Ten Points: Roster decisions, the magic bullet, and the Oilers as a small market club

1. Potter or Peckham? The Oilers face an interesting choice this fall (if there’s hockey): do they keep both bubble defenders on the team and run with eight defencemen or do they trade one/try to slip one through waivers?

My vote was to trade Andy Sutton at the last deadline – purely because he’s not a guy who is in the long-term picture due to age and he has some value – but since the Oilers didn’t do that they now face a choice. I’ve long been a fan of Peckham and I think he can be a regular third-pairing guy if all goes right, but I don’t think that limited upside makes it worthwhile to hang on to him. Potter’s cheaper, not a penalty magnet, and has a wider range of skills, plus I think Peckham’s nasty streak gives him some value on the market that Potter lacks. I’d prefer to see Peckham dealt, particularly since this situation is going to happen again next year when Oscar Klefbom makes the jump, and probably every year after for the foreseeable future.

2. How much leash does Khabibulin get? With the Oilers undoubtedly hoping to make big strides this year, what happens if Nikolai Khabibulin struggles early on? I tend to think that in the last year of his deal the team will be less patient – perhaps even willing to plug Yann Danis in as backup if the veteran Russian falters. On the other hand, this is a contract year for Khabibulin and by all accounts his workload is going to be lighter – I wouldn’t be surprised if he turns in a serviceable performance as a backup goalie.

3. Magnus Paajarvi. There’s no doubt in my mind that Magnus Paajarvi belongs in the NHL next season on merit. Derek Zona has been pushing this at the Copper and Blue and I think he’s clearly right: Paajarvi’s a more useful NHL’er than Lennart Petrell or Ben Eager, to name two current Oilers. My one worry is development: ideally, Paajarvi’s offensive game develops, and I’m not convinced a depth role in the NHL (where he’d likely be consigned) would do that better than a top-six role in Oklahoma City. I’m more bullish on Paajarvi than most Oilers fans are, I think, and because of that I’d hate to see him consigned to a long-term checking role after one bad season where absolutely everything went wrong.

4. The statistical magic bullet. It doesn’t exist. Some of the more doctrinarian members of the statistical community think that Corsi (suitably finessed to account for zone starts and team strength) gives all the information anyone needs to make a hockey decision, but that’s simply not the case (an obvious example is the discussion here). Lots of things matter – some we know about, like role and linemates (again, looking at the Iginla example, look at the shift in Corsi with and without Jokinen and Bouwmeester – I’m not a Flames guy but it sure looks to me like role had a major impact on Iginla’s disappointing season). Finishing ability – while difficult to sustain and overrated by analysts at large, in my opinion – still needs to be taken into account; dismissing it entirely is not sensible. Then there’s the fact that things we don’t know about matter. We can’t compensate for what we don’t know but humility is required – as new evidence becomes available, beliefs will need to shift, and the idea that we’ve got it all figured out because we know how many shots a player was on the ice for is crazy.

5. The Red Queen’s Hypothesis. Named after a comment in the book Through the Looking-Glass, the Red Queen’s hypothesis is a fancy term in evolutionary thought that basically conveys the idea of an arms race: species need to be constantly improving and adapting just to stay in the same place, relative to its peers. It’s something that I think holds true for hockey: if a team isn’t constantly improving, it’s regressing. Some of that improvement – especially early on – can come from the maturation of young players, but over time clubs need to learn to use trades/free agency to augment an older core. That’s the long-term concern with the Oilers’ rebuild model, and something we’ve seen in some cities. Chicago, for example, has gone from a plus-48 team that went to the Conference finals to a plus-62 team that won the Cup to a plus-33 team that lost in the first round to a plus-10 team that lost in the first round. It doesn’t happen to all teams that make the leap (Pittsburgh, to cite one example, has had some recent playoff flops but recorded more regular season wins in 2011-12 than they had in any other post-lockout season) but it does happen to teams that aren’t able to continue to adapt after the young core comes off entry-level deals. Assuming the Oilers make the jump to contending team, will they be able to stay there? I don’t have the answer to that question.

