Evaluating the defence pairings

In the post below I examine the match-ups that each set of forwards and defence met against Phoenix. We’ve seen enough of the defence pairings to have a bit of a track record, so I thought I’d compare the pairings MacTavish/Huddy are rolling out now (37-71, 44-77, 5-24) versus the ones they started the season with (71-44, 37-77, 43-24), and see how each defenceman fared. All numbers are at even strength (GF = goals for, GA = goals against, SF = shots for, SA = shots against). Defencemen are considered in order of average even-strength ice-time.

Lubomir Visnovsky

With Grebeshkov –- 12GF/4GA, 101SF/94SA

With Souray — 6GF/8GA, 126SF/118SA

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With Others –- 4GF/2GA, 57SF/47SA

Totals –- 22GF/14GA, 284SF/259SA

Visnovsky has consistently good totals with every partner. That said, his recent success with Grebeshkov seems a little bit suspect; there’s a decent shot margin in their favour, but not a good enough margin to warrant outscoring the opposition 3:1. The goal-scoring numbers with Souray don’t look great; that said, the shooting margin was still quite good. I think Visnovsky is clearly the Oilers most effective defender at getting the puck moving in the right direction. It isn’t every day that a player of this quality is available for players like Matt Greene and Jarret Stoll.

Sheldon Souray

With Gilbert -– 12GF/9GA, 110SF/121SA

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With Visnovsky -– 6GF/8GA, 126SF/118SA

With Others –- 3GF/1GA, 26SF/40SA

Totals –- 21GF/18GA, 252SF/259SA

The shooting numbers are best with Visnovsky, while the goal scoring numbers are best with Gilbert. I’d strongly argue that Souray and Visnovsky is the most dominant pairing possible, but also that being played with Gilbert hasn’t been bad, and may be the best case scenario for distributing the difference makers.

Tom Gilbert

With Souray –- 12GF/9GA, 110SF/121SA

With Grebeshkov –- 6GF/11GA, 100SF/91SA

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With Others -– 5GF/3GA, 43SF/56SA

Totals –- 23GF/23GA, 253SF/267SA

Tom Gilbert failed to put up good totals with Denis Grebeshkov, although he likely would have. Still, given that they were being used almost exclusively in offensive situations, the 100/91 outshooting ratio isn’t as impressive as it really should be. Gilbert’s breaking even right now, and given the performance of the team as a whole, that’s probably a respectable outcome.

Denis Grebeshkov

With Visnovsky –- 12GF/4GA, 101SF/94SA

With Gilbert –- 6GF/11GA, 100SF/91SA

With Others –- 2GF/2GA, 12SF/18SA

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Totals –- 20GF/17GA, 213SF/203SA

Grebeshkov, despite looking every bit like a chaos defender out there, has had a good season so far. He’s one of those defencemen who looks really bad when he makes a crazy play, but the ratio of crazy plays to good passes is actually very low. If we assume the Oilers can only really afford to pay three defencemen, than one of the current top four is on his way out of town. Depending on their relative trade values, if Grebeshkov would be willing to sign long-term at reasonable money, it might be worth trading Gilbert.

Steve Staios

With Smid -– 2GF/1GA, 70SF/65SA

With Strudwick -– 5GF/9GA, 67SF/127SA

With Others –- 6GF/4GA, 33SF/37SA

Totals –- 13GF/14GA, 173SF/229SA

Steve Staios is incredibly lucky to be anywhere near even in goals for and against. That said, he’s also incredibly unlucky to have been saddled with Jason Strudwick for so long. With Strudwick, Staios gets outshot 2:1. Without Strudwick, Staios is actually on the ice for more shots for than against. It may be premature to say that Staios is done; his results without Strudwick so far this season haven’t been half bad.

Ladislav Smid

With Staios -– 2GF/1GA, 70SF/65SA

With Strudwick -– 0GF/0GA, 15SF/23SA

With Others –- 2GF/1GA, 30SF/22SA

Totals –- 4GF/2GA, 115SF/110SA

Smid’s getting more bounces for than against, but he’s been a low-event guy so far. Of course, most of that is probably connected to his outrageously high on-ice save percentage (.982) and outrageously low on-ice shooting percentage (3.5%), but while he’s on the ice, the puck is moving in the right direction. Outside of some time with Strudwick, with Smid on the ice the Oilers have outshot their opponents 100:87. Those are very good numbers; there’s absolutely no excuse not to dress Smid every game from here on out, and the coaching staff’s decision to scratch him early looks like a mistake in retrospect.

