Assessing The Oilers Defence Corps

Edmonton Oilers v Ottawa Senators

With massive changes to the Oilers’ blue line personnel, it seemed like an appropriate time to reflect on the job they’ve done so far this season.

Personally, I like scoring chances as a metric, because it’s a larger sample than goals for and against and not as dependent on goaltender quality on either side. Unfortunately, it’s hard to break down scoring chances by defence pairings, so that won’t work for what I have in mind.

On the other hand, it turns out that Corsi numbers mirror scoring chances almost exactly. Kent Wilson of Flames Nation wrote a great article a while back on his other site explaining both what Corsi is and why it is so valuable.

The chart below uses a Corsi ratio. The number in the box indicates how many shots (including blocked and missed shots) the opposition manages at even-strength for every 100 Oilers’ shots. A low number means that a certain defence pairing has out-shot the opposition, while a high number means they’ve been out-shot by the opposition.

Take Sheldon Souray and Tom Gilbert as an example. Their combined number (88) means that for every 100 shots the Oilers have managed with them on the ice, the opposition has only managed 88 shots, which is extremely good. All combinations together for more than 100 total shots are listed below.

  Souray Visnovsky Gilbert Smid Grebeshkov Staios Strudwick Chorney Total (Ratio)
Sheldon Souray     88     126     96
Lubomir Visnovsky       100 89   105 116 97
Tom Gilbert 88       124   129 172 109
Ladislav Smid   100       148     117
Denis Grebeshkov   89 124     116 182   122
Steve Staios 126     148 116   128   126
Jason Strudwick   105 129   182 128   179 151
Taylor Chorney   116 172       179   152

(thanks to Vic Ferrari’s for the numbers on the chart)

Looking at that chart, I see three distinct groups.

At the top end of the scale are Sheldon Souray and Lubomir Visnovsky, the Oilers most expensive and best defencemen. Souray’s now finished for the season with a hand infection and Visnovsky will be plying his trade in Anaheim, so the dive for five got a substantial boost in the last few days. I rate Visnovsky ahead of Souray because even though his total number is a hair lower, he’s also been condemned to spend time with both Chorney and Strudwick – more on those two in a moment. Meanwhile, Souray has been excellent with Tom Gilbert and poor with Steve Staios, indicating that while he’s a good defenceman who can help he can’t single-handedly carry a pairing.

In the middle are four players of varying ability. Based on what they’ve done with different partners, right now I’d rate them in order as Gilbert, Grebeshkov, Smid, Staios. Gilbert’s had a bad season but has matched well with Souray; I imagine we’ll see his stock plummet as he lines up beside inferior partners for the rest of the season. Grebeshkov’s performance has been quite good when paired with Visnovsky, poor with Gilbert and Staios, and utterly atrocious with Strudwick. Smid has had the benefit of mostly playing with Visnovsky, where he’s looked okay (but not great in comparison to Visnovsky’s other partners) and with Staios, where he’s looked lost. Finally, Steve Staios has fallen into an elevator shaft when on the ice with anyone other than Grebeshkov, with whom he has only looked moderately bad.

At the bottom end of the spectrum are a pair of matching boat anchors: Jason Strudwick and Taylor Chorney. Chorney at least has youth on his side; he isn’t an NHL defenceman at this point and I highly doubt he’ll be one next year, but it’s conceivable he could someday turn into a power play specialist who can survive on the third pairing. Right now, every player who plays with him sees his numbers drop off sharply.

Unlike Chorney, Strudwick has age as an enemy; he’s in decline at this stage of his career and should not get another NHL contract. He’s a millstone around the neck of any player he partners with, and the fact that his opponents manage 151 shots for every 100 the Oilers take is simply inexcusable, especially given that the coaching staff has taken some pains to keep him away from good opponents.

This situation bodes well in the Oilers continued quest to be the worst team in the National Hockey League: both of their best defenceman are finished for the year, the surviving members of the top-six (Gilbert and Smid) have lost their best partners and have been poor without those players (and Smid may be done anyway), and two of the worst defenceman in the NHL today will get regular minutes for the rest of the year.