Would Sami Vatanen actually be a good fit in Edmonton?

By now Sami Vatanen should be a familiar name for fans of
the Edmonton Oilers. He belongs to a select group: quality right-shooting
defencemen who might plausibly be available in trade. Along with Travis
Hamonic, Kevin Shattenkirk and one or two others, Vatanen is frequently
mentioned as a possible solution to Edmonton’s woes at the position.

Is he actually a good fit?

General
Considerations

We should probably start with the most general
considerations, items like position, age and contract.

As we’ve mentioned, Vatanen is a good fit for positional
need in that he’s a right-shooting defenceman, something the Edmonton Oilers
lack. He turns 25 this summer, making him a good fit age-wise; he’s just
entered the prime of his career and we can reasonably project a half-decade
forward without expecting a serious decline in performance.

He is a pending restricted free agent coming off a two-year,
$1.26 million contract
. We don’t know how much of a raise he’s going to
get, but it’s likely to be fairly big and the problem for the Ducks is that
they also have the excellent Hampus Lindholm reaching the end of his deal this
summer.

Vatanen is just 5’10” and 183 pounds, but that shouldn’t be
a real concern to the Oilers, who actually have a very big defence corps,
particularly on the left side.

Bottom line:
Vatanen is the right age, he plays the right position, and if Edmonton trades for
him it will have the chance to lock him up for the long haul.

Role

What minutes does Vatanen play? Who does he generally play
with, and what kind of matchups does the coach use him in?

Our first trip should be to
NHL.com
, where we find something that might surprise readers who aren’t
overly familiar with Vatanen: He is an all-situations defenceman. As expected,
he plays a lot on the power play, averaging just under 3:00 per game for the
Ducks. But he also leads all Anaheim defencemen in average time on the penalty
kill. His overall ice-time is a modest 21:28 per game, as he plays more of a
No. 4/5 role at even-strength.

As we might expect from a player with that description, Vatanen
plays a
bit with everyone
. His most common partner this year has been big defensive
defender Clayton Stoner, but that partnership accounts for less than half his
five-on-five ice-time. He’s played a lot with Kevin Bieksa and Simon Despres,
but seven different Anaheim defenceman have played at least 40 minutes with
him. This is a continuation of last year’s pattern for the Ducks.

At even-strength, he’s mostly played second-pairing opposition
(with Lindholm in the shutdown role); he ranks fourth
or fifth
on the team by all of Behind the Net’s Quality of Competition
metrics this year. He does generally start more shifts in the offensive zone
than the defensive end, but hasn’t been given a serious push by the coaches
there; he’s clearly trusted in all three zones.

It’s probably useful to illustrate by showing how  he was used in Anaheim’s three games against
Edmonton this year:

  •  Nov.
    11 (in Anaheim)
    : Vatanen and Stoner were matched mostly against the Anton
    Lander line (he was playing with Jordan Eberle and Teddy Purcell). They also
    saw a bit of Edmonton’s top line (Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Leon Draisaitl and
    Taylor Hall) and odd shifts against the third and fourth lines.
  • Dec.
    31 (in Edmonton)
    : Vatanen and Bieksa saw a lot of Draiasitl (8:42) and
    Nugent-Hopkins (7:08). They got four minutes against Mark Letestu and a couple
    of shifts against the fourth line.
  • Feb.
    16 (in Edmonton)
    : Vatanen and Despres saw a relatively even rotation of
    Edmonton’s top three lines, playing 5:40 against Letestu, 5:28 against Draisaitl
    and 4:22 against Connor McDavid.

Bottom line: Vatanen
plays heavily on both special teams, and a second-pair role at even-strength.
He doesn’t get the toughest assignments but he’s not a sheltered offensive
defenceman, either.

Performance

Finally, the most important question: How well did he do?

We’ll start with the power play, where Edmonton clearly
needs help. About
100 defencemen
have played at least 200 minutes at 5-on-4 over the last
three seasons; that’s acceptable as a list of regulars given that most teams
these days don’t have more than three power play defencemen. Vatanen ranks No.
13 on that list with 4.53 points/hour, slightly ahead of Erik Karlsson and
slightly behind Keith Yandle. He’s very good.

The penalty kill is a little harder to gauge. My preferred
metric is unblocked shots against/hour. Vatanen’s numbers this year are very
good
relative to his teammates. a year ago they were about average and he
didn’t play enough in 2013-14 to get a good read. By the numbers we have, the
coaches’ decision to use him on the penalty kill looks intelligent; the Ducks certainly
don’t suffer when he’s out there.

Finally, we arrive at even-strength work.

Offensively, there’s little question of Vatanen’s utility.
He’s one
of just 16 defencemen
over the last three years to average better than 1.0
points/hour at five-on-five; he’s just shy of players like Roman Josi and P.K.
Subban as a point producer and ahead of Mike Green and Kris Letang. That’s a
good place to be.

His two-way work is a little more debatable.

He’s having a bit of an off-year in that regard; his Fenwick
number currently ranks
him fifth
of eight regular Anaheim defenders, which isn’t great given what
we know about his role. He has performed better in previous years, ranking
first in that category in both 2013-14 and 2014-15, which is more in keeping
with what we’d expect from a good defencemen in his circumstances.

There’s room for interpretation in those numbers, but when I
scroll through how his regular partners have performed with
or without him
and then compensate for the circumstances of their
deployment, I see a defenceman who is a strong second-pair option. He’s not
going to lift a defensive tandem on his shoulders and carry it alone, but he’s
pretty trustworthy.

My assessment: Vatanen
is a second-pairing even-strength defenceman, albeit one uniquely capable of putting
points on the board. He’s a top power play option and has been surprisingly
capable as a top penalty killer, too.

TL;DR

Vatanen would obviously be a big addition for the Oilers. He
isn’t going to solve the team’s even-strength struggles singlehandedly, though
he’s a useful piece and his ability to create offence is uniquely valuable; he’s
probably best-suited to playing on the second pair at five-on-five. He will be
a big help on the power play, which needs someone like him desperately, and he’s
also a good option for the penalty kill.

He’s projectable, too. He’s young enough to grow with the
team and the Ducks or whoever acquires him will be able to get cost certainty
by signing him long-term this summer.

He’d be a very nice fit in Edmonton, but not a silver bullet
as the Oilers would still need to find an even-strength workhorse for the right
side. 

RECENTLY BY JONATHAN WILLIS