Jason Strudwick

With Staios –- 5GF/9GA, 67SF/127SA

With Smid –- 0GF/0GA, 15SF/23SA

With Others –- 2GF/1GA, 12SF/24SA

Totals –- 7GF/10GA, 94SF/174SA

Jason Strudwick is not an NHL defenceman. The bounces have been good to him –- high on-ice save percentage and shooting percentage are the only thing that has kept him from being lit-up in GF/GA numbers. He may not even belong on the fourth line as a forward, except in a fighting capacity –- although the fourth line has outscored its opponents 2:1 with Strudwick on it, they’ve been outshot 11:5. At some point, it’s obvious where the problem is: in virtually every situation (the sole exception being while paired with Smid), Strudwick and his linemates have been outshot 2:1. I’m sure he’s a great guy off the ice (the fact that teams keep picking him up is a strong argument in favour of his character), and his road through professional hockey hasn’t been easy (over 1,000 PIM in 668 professional games), but he simply isn’t helping this team on the ice at this point.

On a Slightly Different Note

Last year, Matt Greene wasn’t doing much for the Oilers. He was drawing third pairing minutes and, while not getting killed, really wasn’t adding much value. As a result, I suggested that the 25-year-old was not likely to turn into Jason Smith or a similar shut-down defender any time soon.

Greene’s results this year have been incredible. He’s drawn top assignments for a lousy Los Angeles Kings team (for example, in the Kings last game, Greene drew the assignment of checking Henrik Zetterberg, Marian Hossa, and Dan Cleary) and not only is he holding his own, but he’s excelling. The Kings have outscored the opposition 24:20 with Greene on the ice, and outshot them 259:240.

Player development isn’t linear, and at this point it appears that Matt Greene has taken an exponential leap.


  • Hippy

    I'm glad to see MacT (hopefully) has realized that Smid is a much better option that Struds.

    About Greene, all I can say is wow… amazing his development this year. I'm happy for him.

  • Hippy

    Those numbers on Smid are very encouraging. I really like this player. When we got him for CFP he was a lanky 190lbs and has put on 35lbs of muscle since then. He can skate, move the puck and has a mean streak.

    With both Grebs and Smid in Contract years it looks as though we're going to have to choose one. Although if we lose Staios and bring up Pekham it does give us the possibllity of signing both.

    Strudwicks numbers were also alarming. Given the way he plays the game I would have never thought his numbers would be that bad. I think he is a great guy in the dressing room and loves playing here. Having him as the 7th d in the press box for the remainder of the year wouldn't be a bad thing.

    Great article Jonathan. Lets hope that the OIler brass are looking at the same numbers.

  • Hippy

    Great Article Jonathan.

    I was sad to see the numbers for Strudwick, since he is a pretty good guy, and he also beat the snot out of Carcillo which is always a good thing.

    I think Smid is a good hard nosed defensemen, though he doesn't seem to get much credit for that from most people I talk to. I think it's cause he has a baby face. He needs a few more scars or something. Maybe he should look at growing a mullet and some five oclock shadow (though I fear it would take him a month to grow it).

  • Hippy

    Cam wrote:

    I was sad to see the numbers for Strudwick, since he is a pretty good guy, and he also beat the snot out of Carcillo which is always a good thing.

    That was a heck of a fight, and good to see. I've got to give Carcillo credit, though- there aren't a lot of those ditry-ish players that are willing to back up their actions.

    Cam wrote:

    I think Smid is a good hard nosed defensemen, though he doesn’t seem to get much credit for that from most people I talk to.

    He's definitely picking it up. Huddy's done some interesting things with the defense combinations this year, and of the guys deployed in largely defensive situations, only Souray compares with Smid. I'm very curious to see if Steve Staios has a strong second-half after being paired with a more effective partner.

  • Hippy

    Great article Jonathan. I too am very encouraged by the progress of Smid – while it's hard, it just shows again the need to be patient with young defensemen.

    Interesting that you throw out the name of Gilbert as possible trade bait. My thinking has been that to get something quality coming back, we'd probably have to give up Grebs because his contract is more attractive. While I like Gilbert a lot, I think trading him could help create more roster flexibility next year (i.e. a scoring forward).

