The Edmonton Oilers are not a deep team (I know, shocking).
We know this to be true. The roster is littered with fringe NHLers who should
probably be playing in the AHL. The 4th line (the real 4th
line) is made up of three players who spent the majority of the season in the AHL
or on the outskirts of an NHL lineup. The backup goalie only gets played out of
necessity, the captain is paired with Philip Larsen 2.0, and the forward lines
are patched with Hockey Bondo. A year ago I would never have imagined myself
making this argument, but the Oilers should be playing Luke Gazdic ahead of
players like Matt Fraser and Ryan Hamilton.
But Luke Gazdic is just a face-punching sideshow, right?
WHERE WE STARTED
There was a time where I might have agreed with that. Last
year I think there was one thing that he did at an NHL level and that was
receive and deliver punches. And make no mistake, he was a ruthless knuckle
delivery mechanism that I think scared a few people by the end of the season.
He had 15 fighting majors last year which put him at 3rd most in the
entire NHL. He wasn’t just a participant either, he won his fair share. As per HockeyFights.com he either won or draw in 12 of those 15 fights.
That’s going to buy you a lot of support in this town. The problem is that while I do think fighting has a place in hockey (that’s another topic for another day), players still need to be able to skate a regular shift without hurting the team. Luke Gazdic was unequivocally not able to do that for whatever reason last year. As fearsome as it was for the other team’s fighters when Gazdic was out there, the rest of the opposition was getting a free pass to the offensive zone.
In the 2013-2014 season there was no forward on the Oilers with a worse Corsi For%. His raw CF% of 37.2% and Corsi For Percentage Relative to Teammates of -7.5% placed him as the worst possession forward on one of the worst possession teams in the entire NHL. That’s not a good place to be. To fill in more context. Eakins was keeping him out of the defensive zone and the offensive zone as much as possible. The only person with a higher percentage of starts in the neutral zone was Will Acton and in their case I think that reflects the coach just trying to keep them out of danger as much as possible.
In short, when Gazdic was on the ice last year the other team was either getting their face caved in or they were shooting the lights out.
WHERE WE ARE NOW
Fast forward to this year and I was prepared for more of the same. However, we have been treated to significantly better results. From the eye test, Luke Gazdic looks like more of a player today than he did a year ago. His skating doesn’t get him in trouble but more importantly, the play doesn’t die on his stick. He can make and take a pass and he looks more confident out there (even after getting his hair cut). He has even had some time with the Gordon line and he did not look like a boat anchor for them. That’s huge.
He has significantly reduced the number of penalties he’s taken in total minutes and his offensive totals (modest as they are) have almost matched his output from a year ago in half the number of games. This is important. You want to see some kind of progress out there from your inexperienced players and it appears as if that’s what Gazdic is showing. Considering he’s still three games shy of 100 in his NHL career, you’d hope to see improvement even from a 25 year old who is probably closer to the final product than say a raw rookie still suffering from acne.
By number, Gazdic has seen a dramatic turn-around in 2014-2015. On the whole, the team is better by number this season than it was last, but even accounting for that he is no longer the worst among the group. His raw Corsi For% of 47.5% is in the lower middle of the Oilers. It’s not fantastic by any means, but again if we look at where he is relative to his teammates then we see that he actually has a positive impact (albeit just barely) of +0.1%. Even if we take into account the team’s overall improvement, when we look at where he started a season ago to where he is now, the on-ice results have taken a massive jump.
WHAT ABOUT THE OTHER GUYS?
From my seat one of Ryan Hamilton or Matt Fraser should be out of the lineup and Gazdic in his place. 90% of the time I would say that it should probably be Ryan Hamilton. Neither of these players are particularly good. Matt Fraser seems to have a problem with foot speed. He just doesn’t get to where he needs to be fast enough. Whether on the forecheck or to get pounce on a scoring chance, he’s just a half-step behind. Ryan Hamilton is very much the same except it’s maybe a full step behind.
I’m not sure yet why either passes the eye test for some people. I know Drew Remenda has once or twice proclaimed their line the best line of the night for reasons that I’ve never been able to understand, so I am unable to make a case for them there.
By number it starts to be painfully obvious there’s a problem. Ryan Hamilton occupies the spot that Luke Gazdic did last year, awaiting to be crowned the “Worst Possession Forward On The Team”. He is currently rocking a 37.9 Corsi For percentage and relative to his own teammates that’s a jaw-dropping -10.3%. He is an absolute liability out there. Matt Fraser is better at 45.7% but he again is still a -5.1% relative to his teammates.
When they are on the ice, bad things are happening.
Where Fraser at least is able to contribute so far is in shot generation. Even though his line isn’t very good, he personally takes 7.03 shots per 60 minutes which places him in the upper 3rd of the team. In points per 60 he is also in the middle of the pack. Ryan Hamilton, on the other hand, rates near the bottom in both categories. He just isn’t adding anything. He’s just a guy.
Plainly speaking, Luke Gazdic is tougher, skates better, and is better defensively than both of the guys who played ahead of him last night. He even makes more plays and takes more shots than at least one of those two guys. So if the Oilers are at all interested in icing the best possible lineup right now then Luke Gazdic should be a part of it.