6. Scotty Bowman. Further on that last point, it also applies to coaching. Here’s Chicago G.M. Stan Bowman talking about his dad’s coaching style in the book Behind the Moves:

The one thing my dad’s always been so good at, I think, is he’s been able to adjust…. [F]or a guy who’s ‘old school’ and has been around so long, he’s incredibly progressive and willing to try new things, willing to do things which are not the norm, and that’s what made him successful as a coach … he was very unpredictable … I think all coaches today are kind of – I don’t want to say programmed – but they’re led to do a certain thing. So if you can force yourself to try things maybe a little different or take a different approach, it’s going to give you that advantage. Ironically I think what makes him so exceptional is that he didn’t think he had all the answers…. I remember my dad would ask me – when I was in high school – after a game, ‘What did you see? Well, what do you think is wrong?’… Sometimes, I would say things, and then in the next game [his team would] do it and I’d think, ‘My God, he actually listened to what I had to say.’… He could care less where the idea came from. It really makes no difference to him. All he cares about is winning.

7. The only reason the Oilers can rebuild the way they have is thanks to the fans. This should be obvious. If, at the end of the day, the Oilers rebuild succeeds in creating an elite team, it will be thanks to the loyalty of fans, who have continued to pay good money year after year to watch a terrible NHL team. In other markets, a drop in attendance (and consequently a drop in revenue) would have forced a shorter rebuild.

8. The Oilers are a big-market team. The Edmonton Oilers are the seventh-most expensive team to watch in the entire NHL (warning: PDF). Despite this, and despite being a terrible hockey team, they sell out every night. How many markets in the league would support that? It doesn’t matter how many people live in the city, or what the size of the potential television market is, or any of the rest of it: all that matters is the number of people willing to pay to watch hockey. It’s higher in Edmonton than it is in the majority of NHL markets; ergo, the club is a big-market team.

9. It is in the Oilers’ interest to appear to be a small-market club. The Edmonton Oilers are negotiating with the city for support in building a new arena. Naturally, the city wants to hang on to NHL hockey; it’s easier for the Oilers to extract money if the perception is that there’s some danger in relocating. Obviously, there’s an incentive for the team’s ownership to play up that risk. Of course, as we’ve just pointed out, a team that sells out the building despite prices well above average and a club well below average is pretty much a dream scenario for an NHL owner.

10. Donald Fehr’s long-term goal. It’s been suggested to me that the NHLPA’s objective is to limit damage in this CBA negotiation and try to set things up for a decisive win the next time around. I don’t think that’s the case. I think the NHLPA needs to get into a position where they have leverage in CBA negotiations if they are to exist as a viable entity long-term; to do that, they need to create a scenario where the vast majority of owners are making money – because owners making money will lose more money every time there’s a labour stoppage. The best way to do that is to stabilize small markets – hence the push for revenue sharing. Once all NHL teams are generating significant income, the league will have much less incentive to lockout players.

  • book¡e

    I can’t find the link to the OilersNation Art Gallery containing all of the fine Photoshop artwork generated here as well as Wanye’s collection of MS Paint Art. Can someone tell me where it is?

  • The Soup Fascist

    To add, where we may have missed the boat (and this will be considered sacrilegious my many) is bringing back Smytty. Love Smytty’s passion and his history with the Oil, but his footspeed and lack of actual aggressiveness are taking a spot that would allow Paajarvi to play on the 3rd line LW.

    A bigger, grittier, faster 2nd line LW type would have added some much needed size / grit in the top 6 and allowed room for a more skilled guy like Paajarvi to be in a better environment for development.

