaps toughness helps in winning. Just look at the Oilers record the last few years.

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#72 madjam
May 23 2013, 01:44PM
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Interesting about B.Richards . They'll try to trade him before ever buying him out . Is he worth a 7th round pick with that albatross of a contract he has ?

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#73 Rocket
May 23 2013, 01:46PM
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Spydyr wrote:

12 Fights all year. Some players had more than 12 fights.

Do you think perhaps toughness helps in winning. Just look at the Oilers record the last few years.

Yeah no kidding. Being tough to play against seems like the most obvious thing to address for any team yet this message got lost on the way to upper management. Hopefully MacT can sort it out.

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#74 Mike Wazowski
May 23 2013, 01:47PM
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@Spydyr

That's actually not much of an argument. The Red Wings are rarely out of the bottom of the league in fights and they seem to do just fine.

A hard hitting winger that can play? I'm all over that. Brown includeded. A knuckle dragger that can barely keep up in the play? Not so much.

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#77 madjam
May 23 2013, 01:59PM
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Perspective : Look at who we might get to replace current core that is not helping us get to the next level , and that includes those is in the system now . Beyond the so called fab 5 we could stand upgrades -preferably with more size and grit to go with talent .

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#78 Truth
May 23 2013, 01:59PM
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Cal Clutterbuck is an RFA in Minnesota. Their cap is at $55M for next year without including UFA's Backstrom, Bouchard, and Cullen. They have the two monster contracts for eternity, and according to some on this site, the best set of prospects since the dynasty Oilers that will be looking for a contract in the future. What would it take to grab him? I would love to see Clutterbuck in an Oilers jersey.

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#79 Spydyr
May 23 2013, 02:01PM
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Mike Wazowski wrote:

That's actually not much of an argument. The Red Wings are rarely out of the bottom of the league in fights and they seem to do just fine.

A hard hitting winger that can play? I'm all over that. Brown includeded. A knuckle dragger that can barely keep up in the play? Not so much.

Think I said toughness. Never mentioned anything about knuckle draggers.

Why does the Detroit comparison always come up.In case you have not noticed the Oilers management team is not quite as good as the Wings management team.

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#80 madjam
May 23 2013, 02:02PM
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With some size and grit on bottom 5 we might consider a player like an Antropov , Ponikarovski , Downey , Carcillo , Fiddler -all of the cheaper variety .

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#82 madjam
May 23 2013, 02:04PM
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With some size and grit on bottom 5 we might consider a player like an Antropov , Ponikarovski , Downey , Carcillo , Fiddler -all of the cheaper variety .

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#84 Rocket
May 23 2013, 02:08PM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

Detroit always comes up because people say 'you need to fight to win' and Detroit shows it obviously isn't true.

Doesn't the term "functional toughness" get thrown around a lot? Detroit has certainly shown that against Chicago.

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#85 bwar
May 23 2013, 03:12PM
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Truth wrote:

Cal Clutterbuck is an RFA in Minnesota. Their cap is at $55M for next year without including UFA's Backstrom, Bouchard, and Cullen. They have the two monster contracts for eternity, and according to some on this site, the best set of prospects since the dynasty Oilers that will be looking for a contract in the future. What would it take to grab him? I would love to see Clutterbuck in an Oilers jersey.

I'm kind of expecting the Wild to buy out Heatley and if they do I don't think they aren't pressed for cap space anymore.

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#86 Truth
May 23 2013, 03:13PM
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Detroit obviously felt a need to get more abrasive in signing Tootoo last off-season. A finesse player he is not. The Oilers need a wrecking ball like him, not a heavy weight. Someone who isn't afraid to stir things up and not be afraid to cross the line every now and then.

Yzerman's Red Wings had a few of the best grit guys around at the time. Maltby, Draper, McCarty, Kocur, the all time best Brendan Shanahan, and more. I know it was another time, but they also employed some of the best all-time goons including Bob Probert and Stu Grimson.

Detroit has been the go-to example for the argument that a goon is unnecessary, but it has been on the backs of Lidstrom, Datsyuk, Zetterberg, etc. Top, top level talents.

Who are Boston's best players right now? Does Chara cross the line? Does Lucic cross the line? They don't have a Datsyuk, Zetterberg, or Lidstrom, but they have a more recent cup win than the Red Wings.

The Oilers need a new identity. Small, fast, skilled, soft, and easy to play against is not cutting it. Detroit is puck possession, skill, puck possession, defense, puck possession, skill and it shows.

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#87 Velo
May 23 2013, 03:15PM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

Actually, even a very well-executed dump and chase is substantially inferior to entering the zone with possession. I have numbers to back that up; you name a team that executes the dump and chase well and I guarantee that every time they'll do a worse job scoring goals than the Oilers do entering the zone with the puck.