    Am just hoping that we've seen the end of the Strudgwick on D experiment. Would seem to make more sense that if there's another injury on the blue line we'd be better off giving the minutes to Peckham and keeping Struds on the 4th line.

  • Hippy

    I really like the blog JW, and I agree and disagree with you on Strudwick. At the beginning of the year he seemed to be our most consistent defensive minded D-man. Which would be the reason why he has played so many games this year instead of Smid. But your numbers don't lie, so maybe with Smid picking his game up we keep Strudwick on the 4th line. I agree he isn't really NHL quality up front but he is a character player and will deal with punks like Carcillo.

    Here's a question, with Smid playing much better on the back end what do you do on forward when you have a 4th line that could have Stortini, Strudwick and/or MacIntyre?

  • Hippy

    I always liked Greene, and it's good to see he's succesful these days.

    Interesting numbers. On paper, Souray/Visnovsky almost seemed like a bit of a disaster, too much offence and not enough defence. It's a good thing we have stats guys to show us how these things actually work.

  • Hippy

    OvenChicken8 wrote:

    Here’s a question, with Smid playing much better on the back end what do you do on forward when you have a 4th line that could have Stortini, Strudwick and/or MacIntyre?

    Honestly, I'm not sure. Right now that 4th line seems to be clicking (except ofr that shooting rate) but they've been together for such a short time that any kind of statistical read is prone to sample-size error.

    If I were the coach, I wouldn't keep all three. I like Stortini as the 13th forward (although with how he's been playing it's hard to take him out of the lineup), and I like MacIntyre in the top-12 solely for the purpose of double-shifting Hemsky and half-shifting MacIntyre.

  • Hippy

    Another thing that doesn't get mentioned a whole lot is the effect the forwards have on driving these results.

    While Souray/Gilbert may get the Iginla assignment against Calgary (I don't know this to be true, but I suspect it probably is), so do Horcoff and Hemsky. Staios and Smid/Strudwick are facing the lower tier opponents, they're also doing it when the kids are on the ice for the most part. With 4 forward lines and only 3 defence pairings, it's impossible to have 5-man line combos, but coaches do try to do it as much as they can. It also makes it a lot easier to judge forwards based on this metric as they usually have more consistant linemates and matchups over the course of a game.

    I think a lot of the discrepancy between Greene's underlying numbers from last year to this one has a lot to do with who else is sharing his assignments on the ice, and not just his own personal growth as a player.

    I don't know how much sense this post made. I've been posting it basically one sentence at a time over the last few hours since I got to work, and I haven't bothered to read over it.

  • Hippy

    @ Adam Dyck:

    I missed the boat on Souray – this season he's having so far is easily the best of his career; the offensive presence he showed in Montreal with a better defensive presence than he's shown anywhere else. Honestly, I think MacTavish, Huddy & Co. have done a terrific job playing him to his strengths (cycle-busting, with a capable passer, etc.) and it's great to see.

    Dan Barnes wrote a nice article about Souray that's available online today, and I love the guy's attitude:

    "For me, it's about getting better, getting in the top 20 defencemen and being ranked there, not the top four or five," he said, obviously not putting much stock in this season's stats just yet. "Mac always talks about realistic goals. For me, if I can eat minutes up, be dependable, provide offence, then I'm doing my job.

    "People look at the money," said Souray. "The Oilers gave me a chance, they gave me the money and I have a certain responsibility because of it. I'm a veteran getting paid well. More is expected." (bolding mine)

    I think most of the stats crew missed the boat on him; and people in general got fixated on his last season in Montreal for good or for bad. I wasn't looking at either of those numbers from his last year in Montreal because a) the offense was off the charts and b) he'd never been so porous defensively before. This summer I figured him as a good bottom-pairing EV defenseman and a very good special teams player. So far, he's been a very good second pairing defenseman (lots of minutes, but he isn't playing the shut-down role consistently; Huddy used him there early on but has since reverted to last year's "shut-down by committee" approach) and a revelation as an offensive player.

    If he can keep this play up, he's easily worth his contract.

  • Hippy

    @ misfit:

    It's true, and that's sometimes difficult to account for with defensemen. On the Oilers it's a little easier, because Huddy seems to like a "by-committee" approach with this set of defensemen, so they all see a fairly evenish smattering of forwards both for and against.

    On-ice save percentage, for example, is driven almost entirely by forwards and not by the defenseman, which makes a ton of sense – Ilya Kovalchuk probably doesn't score on a lower percentage of his shots playing Souray or playing Strudwick, but he probably takes way fewer shots against 44 than 43.