  • Lexi

    JW,

    I’m glad you made pt 7. I think one of the most underated part of the rebuild is there is no precedent for a team outside Toronto/New York to be this bad and still be in the top 3rd in revenue. Look at Pittsburgh, Washington and even Chicago’s attendance when they were at the beginning of their rebuilds. I think in a way the Oilers are exploiting this as teams like Dallas and Anaheim can’t afford to go that route so they go and sign Whitney/Jagr and Sourey/Allen instead of allowing for one bad year and getting Jones/McKinnon, who could be those team’s saviors.

  • The Soup Fascist

    I also have to disagree with the trading of Sutton, You could not have asked more from him last year, and for a defensive core that was terrible, it was nice to see him play solid. Another year of having him as both a depth defender and a big time physical presence will be welcome. PLus the guy seems like he really likes to be here. I wonder how the season would have been affected had Shannahamer not come down so hard on what appeared to me to be clean hits. I for one, am glad he resigned.

    • I thought both suspensions were fair, but I agree that Sutton brings a lot to the table – and on merit, there’s no reason for the Oilers to have traded him last year.

      My concern is age: he isn’t a part of the long-term solution, and the Oilers a) could have received an asset back and b) could have given a guy like Peckham a little more rope this year.

      It didn’t happen, and I’m fine with that, but I think it was the best way to maximize return.

      • book¡e

        I see what you’re saying about not being part of the long term, but isn’t our long term currently being developed in the minors? So in the mean time shouldn’t we be looking for the best possible stop gaps? For a big physical player that was pretty solid defensively, playing as our number 7, maybe there’s a cheaper option, but I think Sutton brings more to the table. He seems great with the kids, great in the room, always a positive attitude, and I didn’t see him take a shift off all year.

        As for the suspensions, maybe they were fair, my point was more would they have even been applied had Shannahan not taken over this year? And how those suspensions obviously affected Sutton’s game. I think management has identified that Sutton is good for the team, and he’ll receive yearly contracts as long as our prospects aren’t ready, and as long as he continues his level of play. In terms of a 6-7 D man, I see what’s coming up in our prospect pool, but for now I can’t think of a better option. Hell, I really wanted to get a Sutton jersey this year. I have only been playing hockey for two years and found my biggest contribution to my team is my size, attitude, and work ethic.

        Finally, another good post. I enjoy your work and how there’s always room for discussion, yet you back up your decisions very well.

  • raretomediumrare

    A lot of people are saying Paajarvi’s low shot percentage is evidence of unlucky bounces, and it will just automatically improve. I’m pretty sure if he keeps taking wristshots as soon as he crosses the blueline, he will never get these lucky bounces he needs.

    • I don’t think Paajarvi’s ever going to be a high percentage shooter – the other day I went back and looked at all his 2010-11 goals, and came away even more convinced of that – but I do think his shooting percentage will rebound because of just how terrible it was. From a piece I wrote in May:

      Also encouraging is the fact that Paajarvi’s biggest problem was shooting percentage – with just two goals on 79 shots, Paajarvi’s shooting percentage was a miserable 2.5 percent. Shawn Thornton, the NHL’s worst shooter since the lockout, is nearly twice as effective at 4.3 percent. Daniel Winnik is next at 5.9 percent; no other NHL’er with more than 500 shots since 2005-06 is below 6.0 percent. Paajarvi was an 8.3 percent shooter last year; he’s at 7.0 percent in the AHL this season. While he’s unlikely to ever be a high-end sniper, surely he’ll be able to find the net more frequently than Shawn Thornton in the future.

      • raretomediumrare

        I agree. I think quality of shot is the major problem with looking at shot % though, as well as looking at actual number of shots. Anyone can get shots on net.

        Another, not really related point. I would love to see statistics of how many breakaways T-Hall gets, and how horrifically low his scoring percentage is. Somehow breakaways aren’t quality chances with hall

  • Oh yeah sorry, I forgot to add that if Hartikainen can put up similar points comparable to Paajarvi and play hard good hockey, in a third line role, and he has the smack, hit, and bull doze attitude always/physicality, then unfortunately Paajarvi is in the same boat as Omark is with too many of the same player types here.

