By now, we’re all familiar with Kevin Lowe’s moves this summer. Marty Reasoner, Jarret Stoll, Matt Greene, Joni Pitkanen and Raffi Torres were moved out, and Erik Cole, Lubomir Visnovsky, Jason Strudwick and Gilbert Brule moved in.
It wasn’t a bad summer; with the exception of the Torres trade and allowing Reasoner to walk, I would argue that every one of those moves will make the Oilers a better team next season. The two moves not aimed at progress next season cleared some cap space and allowed some younger players to get ice time.
Let’s look at two statistics. I know not everyone believes in statistical analysis of the game, but these two are very simple and obviously connected to a team’s ability to win.
Goals for, 5-on-5: 146 (11th in the league)
Goals against, 5-on-5: 169 (27th in the league)
Of those two statistics, where do the Oilers have the most room for improvement? They actually scored more goals than the Pittsburgh Penguins five-on-five, so at even strength offense really isn’t a huge problem.
Defense, on the other hand, is. Only the Los Angeles Kings were a worse team at stopping goals at even strength than the Edmonton Oilers in the Western Conference last season. Healthy seasons from Shawn Horcoff, Fernando Pisani, Ethan Moreau and Sheldon Souray should help that number, as will an early reliance on Mathieu Garon, but at this point the playoffs are hardly a sure thing.
The loss of three players who handled a bizarre amount of defensive work (Reasoner, Stoll, Torres) is going to leave players like Marc Pouliot and Kyle Brodziak in ugly positions. I’ve talked about this before, but Reasoner took 141 more draws in the defensive zone than he did offensive zone. Jarret Stoll took 181, and Raffi Torres was fifth among forwards by this number, with 35. Basically, these guys started in their own end a lot more, something that leads to goals against, and those faceoffs still need to be taken.
Behind the Net gives us the quality of competition numbers for Oilers forwards. Looking at them, Stoll faced the toughest, Reasoner the third-toughest, and Torres the fifth-toughest minutes among Oilers forwards. All played with below-average line-mates to boot (particularly Reasoner—thanks for coming out, Geoff Sanderson). Even ignoring the numbers, and just watching the games, serious fans should easily remember how often these guys were on the ice against the opposition’s heavy hitters (Iginla, Sakic, etc.). Those match-ups still need to be taken by somebody. Reasoner and Stoll were getting killed (-17 and -23, respectively), but why would Brodziak/Pouliot be able to do any better in the same situation?
I am of the opinion that the Oilers will make the playoffs, but if they don’t, I doubt very much that it will have anything to do with a lack of offensive prowess. It will be because the team lacks players who know what to do in their own end, and that isn’t a role that rookie/sophomore players excel in.
Marc Pouliot wasn’t an NHL player for the majority of last season. Kyle Brodziak finished -9 in relatively sheltered minutes, far easier minutes than Stoll/Reasoner played last season. Andrew Cogliano played the easiest minutes of the bunch, and still had 3 goals scored against him for every 60 minutes of even strength ice-time. This team doesn’t have a centre capable of playing tough minutes outside of Shawn Horcoff, and if they miss the playoffs, we’ll look back and see that this hole is a big part of the reason for it.
—Jonathan Willis is the owner of Copper & Blue, a blog dedicated to all things Oil, and a frequent contributor to OilersNation.com.