Ryan Whitney and Corey Potter

The Edmonton Oilers’ most-used third-pairing this season has had some ups and some downs, but more of the latter than the former. Ryan Whitney’s ineffective play has led to him being a healthy scratch at times, while Corey Potter is often seen as a reserve defenceman who inexplicably finds himself on the regular rotation.

What’s wrong with the pairing?

The two most common explanations are typically these:

  • Both players are terrible
  • Ryan Whitney has some warts, but is being brought down by Potter

I have typically leaned towards the first explanation, but thought it might be interesting to see what the scoring chance data says.

Whitney without Potter

If Ryan Whitney is in fact a decent player shackled to an AHL’er, we would expect to see on-ice scoring chances improve in games where Potter isn’t dressed. Fortunately for these purposes, Potter has spent significant time out of the lineup, so there is a long stretch of games where Whitney played with other partners. What happened?

The following are the Oilers’ scoring chances for and against at even-strength with Whitney on the ice, first in games where Potter sat, then in games where he played:

  • Without Potter: +41/-75 (35.3% of all scoring chances are for the Oilers)
  • With Potter: +68/-91 (42.8% of all scoring chances are for the Oilers)
  • Total: +109/-166 (39.6% of all scoring chances are for the Oilers)

In both situations, Whitney’s pairing is taken out back of the woodshed by the opposition, but it’s interesting to note that things actually get worse when Potter is out of the lineup.

Potter without Whitney

Corey Potter has not played in a lot of games with Whitney out of the lineup, so there’s not nearly enough data here to be definitive but what information there is caught my eye:

  • Without Whitney: +15/-9 (62.5% of all scoring chances are for the Oilers)
  • With Whitney: +68/-91 (42.8% of all scoring chances are for the Oilers)
  • Total: +83/-100 (45.4% of all scoring chances are for the Oilers)

The “without Whitney” data is so small that it shouldn’t be seen as sustainable – I very much doubt that Potter could sustain those figures, or anything close to them, over a full season played with Mark Fistric or Theo Peckham. But it does seem fair to say that Whitney suffers more from his absence than he from Whitney’s.

Valuation

Ryan Whitney’s an interesting player because the thing he does really well – provide offence – is one of those things that tend to be disproportionally valued. By that, I mean that a guy who gets two points in a 2-0 win and makes no defensive mistakes is objectively helping his team more than a player who scores three points and makes two critical defensive errors that lead to goals against in a 4-3 loss, but more often than not the latter will get more positive attention than the former.

There’s no denying Whitney’s offensive prowess. There was a certain amount of gloating on Twitter among his more fervent supporters when he ran up two points in the Oilers’ 8-2 win over Calgary. Getting less attention was the fact that Devan Dubnyk had to be very sharp in that game because the Oilers were awfully sloppy defensively – and that Whitney was more likely to be on the ice for a chance against than any other player on the team. The offence didn’t come against Vancouver last night, but once again Whitney led the Oilers’ blue line in chances against and made two very bad defensive zone turnovers.

Looking at the data, though, I can’t help but wonder if the Oilers would be better off running Potter and Fistric as their third pairing for a few games – or if not that, pushing Whitney more toward Marc-Andre Bergeron usage, where he plays the role of power play specialist and only gets spotted at even-strength (because Whitney does add value to the power play). At five-on-five, his scoring just doesn’t seem to outweigh his defensive zone work.

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  • Ducey

    Willis,

    I would be interested in your thoughts on Joey Leach being signed by the Barons. (maybe do a post on it)

    He was a 3rd round pick by the Flames but was not signed. He has good size 6’4″ and has put up decent stats. Why wouldn’t they have signed him?

  • A-Mc

    Potter . . . Ralph must see something I don’t because I can’t think of any reason why Potter is playing ahead of Fistric. He can’t still be sitting over that St. Louis gaffe – can he?

    Even Peckham. The one game I seen him play, I thought he looked okay. He’s going to get better as he gets in more games.

    Or maybe Fistric and Peckham just can’t handle that the play is in the Oiler end for 80% of the game.

  • A-Mc

    JW,

    Listening to Bob Stauffer, it seems clear to that the kids are the biggest proponent of keeping Whitney on the team and in the lineup. He’s made allusions to that fact many times in the face of significant fan criticism of Whitney’s play.

    I think one of the issues is this: having legitimate star players can be a double edged sword.

    By this I mean, you cannot want Taylor Hall to actively participate in recruiting players (i.e., Justin Schultz) and the ignore his desire to have another player (Whitney)on the team.