    Don’t get me wrong though, cause I am rooting for this kid too, but too many of the same does not help out the weaknesses the Oil have.

  • The Soup Fascist

    Good read JW. All strong points to make….but…IMO, Paajarvi is not going to be able to upstage the four others positioned for the top six forwards right now, being Nuge, Hall, Ens, Yakupov…and then there’s Gagner and Hemsky.

    The third line of Horcoff, Smyth, and then Jones…is about where he could go at this time, with Jones being put down to the fourth line. However, if he could show at scoring touch here then he becomes more viable to move up through injury times.

    I also have to say that with Petry, Justin Schultz, and maybe a healthy Whitney, as powerplay point and offensive type guys, Potter is the one who should be trade bait more than Peckham due to the physical toughness issue.

    The Oil still need to make some moves to open up the 50 man roster so as to ensure much higher caliber players are traded for and that there is no overabundance.

    Just my opinion dude.

    • Ideally, I see Paajarvi as being the Oilers’ fifth winger – the guy who starts every year on the third line but moves up to the top-six as soon as an injury hits.

      I also tend to agree that, at best, he’d likely get a slot with Horcoff and Smyth if he made the NHL team this year.

      One thing I do disagree with is the comparison to Hartikainen. Hartikainen’s physical game is better, but Paajarvi is a) worlds better defensively and b) has had better offensive results at the professional level than Hartikainen has enjoyed to date. I like Hartikainen, but I think Paajarvi is a better overall player right now and has better long-term potential.

  • The Soup Fascist

    Corsi is like OPS in baseball.

    A good overall tool, but weighted in favor of higher producing players and shouldn’t be used to compare two entirely different types of players, like slugger vs. speed/doubles guy in baseball and offensive defenseman vs. stay-at-home defenseman in hockey.

    Good points in this article. Makes me continue to believe that the rebuild is still scheduled to end when the arena opens.

  • Craig1981

    Good read, but I disagree with “big market”. A market is the potential that is there. The oil are a small market team the has done a great job capturing the market that is there.
    When NYI are a big market team, but have done a terrible job capturing any of it.

    • But, playing in Canada, it’s always been reasonable to expect a far more devoted market than a city in the southern United States has.

      The Oilers don’t have great fan support because they’re especially good at engaging with fans – compared to a lot of teams, they’re actually not that good at it. They have great fan support because people in Edmonton *love* hockey. Thus, the market of hockey consumers is way bigger relative to the size of the city than it is in a place like Long Island.

      For a hockey team, the size of the city doesn’t matter if the market for hockey consumption isn’t there.

      • Sorry, but we are indeed a small market team. The market for hockey consumption must also be considered to be the size of the potential TV audience. Although we have a sold out arena every night, the TV reach is substantially less than other “big market” teams.

        The Oilers revenue generation opportunities are tapped out at the rink/local level. The only way they can make more money (other than raise ticket prices) is to increase their TV rights fees, which will be determined by viewership reach. This is the primary driver behind the new arena. The new corporate suites are the only way the team can generate additional ongoing revenue.

        We get to watch most games here on TV because the local viewership is strong, but you go out of the immediate market and it’s Montreal/Toronto/Vancouver as the big draw teams for out-of-town games. When I lived in Calgary I got a gut full of bad Eastern conference broadcasts when Calgary wasn’t playing.The only thing that saved my sanity was watching grey-market Oilers games with a sweet hi-speed internet connection.

  • The Soup Fascist

    Not sure what constitutes a “more useful NHLer”. Is it not based on the “role” that is available to be filled? In reality, as it sits, there is at most one spot in the top nine. RNH, Hall, Yak, Eberle, Hemsky, Gagner, Smyth and Horcoff (right or wrong) are virtual locks. There are some that say Jones belongs in top 9, but that is a discussion for another time.

