The Case for Another Defenseman

I've been practicing cart-before-the-horse style thinking at this blog lately. My "UFA Option" pieces are posted with the assumption that the Oilers have two or three significant areas of need, which I would categorize like this:

1) Veteran defenseman
2) Top-six forward
3) Checking line centre

with the 3rd point dependent on Jarret Stoll being dealt.

However, I've never stated explicitly why I feel the Oilers need to address those areas, so today I thought I would show statistically where our current blue-line group falls short.

Here is the current depth chart, ranked by TOI/60 from last season:

Souray - 16:04 EV, 3:59 SH, 4:15 PP, 24:20 TOT
Pitkanen - 17:50 EV, 2:09 SH, 4:07 PP, 24:07 TOT
Gilbert - 17:24 EV, 2:31 SH, 2:15 PP, 22:11 TOT
Staios - 17:52 EV, 3:58 SH, 0:10 PP, 22:01 TOT
Smid - 15:08 EV, 2:24 SH, 0:18 PP, 17:51 TOT
Grebeshkov - 13:37 EV, 1:09 SH, 2:05 PP, 16:52 TOT
Greene - 13:50 EV, 2:46 SH, 0:05 PP, 16:41 TOT
Roy - 10:17 EV, 0:04 SH, 0:01 PP, 10:23 TOT

Rookies who could also be in the mix include Theo Peckham, Taylor Chorney, Josef Hrabal, and Bryan Young.

The first thing that jumps out at me on that ice-time breakdown is how little Grebeshkov played. Towards the end of the season his role increased, but unfortunately, I'm not sure where to find statistical breakdowns by half-season.

Previously I've analyzed the Oilers power-play and penalty-killing for 2007-08. For the purpose of the power-play, I've included Jarret Stoll as a defenseman. On the powerplay, Souray and Stoll both had decent years from the point, while the next best options, Pitkanen and Gilbert, had good production but were victimized by shorthanded goals against, resulting in sub-par years for both. Short-handed, Souray, Staios, Gilbert, and Pitkanen (despite limited use) were extremely effective, while Smid, Greene and Grebeshkov were absolutely brutal.

My conclusion is that the Oilers could use another option on the PK, although presumably Greene and especially Smid should be improved with another season under their belts. Additionally, another PP quarterback might be nice, but it seems reasonable to me to give Gilbert and Pitkanen another try, and then use Grebeshkov (who had very interesting and somewhat conflicting numbers) if they don't succeed. So their is some value in an additional defenseman on special teams, even if I wouldn't go so far as to say it is a critical need.

Even-strength is where the Oilers really need the help. Here again are the incumbent defensemen, ranked by difficulty of competition, with results and TOI added. The TOI data comes from NHL.com, while the rest is courtesy of Behind the Net.

1. Staios - 17:52 TOI, 2.29 GFON/60, 3.20 GAON/60
1. Souray - 16:04 TOI, 1.66 GFON/60, 2.42 GAON/60
1. Gilbert - 17:24 TOI, 2.89 GFON/60, 2.98 GAON/60
4. Pitkanen - 17:50 TOI, 3.10 GFON/60, 3.10 GAON/60
5. Smid - 15:08 TOI, 1.91 GFON/60, 2.93 GAON/60
6. Grebeshkov - 13:37 TOI, 2.90 GFON/60, 2.64 GAON/60
7. Greene - 13:50 TOI, 1.73 GFON/60, 2.21 GAON/60
8. Roy - 10:17 TOI, 2.73 GFON/60, 2.73 GAON/60

There's quite a few things that I should note here before I go on. The first three (Staios, Souray, Gilbert) played roughly equal competition, then there were slight dropoffs between each of Pitkanen, Smid, and Grebeshkov. There was a big drop-off in terms of quality of competition down to Greene, and another down to Roy. Gilbert, Pitkanen, Grebeshkov and Greene generally had the advantage of capable teammates, while Staios, Souray and Smid in general played with lesser performers.

We can basically break these players into three groups: those who performed effectively, those who got lit up, and those who provided good defense at the cost of minimal offense.

Effective: Gilbert, Pitkanen, Grebeshkov
Ineffective: Staios, Smid
Defense only: Souray, Greene

I don't include Roy because he played against nobodies with decent teammates and still finished just even. He clearly isn't better than a reserve defenseman at this point.

A look at Staios makes my point well; he's doing a thankless job against tough opposition, and he needs a break. At his age, it's unreasonable to expect improvement next season, and he simply can't handle playing against the other team's top guns while being saddled with inferior linemates. His responsibilities need to be reduced.

Souray isn't getting lit up to the extent that Staios is, but the team simply isn't generating much offense when he's on the ice at even strength. He could probably be very effective against middling opposition, but the Oilers can't afford to shield him like that.

Pitkanen and Gilbert (especially Pitkanen) should be better next season. They're both young and Pitkanen is coming off the worst season of his career. Denis Grebeshkov can handle more responsibility, and certainly MacTavish seemed to give it to him as the year wore on (and Grebeshkov's play improved).

Smid's performance was at about the same level as that of Staios, but unlike Staios, Smid is 22 and should certainly improve. He was also playing tough opponents, and he would look much better against easier opposition. Greene, on the other hand, has similar statistics to Souray, but unlike Souray played inferior competition. He can't play the powerplay and was awful on the penalty kill. He must be shielded and at this point is a major liability on the backend.

Thus, with the group as is, I would imagine that Gilbert/Pitkanen see tough opponents, Souray/Staios the next level, Grebeshkov/Smid the third tier, and Matt Greene only plays when Eric Godard is on for the other team. With this lineup, I'd say it's a decent bet that the Oilers break even at 5-on-5- and that isn't good enough. The Oilers need to be in a position to outscore their opponents, and this becomes more apparent when we discuss other factors. Souray has been injury-prone his entire career, Pitkanen missed more games with day-to-day ailments than any other player in recent memory, Gilbert looked exposed as the season wore on, and Staios isn't getting any younger.

What I would like to see is one top-flight shut-down defenseman (like, say, Norstrom) to pair with one of the finesse guys (Pitkanen/Gilbert) against tough opposition. Staios would take the other and play against mid-level opponents. Finally, Souray would play with one of Grebeshkov/Smid (preferably Grebeshkov) on the third pairing, and Smid would be the seventh defenseman. Matt Greene would be dealt; he's now 25 years old and could certainly emerge as a shut-down guy, but right now, he's a liability. Grebeshkov could be dealt too; he only signed a one year deal and seems like a guy that could be difficult to get signed to a long-term contract. Smid, of course, is another option for trade, but he's three years younger than Greene and is ahead of him right now, so I'd like to keep him personally.

The other option that signing a veteran gives the Oilers is to trade Pitkanen. I don't like the idea, but there seems to be ample circumstantial evidence of some character issues, and getting him signed to a contract could be difficult. If Pitkanen is dealt, the need for another defenseman jumps from important to red-alert, hull-breach critical.

If next season were a rebuilding year, I'd be a fan of rolling out the current group, but if the playoffs are the goal, an upgrade is a must.

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