With the Oilers sitting dead last in the NHL, naturally some players are looking a lot worse on the ice than they really should.
Bad teams are like that; a few years ago, for example, Rob Blake was 38 years old and coming off two seasons to forget with the Los Angeles Kings. He’d finished either last or second last on the team in plus/minus for two years running, with a total rating of minus-45 over two seasons. His offence was down to less than half of what it was at the peak of his career; he’d previously never failed to put up at least 46 points in a season where he hit the 70-game mark, but now he’d done it twice in a row. Many, including myself, suspected that the aged defenceman was due for retirement.
Then Blake signed with the San Jose Sharks. He bounced back to the 45-point plateau, recorded a plus/minus just one off the team lead, and recorded four points in six playoff games. He’s slowed a fair bit this year, but he has proven that he wasn’t ready to retire in the summer of 2008.
Blake isn’t the only one, and Oilers fans saw plenty of guys run out of town following the 2007-08 debacle that resulted in a sixth overall pick. Two forwards who saw the brunt of both quality matchups and defensive zone draws – Jarret Stoll and Marty Reasoner – were sent away, with the suspicion about Stoll being that a concussion had ruined his career, and with Reasoner often decried as a useless forward who only stayed in the lineup because of Craig MacTavish’s irrational love for the player.
Stoll rebounded when taken out of a checking role in Los Angeles; he’s a physical player capable of keeping his head above water at even-strength and a real asset on special teams for the Kings. Reasoner meanwhile has been kept in checking assignments in Atlanta, and has consistently put up some of the best plus/minus totals on the team despite the difficulties of his role. He had even been rewarded with some time on Ilya Kovalchuk’s line before Kovalchuk was dealt to New Jersey.
The Oilers have some players who are in reality much better than they have seemed this season. Two of those players have spent significant time this season as a defence pairing. Before I explain who they are, I’d like to show some numbers.
At even-strength this season (as per timeonice.com), the Oilers have 1368 shots for and 1527 shots against – meaning that for every 100 shots the Oilers take, their opposition takes 112. Adding in blocked and missed shots, for every 100 shot attempts the Oilers make, their opposition makes 115 – that’s a significant territorial advantage and no surprise to anyone who has sat through the majority of the team’s games this season.
Things change with this pairing on the ice, however. For every 100 shots the Oilers take with them on the ice, the opposition manages only 89 – a ratio which works out to 112:100, or the mirror image of this lousy team. It’s a similar story when we add in blocked and missed shots to show territorial advantage – 100:88 or 100:113. Those are incredible out-shooting numbers, particularly given how bad the rest of this team is.
The names of those two players? Sheldon Souray and Tom Gilbert, playing as a tandem. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the two is that despite their commendable on-ice shot rate, they are minus-11 as a pairing, on the ice for 11 goals for and 22 goals against. That’s a combination of two ugly factors: a .885 on-ice save percentage and a 5.1 on-ice shooting percentage. We might assume that Gilbert and Souray are allowing exceptionally high-quality shots against and at the same time handicapping the offence, but given their personal track records that seems highly unlikely. The numbers are also ridiculously bad; 5.1% is a worse shooting percentage than any team in the entire league, while a .885 SV% is worse than even Vesa Toskala’s .898 in Toronto.
In my opinion, the most likely explanation for the horrible percentages is a combination of two items: playing against high-end players with low-end players, and some bad luck. The first point is easy to confirm; according to behindthenet.ca, Gilbert and Souray face the toughest opposition with the worst teammates. That matches nicely with what we’ve seen on the ice. The second point is a little tricky, but some numbers from last year help confirm it. Of the 263 defenceman to play more than 10 games last year, exactly 12 had a worse on-ice shooting percentage than Gilbert and Souray do this year; Gilbert and Souray themselves had a 10.03 and 8.20 on-ice shooting percentage, respectively. The story is similar on the save percentage front; nine of 263 defenceman posted a sub-on-ice .885 SV%, and both Souray (.927) and Gilbert (.913) were well clear.
The point to all this: despite what a glance at their shared plus/minus might tell the casual observer, Souray and Gilbert have actually been quite good as a pairing. It seems highly likely that both of them are quite a bit better than their numbers this season, and if the Oilers do decide to trade one or both, they’d better not do it for 10 cents on the dollar.