    If Paajarvi is not able to be better than a Harti or Jones in the top 9, he is USELESS as a 4th liner. I think you are alluding to that in your comments. But to say Paajarvi is more “useful” than (a focused) Eager or Petrell, has to be put in context. He is certainly more talented, but on a 4th line, no where near as effective.

    • OilLeak

      Really? What does Eager do better than Paajarvi on a 4th line? Take more penalties? Oh boy, whatever will the Oilers do without that skill? Perhaps win more hockey games, crazy I know. I heard eager Eager likes to throw his fists around from time to time when he’s in the mood; valuable stuff. Paajarvi on the other hand drives possession and draws more penalties, the exact opposite of Eager. Could a player who’s actually good at hockey on the 4th line make the Oilers a better hockey team?

      So I ask, what’s more valuable, playing with the puck or chasing it? Paajarvi helps with the former, Eager helps with the latter.

      • The Soup Fascist

        Note my comments in brackets prior to mentioning Eager’s name. A discontented Eager who thinks he is a top 6 guy is of no use to anyone.

        HOWEVER, there were 6 – 10 games last year where I thought Eager was extremely effective and exactly what the Oiler’s need. A big, tough exceptional skater who can be a pest and back it up – and a little wacky – Ask the Sedin’s if they shoulder check a little more when he is on the ice. The odd well-timed “stupid” penalty is not a bad thing IMO.

        I realize showing up for 12% of the games (actually more like 25% because he sat a fair bit) is unacceptable. But before I write off Eager I want to see if a) the concussion at the beginning of the year had some long lasting effects and b) Ralph can push his buttons better than “fairplay” Renney.

        He is by everything I hear a very good teammate. I would see what happens the first 20 games before pulling the chute on this guy.

        Edit: Better try something because we are stuck with his contract for two years.

    • I disagree with the idea that the fourth line needs to be handed over to “energy” guys. Remember, for example, the Nilsson – Brodziak – Stortini fourth line? It was extremely effective at out-scoring other units.

      I’d bet that in head-to-head matchups, Paajarvi – Belanger – Eager outscores and outplays Petrell – Belanger – Eager the vast majority of the time. That matters more than the hit or two per game Petrell adds to the conversation, IMO.

      • The Soup Fascist

        That is where we have to agree to disagree. If the Oilers had more size and grit in their top 9, I would be more open to your suggestion. The fact is Petrell brings a component NO ONE else brings up front, other than Eager IF he is playing well. I would argue Petrell’s physical play and PK availability trumps the little bit more offence Paajarvi would add, especially playing with the “black hole” and the RW of the day.

        If we are worried about Paajarvi developing offensively, he is infinitely better off playing in OKC on a top line or as we likely both hope he is able to play as a top 6 LW, pushing Hemsky to 3rd RW and Jones to 4th line.

        For that to happen though he needs to stop flying up the wing and then fluttering a wrister off the boards at the first sign of trouble. He has it in him, just not sure what happened last year. Sophmore jinx? (crosses fingers).

    • dessert1111

      Good call, Paajarvi get’s pushed off the puck and is useless on the forecheck. Watching him dodge players, when they had the puck in the offensive zone last year was maddening. However, I do understand when he has the puck, he’s third on the team for making the play go in the right direction, and that’s important. But his shot percentage is abysmal and there’s no physicality to his game. So he can’t be a physical checker on the third and forth lines, but he’s also not good enough to be a finisher on the top two lines.

      Thus, down in the minors he has the chance to improve in either of these two areas and become one player or the other. I’d like to see him develop into a more physical checker that drives the play and is able to shut down top lines, while still contributing 15 goals a year. That in my mind is a very valuable player. Hopefully, however, they can put him with some skill and see how he does. After all, his rookie season was very impressive in what he managed with such crap ice time.