    Oiler fans watched in awe as Calgary was able to use Iginla to recruit free agents to their team. Now that it seems we are starting to build some of that ability, how much is too much?

    The entire issue of Whitney and his young advocates reminds me of this scene from Little Big League:

    • I’ve heard Stauffer make that point too, and I think it’s one with merit. On the other hand, I generally trust to the professionalism of players – when you look at San Jose, the message being sent by the exodus of Handzus, Clowe and Murray was a negative one, but the team has responded with six straight wins.

      • This dependence is all fine and good for a veteran laden team, but one where no one can rent a car or buy a beer on road trips should also be considered.

        Maybe Whitney is a good guy. Maybe that’s what’s really important to you when you’re 21. Winning games with guys you like.

        I don’t know. It’s been many years since I was 21, and I spent most of that time chasing tail with Wanye Gretz.

        • I understand where you’re coming from, and I have sympathy for the argument. For me, I guess it just comes down to the difficulty in valuing the unknown intangible benefit of playing him over the very tangible problems with doing so.

          Others weigh the pros/cons differently, and it would be a sad world if we all agreed on everything. With the data I have, I’m reasonably convinced of my conclusion (the Oilers would have been better off dealing Whitney) but I understand if others aren’t.

          • Ducey

            On this point you and I are in agreement (sad world). Dealing Whitney may result in addition by subtraction for the Oilers.

            I think where we go wrong is not understanding the context with which 21 year old hockey players view these same truths. This comment isn’t directed at you specifically, but hockey is rife with, “you can’t measure heart” or “he’s clutch” BS that I just can’t get behind always.

            My feelings about what is occurring are summed up here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mSy1NQx2bJE

            Thanks again for the great read.

          • northof51

            Favourite comment from the Journal Player Grades, “(Whitney) looked more like Cam Barker than Cam Barker did”.

            I shared this with some Canucks fans and they almost died laughing. While they found it humourous, they appreciated the depth of that statement. None of them can believe how far a former 3rd overall pick has fallen. (Barker that is)

            They also agreed that Whitney was noticeably bad last night.

  • Jason Gregor

    Does scoring chances or actual goals win hockey games?

    How many actual goals for and goals against has Whitney been on for compared to Potter?

    I’d like to see that breakdown, because for me that would illustrate actual impact positively or negatively on the outcome of the game.

    I understand the theory that chances lead to goals, but I’d rather a guy be on the ice for goals, rather than chances that never result in goals.

    Can you run those numbers? For the team.

    • Sure, though the problem with using goals as a metric is that there are so few of them – I like goals, too, but it takes years to get a sample as big as with shots or scoring chances.

      Anyway, with Whitney on the ice, in an average hour of 5-on-5 play the Oilers score 2.04 goals and allow 2.32 goals (-0.28). With Potter on the ice, in an average hour the Oilers score 2.00 goals and allow 1.45 goals (+0.55).

      I personally don’t think the gap between them is that big – the picture painted by scoring chances, IMO, is more reflective of reality.

      • Jason Gregor

        What about PP goals…They are a major factor in outcome of game.

        Total goals, not just ES…I’d argue that PP goals play huge factor in games, especially for Oilers, considering they have 30 PP goals and 59 ES. In fact, per minutes played the PP goals grossly outweigh the ES ones for the Oilers.

        Also, not a huge proponent of going by hour, considering each minute in game vs. Chicago shouldn’t be equal to minutes vs. Calgary for example.

        It would have to be game by game… Tedious yes, but for me that would give better insight.

        No debate Whitney isn’t great ES, none at all, but if you add goals he is on for at PP, he clearly impacts games.

        • Ducey

          Keep trying Gregor.

          Maybe you can find some stats that show Whitney is better on Tuesdays on 5 on 3’s against teams in purple uni’s.

          You hate Potter, but he is not the problem.

          Whitney is worse than Potter by Corsi 5 x 5 and 5 on 4. He is worse by goals for and against.

          REL Corsi before yesterdays game:
          Nick S +6.3
          Ladi .2
          Potter 0
          Petry 0
          Justin -2.3
          Whitney -11.4

          Is not even close. He is the worst D man they have. They should have traded Whitney when they had the chance.

        • Yeah, his power play work isn’t being credited in a 5-on-5 analysis, and I agree that he’s a very useful player in that role.

