One of the few positive notes for the Oilers this season was the emergence of Gilbert Brule as an NHL player. He scored a career-high 17 goals and 37 points and played with a nasty physical edge as well. Now, he’s a restricted free agent and the Oilers need to decide how much to pay him on his next contract.
This is where I get nervous. I’m glad that Brule’s emerged, and it’s nice to see him finally playing well after injuries derailed his early career in Columbus. But there are a bunch of different things that would make me leery about tossing money at him, despite his success this past season. Here are factors I see that bother me:
Injuries: At just 23 years of age, Brule’s had a lot of them. Broken leg, broken collarbone, and a sprained ankle that cost him the tail end of the 2009-10 season. It may be that he’s just had bad luck early on, but those injuries have already cost him a lot and with the style he plays it wouldn’t surprise me if injuries continued to shape his NHL career.
Shooting percentage: Brule was listed as having an “NHL-calibre” shot when he was playing junior, so perhaps he just had a bad run in Columbus, but the goal-scoring increase in Edmonton has largely been a result of shooting percentage. On 183 shots with the Blue Jackets, Brule had a 6.6% shooting percentage, while on 134 shots with the Oilers he’s had a 14.2% shooting percentage. Or put another way: goalies facing Brule as a Blue Jacket put up a 0.934 SV%, while goalies facing him as an Oiler put up a 0.858 SV%. I’d suggest that Brule’s true scoring ability is probably somewhere between those two figures. Given that we know NHL players generally don’t progress through great increases in shooting percentage, this is worrisome.
The Dustin Penner effect: Gilbert Brule was a different player when he was paired with Dustin Penner. That pairing was plus-5, on the ice for 21 goals for and 16 against, and they outshot the opposition 147-133. Penner apart was a little worse (35 goals for, 32 against, outshooting 364-346), something I’d attribute to the fact that he was likely playing better opposition away from Brule. Brule fell off the rails without Penner around, going minus-10 (17 goals for, 27 against) and getting outshot 203-233. That disparity is not a good sign.
AHL results: Last season on a lousy Springfield team, Gilbert Brule managed 24 points in 39 games (0.615 PTS/GM) in the AHL. In the NHL this year he was just a tiny bit worse (0.569 PTS/GM), and that bothers me a little. Perhaps it means that this year, and this year alone, was a breakout season, but it might also be taken as further evidence that Brule isn’t quite the player we saw this year. Also of interest is even-strength goal scoring: in Springfield, Brule scored 0.15 goals/game at even-strength but this year in Edmonton that total jumped to 0.23 goals per game at even-strength.
Points relative to ice-time: In Brule’s last full NHL season, he scored 0.87 PTS/60 at five-on-five. He nearly tripled that output this year, to 2.36 PTS/60. Even assuming (as I do) that his results in Columbus represented the bottom end of his potential, is that a sustainable outburst?
I’m not making any sweeping statements about what Brule is here. There are other factors worth considering, including the physical edge mentioned at the outset and the fact that he seemed to have good chemistry with Dustin Penner. There’s also his junior career and draft number, and without those years in Columbus his junior numbers would suggest a guy who might be an impact player.
What I am saying is that I see a bunch of red flags, and if I were thinking of spending $2.0 million dollars or so, those red flags would bother me a lot. If I were Steve Tambellini, they might even bother me enough to ask what kind of trade value I might get for him at this summer’s NHL Entry Draft.