JW,

I have no stats to back this, but as I watch the playoffs, it seems like the hard pass-tip-into-zone-from-centre is the play of choice. Statistically, it may be more potent to carry the puck in, but during a series it may well be that pounding another team's defense may lead to victory.

Thoughts on the overall influence of dump-and-chase vs. the outscoring probability of posession hockey?

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#88 Truth
May 23 2013, 03:16PM
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@bwar

Good point. It is still worth a phone call.

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#89 Rama Lama
May 23 2013, 03:19PM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

Detroit always comes up because people say 'you need to fight to win' and Detroit shows it obviously isn't true.

Poor example JW..........Detroit is a tough team with at least three defensemen that throw big hits and dont back down, especially in scrums.

Our team has no hitters on the back end ( Peckham was benched most of the season and is the only tough guy on the back end) and whenever there is a scrum, no one sitcks around.

Having toughness changes the way smaller players play and gives them courage. I'm not talking enforcers but toughness throughout the line up.

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#90 bwar
May 23 2013, 03:26PM
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When you really look at the Oiler's cap numbers, I think management will have to take a long hard look at buying out Horcoff. 5.5 mil for probably your 4C is absurd. I know he plays an important role in the locker room but really we could probably sign Brad Richards or someone similar for 5.5 mil.

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#91 Oiler Al
May 23 2013, 04:06PM
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Thinking along the lines of second of third line center up grades. acquiring via trades./UFA etc. ..and not knowing if these guys would be available to come:

Bolland , Ott, Hanzal, Peverley, Weiss. I would give up Hemsky for any one of these if need be.

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#92 Bicepus Maximus - Huge fan boy!
May 23 2013, 04:16PM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

Actually, even a very well-executed dump and chase is substantially inferior to entering the zone with possession. I have numbers to back that up; you name a team that executes the dump and chase well and I guarantee that every time they'll do a worse job scoring goals than the Oilers do entering the zone with the puck.

I'm not saying dump and chase is a superior way to enter the zone. I'm saying that there's a optimum balance between dumping and chasing, and entering the zone with possession. As well, that there's a good and bad way to dump and chase.

I don't have any numbers. But I'd be interested to see the numbers you have.

I'm certain the Oilers would be a much more effective team if they knew how to effectively dump and chase, and knew when to utilize each zone entry method. The Oilers are actually a good example of why a team should alternate those methods.

Or am I off my rocker?

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#93 Pucker - B class
May 23 2013, 04:43PM
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The Oiler's spent so much time in their own zone, but the time they got the puck out it was dump and change by necessity. Some of this may be the system but the system might be in place because of the personnel.

Though this season was much better than the season before

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#94 DonDon
May 23 2013, 04:59PM
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Jonathan

As to the Middle Six (Gagner, Yakupov, Hemsky, Paajarvi, Smyth, Horcoff), how many of these players could have made the roster of an actual playoff team this season? I'm not speaking about the Oilers roster, a 24th place team and, depending on your point-of-view, either very lucky or unlucky to be in this position as it has diminished its first draft choice.

This is about the playoffs, where the intensity, speed and physicality of play and players increase substantially over the regular season games.

Maybe Gagner and Yakupov. Not so much Hemsky, not reliable due to being often injured, Paajarvi hasn't measured up yet, and Smyth and Horcoff are over-the-hill veterans.

Would Jones and Brown have made the roster of playoff teams? The answer must be no as I don't believe Jones would make a playoff team and Brown was traded to the Oil from the Leafs as he wasn't in the Leafs' future plans to be contenders for the playoffs.

As for buy-outs, why would the Oilers waste a buy-out on Belanger at his low contract while Hemsky and Horcoff are in the $5 million and plus range?

I can only hope that MacTavish is realistic on his assessment of the compete level of this sorry roster. Otherwise, it will be eight consecutive seasons out of the playoffs.

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#95 Mike Wazowski
May 23 2013, 05:01PM
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@Spydyr

"12 Fights all year. Some players had more than 12 fights.

Do you think perhaps toughness helps in winning. Just look at the Oilers record the last few years."

You look to be drawing a pretty clean line between fighting, toughness and winning.

I'm saying that there isn't necessarily a correlation between fighting and toughness. Slam our management all you want, Detroit is an example of a tough team that doesn't fight. You don't really need 30 or 40 fighting majors to be a good team.

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#96 geno
May 23 2013, 05:41PM
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Keep Smithson as 5C. Sign Brian Boyle. Trade for Hagelin as 2LW

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#97 Wax Man Riley
May 23 2013, 06:06PM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

You're wrong. Faceoff wins have a tiny impact on goal differential. Of the 131 goals the opposition scored this year, only 18 came off the possession following an offensive zone faceoff. Of the 123 goals the Oilers scored, only 18 came off a faceoff possession.

To be fair, that is still almost 15% of goals. More faceoff wins may have led to more goals.

On the other hand, rickthebear is convinced RNH is the wrong pick since his goals/points ratio is less than 30%

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