          I disagree on the ‘by hour’ thing, simply because games like Calgary are the exception rather than the rule – most games are close, and the amount of data you end up cutting when removing, say, every situation where there’s a 3-goal gap ends up being a pretty small piece of the pie.

          Using goals, with Whitney on the ice the Oilers PP is +7.94 per hour 5-on-4 this year. With Potter, that number is +6.14. If we assume both players dress for 15 minutes per game 5v5, and 2.5 minutes per game 5v4, and project their plus/minus in those situations out over an 82-game season, we get the following goal differentials:

          Whitney: +27 PP, -6 EV, +21 TOT

          Potter: +21 PP, +11 EV, +32 TOT

          (and keep in mind we aren’t including penalty kill situations here – a place Potter is used and Whitney isn’t)

          I don’t like using goals as the primary stat, but I don’t see a case for Whitney > Potter even when we use goals; he just doesn’t do enough on the power play to compensate for his 5-on-5 struggles.

          • Jason Gregor

            Why not just show the exact amount of goals on PP rather than using the hour?

            What is the exact number of goals, not rounded up. Just straight up goals.

            Seems strange to me that Potter would be that close on PP since he’s only played 19 minutes on the PP. How many actual goals has he been on for.

            I want actual, not taking Potter’s 19 minutes and projecting what they might be. That is projections, not reality.

          • That’s a ridiculously unfair comparison for Potter given how little he’s been used on the power play, but I’m game. Actual plus/minus, all 5v5 and 5v4 situations:

            Whitney: +25/-18

            Potter: +13/-8

            Whitney, with a huge advantage in power play minutes and, for that matter, total minutes, comes out plus-7. Potter comes out plus-5. If you go by a ratio of goals for:against, 58% of goals scored with Whitney on the ice are in his favour, as opposed to 62% for Potter.

          • Jason Gregor

            So Whitney plays more role of a role in outcome of game…He’s on ice for more goals for than against.

            That was my point, using just ES, especially on this team, doesn’t tell the entire picture.

            Not saying Whitney is great defensively, just needed to look at overall picture.

          • OilersBrass

            Don’t worry Gregor, I completely agree with you.
            Whitney is definitely the better player, and he’s been getting a lot better as of late. Having him in the press box for so many games didn’t help his progression either.
            Potter is probably gonna get cut in the summer to make room for Klefbom anyways.

          • Ducey

            Because the numbers dont mean anything unless you normalize for TOI. Of course Whitney is on the ice for more PP goals, he is on the ice for more PP minutes. It is not about ’rounding up’ it is about determining effectiveness for a given time interval, that is the only way you can compare two players that play differing amounts.

  • Truth

    Well with the market high for defencemen right now and Whitney’s recent surge in points, Tambellini should be able to get a couple second round picks for him at the deadline. Sure would be a shame to see him drag down the team for the rest of the season and lose him for nothing in the summer.

  • It was nice to see Whitney get points against Calgary. He needs to do more of that to become an asset.

    His turnovers are terrible and he doesn’t seem to recover from them. One of his turnovers yesterday, he lost his stick at some point trying to recover and Schultz ended up taking a penalty. It didn’t result in a goal but it seems to me this type of play happens quite often with Whitney and is the reason many fans are frustrated. We’ve seen him better than that. I don’t think it’s skating as much as making bad decisions.

    He’s not the best skater but he’s good enough, if he’d play smarter.

  • A-Mc

    Ehhh, this is a bit of a stretch.

    All 5 players come together to form a scoring chance for or against. To use that stat to pigeon hole 1 of the 5 guys on the ice isn’t fair, nor is it helpful in any way.

    Which ever D pairing is on the ice when the kids are chance machines is going to have very padded stats compared to the pairing that is out with the 4th line.

    The very fact that 5 people are responsible for a stat used to praise or condemn 1 guy means it’s accuracy is garbage and therefore should be thrown out.

    • northof51

      Out of all 8 dmen, Whitney plays with the 3rd best Quality of Teammate, while (and again, out of ALL 8 dmen) he plays against the weakest competition.

      So many things have been said in the comments that speak to this, but I am in the JW camp – Whitney is a major liability at even strength but can be a PP asset.

      The question for management will be, does his liability out weigh his gains?

      The answer to me seems clear (despite JG’s comments) – No. Whitney can only be used in a Bergeron role and if we can’t afford him that opportunity, he should be gone.

      • Ducey

        I completely agree with you and think that Tambellini blew an opportunity to gain something of value (even if it’s only a mid round draft pick) in return for Whitney.