Kurtis Foster, Not As Advertised

Steve Tambellini wasn't the most active general manager in the NHL during the summer of 2010. Having fully committed to a complete rebuild, the annual July 1 hunt for the big name free agent was thankfully not a part of the Oilers off season plans for a change. In place of the blockbuster UFA signing Tambellini set about the task of adding veteran pieces to help fill what he believed to be the most glaring holes in his team's line-up: a fourth line centre, a couple veteran defensemen, power play help, and a fighter. I may not have felt that the Oilers required each of these things but Tambellini did and was therefore it was his job to track them down because that is what a good competent general manager does.

And this is how it came to be that Kurtis Foster signed on with the Oilers on July 1, 2010; his contract a two year deal worth $1.8M annually. His contract was a significant raise over the one year $600k deal he had signed with the Tampa Bay Lightning the year before. That deal was more a by-product of missing almost a full season with a broken leg than anything else and after posting a career high 42 points in 71 games, including 26 while on the power play, one could hardly argue that the raise was justified. Aside from the production on the score sheet Foster was also 28 years old and had been around the NHL long enough to provide at least somewhat of a veteran presence on a relatively young team.

The Foster signing addressed an obvious need and it wasn't a terrible overpayment either, it looked like a fairly decent pickup. But looks can be deceiving sometimes and this would be one of those times.

Going into the season I think we all knew that Foster was a lot more offense than defense. In essence he is a third pairing defenseman who sees a lot of power play time. This had been the case the year before in Tampa Bay where Foster led the defense corps in power play ice time with an average of 3:50; Andrej Meszaros' average of 2:04 was next on the list. Not surprisingly when it came to even strength ice time Foster ranked a lot further down on the list. When he was on the ice at even strength he was playing some of the easiest minutes of any of the Tampa blue liners based on the quality of competition data available from Behind the Net.

For less than $2M per season I, and obviously Tambellini as well, was willing to take on a player who would contribute on the power play but needed to be protected at even strength. It isn't an ideal situation but the trade-off isn't a terrible one either if it addresses needs without creating new needs. At the Cult of Hockey Bruce McCurdy showed how Foster was used in this season and it is very similar to how he was used with the Lightning and yet the results weren't quite what Oiler fans had hoped for.

Yesterday Derek showed that at even strength Foster struggled to generate scoring chances. Although Foster might have been worse at even strength than the Oilers and their fan had expected it is worth pointing out that the Oilers are not a very good hockey team and players on bad hockey teams tend to struggle. We expected the even strength problems but there were supposed to be points to take away the sting of those problems. Eight goals and 14 assists sure didn't do much to take away the sting. From one year to the next Foster's production was in essence halved from 42 points to 22; his power play production had a similar drop off from 26 points to 14.

So what was the difference? He was used in very similar situations. As Bruce noted his power play ice time was an identical 3:50 in each season. His even strength ice time increased just over a half a minute a game to 13:39, not an increase that should lead to him focusing more on his defensive game at the expense of good offensive numbers. He took slightly more shots per game this season as compared to last - 2.46 versus 2.32. In almost every way Foster's stats looked the same, or even better, year over year.

Where they don't is on the power play. For starters the Lightning had the eighth best power play in 2009/10 with a success rate of 19.3%; contrast that with the Oilers fourth worst power play this season and the corresponding 14.5% success rate. We had hoped for a guy who could help our anemic power play and maybe even function as a quarterback if need be, Foster certainly fell short of those expectations. As Bruce pointed out in his post on Foster:

Obviously the time wasn't of the same quality - no Martin St. Louis or Steven Stamkos here. Just as clearly, Foster wasn't the one driving the bus; in his absence the Lightning's power play improved from 8th to 6th in the NHL this season.

It goes without saying that if a player is part of a less productive power play then their power play stats will suffer as a result. Foster is no exception. His per game power play production dropped from a career high 0.37 in 2009/10 to 0.19 this season. His average over his other three full seasons saw him post a per game average of 0.24. As it turns out Foster's production with the man advantage this season was much closer to what should have been expected based on his career numbers than the year previous should have been.

It looks to me like Foster might not the power play specialist that was advertised. That doesn't give me confidence that he'll return to his Tampa Bay form next season.

Prediction: Foster is likely going to need an improved Oilers power play for his numbers to be much more than they were this season. If the rookies continue to improve this could happen, it just as easily could not. Foster might also get a couple extra lucky bounces next season as well. But even if everything falls just right he won't break 30 points. On the high end he'll score 10 goals to go along with 20 assists.

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