  • Hippy

    Jonathan:

    Any idea who Greene is playing with in LA, and could they be responsible for helping drive those numbers? I seem to recall while here, Greene struggled with anyone not named Marc-Andre Bergeron.

  • Hippy

    canucklehead wrote:

    Jonathan:
    Any idea who Greene is playing with in LA, and could they be responsible for helping drive those numbers? I seem to recall while here, Greene struggled with anyone not named Marc-Andre Bergeron.

    Never mind, I just checked behind the net. It blows my mind that Greene is doing that with qualteam of -.02

  • Hippy

    Souray sure gets a lot of credit for the great season he's been having (particularly to start), but I think some of that credit deserves to go to Visnovsky.

    With the exception of the first part of the season when he was paired with Visnovsky, the team has consistantly been outshot when Souray has been on the ice. In contrast, the team has been outshooting their opponents when Visnovsky is on the ice regardless of who his partner is. Granted, I'm willing to bet that Visnovsky has started a few more shifts in the offensive zone than the defensive one compared to Souray (which would skew things a bit), but everyone seems to look better when their paired with Lubo. That's a good sign no matter how you slice it. Of course, the goal differential is what's ultimately going to decide the games, and Vis is comming up roses there too.

  • Hippy

    canucklehead wrote:

    canucklehead wrote:
    Jonathan:
    Any idea who Greene is playing with in LA, and could they be responsible for helping drive those numbers? I seem to recall while here, Greene struggled with anyone not named Marc-Andre Bergeron.
    Never mind, I just checked behind the net. It blows my mind that Greene is doing that with qualteam of -.02

    Keep in mind though, that -.02 is 3rd best among LA defencemen. As a point of reference, Tom Priessing's QUALTEAM number is -.35, and there are 2 other full time D at -.26

  • Hippy

    @ Jonathan Willis:

    As frustrating as it has been to watch this team, I have to state that the defense has not been the problem. Staios and Grebs sometimes make me slap my forehead, but on the whole it has been a good year for the D-Core. I do look forward to seeing what Peckham brings in the future, too.

    If they make any changes I really hope it doesn't shake up the defense too much. I wouldn't mind losing grebs too much, but I would hate to see any of 5,77,71,44 move.

  • Hippy

    @ canucklehead:

    He's playing quite a bit with O'Donnell for sure, and I'm not sure who else (haven't been following the Kings that closely). Mostly though, if we're looking for outside help, I'd look at the forwards. Terry Murray (who seems to be a killer coach, btw) has been alternating between Handzus and Kopitar against the toughs; mostly with Handzus but Kopitar's level of competition looks to have picked up.

    Always thought Kopitar was overrated (as compared to someone like Stastny) because of who he played against, but it looks like the guys in L.A. are determined to make him into an elite difference maker; he's going to be playing more in a Hemsky role than a Getzlaf one. Good players (Kopitar and Handzus) have been playing in front of Greene and that probably helps the stats a ton. That said, Greene's still doing his job, and he looks much better than he did last season. Good on him; always enjoyed his interviews.

  • Hippy

    misfit wrote:

    Granted, I’m willing to bet that Visnovsky has started a few more shifts in the offensive zone than the defensive one compared to Souray (which would skew things a bit), but everyone seems to look better when their paired with Lubo.

    He has (I can't recall the exact shift, but it's there). The thing with Souray is that there hasn't been a big drop-off when paired with Gilbert (at least, when we consider how the pairings are used), so I'd say that while Visnovsky helped him look good, he's still having a tremendous season.

  • Hippy

    OilFan in Calgary wrote:

    Great article. What do the Oilers do next year when Peckham is ready for the show? Pay Staois to sit or trade Gilbert or Grebs?

    Honestly, I think that Grebeshkov is going to get paid sooner or later, and the Oilers can't afford to have five guys making big dough on the backend. One's got to go for sure, maybe two. The top-four are all good, but I think it comes down to Gilbert and Grebeshkov, and it's a good bet that the Oilers figure Gilbert's the better player.

    With one of 77 or 37 gone, and Strudwick's contract ended, there's plenty of room to introduce Peckham to the bottom pairing while Smid moves into the top-four. I don't think Staios enters the equation, unless Lowe & Co. feel like either upgrading him or getting someone cheaper who does the same thing.