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I Don't Believe in the "Sophomore Slump"

I have some time this morning, and I thought it might be nice to have a look at the younger players entering their 2nd/3rd season, and trying to decide what a reasonable expectation for them would be next year. This is a very, very young team (did you realize Ales Hemsky will still only be 25 by next season? I mean, it feels like he's been around forever, but wow) and it seems like a good idea to get a handle on what the contributions from the youth should be next season. My eligible candidates look like this:

Kyle Brodziak - 24, entering 2nd NHL season
Andrew Cogliano - 21, entering 2nd NHL season
Sam Gagner - 19, entering 2nd NHL season
Robert Nilsson - 23, entering 3rd NHL season
Marc Pouliot - 23, entering 2nd NHL season
Zack Stortini - 23, entering 2nd NHL season

Tom Gilbert - 25, entering 2nd NHL season
Denis Grebeshkov - 25, entering 2nd NHL season
Ladislav Smid - 22, entering 3rd NHL season

A couple of notes about the list:
1) Age is listed based on how old the player will be in October 2008; i.e. when the season starts.
2) An "NHL season" is defined by me as a year when the player spent more time in the NHL than in other leagues, thus a player like Pouliot, who has 3 partial seasons, is only credited for one.
3) I excluded players I expect to be in the minors (Brule), players without one full season (Schremp), players who have yet to play for the Oilers (Potulny) and anyone over the age of 25 (Penner), so the list is hardly exhaustive. I wanted players that everyone should be able to have a definite, informed opinion on and with legitimate upside.

Kyle Brodziak is often defined as a grinder, a defense-first player, a player who will eventually fit into the 3rd line centre mold. He has size (6'2", 209lbs) and he seems like the kind of smart player who excels in a defensive role. I have my doubts; not about Brodziak as a player, but about that characterization of him. Brodziak last season ranked 11th of 16 Oilers regulars in difficulty of competition, and 10th in quality of teammates. His defensive numbers were not pretty; 3.44 GAON/60 stands out in particular. There is, however, a silver lining. Brodziak scored 2.09 PTS/60; that's an excellent number, tied with Daniel Sedin and just a hair behind Erik Cole last season. It's the number of an offensive forward. His 2.76 GFON/60 is also the number of an offensive forward; even allowing that these numbers have been majorly impacted by the Glencross arrival and subsequent offensive ascendancy over every other 4th line in the NHL, they hint at something other than the mundane labours of a checking line forward.

Consider too Brodziak's track record at other levels. Yes, he was named hardest worker and unsung hero in Moose Jaw, but he also twice scored 30+ goals and as an overager finished 3rd in the WHL with 93 points. In 2006-07, his final AHL season, Brodziak was just a hair under a point/game pace (he led a low-scoring team with 56 points in only 62 games); in other words, at the same level that offensive prospect Rob Schremp was at this past season.

What am I saying, exactly? Lowetide has frequently referred to Brodziak as the "new Rem Murray", while others have pegged him as an eventual replacement for Fernando Pisani. To me, his track record to date somewhat resembles that of another mid/late-round overage draft pick: Shawn Horcoff. That is, of course, a wildly optimistic forecast, and even if Brodziak never moves beyond the "3rd liner with hands" role he'll be a very useful player.

For next season, I'd predict similar, or even slightly worse PTS/60 as Brodziak faces more difficult opposition and transitions into a slightly less high-event player. His shooting percentage (11.2%) was on the high side, but Brodziak does have a good shot and a track record of goal scoring, so I don't anticipate a major drop in that. If he can ramp up his physical play (only credited with 40 hits last season) and trim his GAON/60, he could win the plum 3rd line job between Cole and Pisani (given PRendergast's latest interview, I've come around to Lowetide's projected lines to some degree).
Reasonable expectation: Marginal/non-existent offensive gains, better goal differential by way of a drastically reduced GAON/60 against improved competition.

Andrew Cogliano is a guy I have frequently pegged to take a step back offensively because of his ridiculously high shooting percentage last season. I stand by that, although I think he'll make gains in other areas of his game, and eventually emerge as a legitimate 25-goal scorer (for those thinking Cogliano's numbers are sustainable, given his natural talent, I refer you to another young, talented forward who took a big step back in his second season, not because of the "sophomore slump", but largely because of shooting percentage). In any case, I don't expect a drastic step back, just down to 10-15 goals from 18 as his quantity of shots increases. I rather expect his point totals to be pretty much in the same 40-45 point range next season as well.

No, much like Brodziak, I expect Cogliano's real gains to be on the defensive side of the puck. His 2.28 PTS/60 was just fine (better than that, actually) and 2.92 GFON/60 is a very nice rate. What he needs to do is play better against slightly stiffer competition (ranked 12th of 16 regular forwards) while playing with similar teammates (5th/16). I also expect a big drop in GAON/60 (2.99, ranked 11th/16), as he uses his speed more effectively and continues to adapt to the NHL game.

The other big thing I expect to see is a prime role on the penalty kill. Cogliano has all the natural tools to excel in this department, and looked great in a cameo last season. Reasonable expectation: Marginal/non-existent offensive gains, better goal differential by way of a reduced GAON/60 against improved competition, prominent role penaltky-killing.

Sam Gagner is a very, very special hockey player, something pretty much every Oilers fan realizes (even if he isn't ready for 1st line centre duty). Craig MacTavish put him in a position to succeed last season, when he faced the 9th most difficult icetime while playing with the best teammates, statistically. He was also fed a bunch of powerplay time. The results?

Gagner got torched. His 3.19 GAON/60 is bad in and of itself, while his GFON/60 (2.33) EV PTS/60 (1.96) and PP PTS/60 (3.88) rates were good but not great. His basic stats (13G-36A-49PTS) were really nice, but largely because of the massive amount and quality of icetime he recieved. It seems clear looking back that (despite complaints to the contrary) MacTavish made Gagner's development a top priority for the 2007-08 team. I honestly believe that if the Oilers had any real confidence in the London Knights as a develoment team (forgive them, they have good reason to be leery), Gagner would have been sent back to junior.

Now, if I seem critical of Gagner's performance here, I'm sorry. I really am not- the great, big caveat for everything above is that Gagner was an 18-year old rookie, and even surviving, let alone showing nice flashes of ability, is a huge testament to what he'll turn into. I expect we'll see a substantial leap forward next year, in all areas of his game. His offensive production will climb. His defensive numbers will improve. HFBoards will chant his name with zeal. Reasonable expectation: Improved numbers across the board offensively, 60+ points in terms of counting numbers, and modest improvements in the defensive end (say a GAON/60 below 3.0).

Robert Nilsson had a really, really good season. Much like Lupul, Smid and Penner, Nilsson entered the season with big expectations, given what had been sacrificed to acquire him. Unlike Lupul, he lived up, even exceeded them, especially as the season wore on. Nilsson ranked 10th/16 in QualComp, and 7th/16 in QualTeam, so much like the other "name" rookies we've examined, his development was prioritzied by MacTavish.

Unlike the other members of the Kid Line, Nilsson produced in a difference-making way; his contributions all season long helped the team to win actual hockey games, which is probably a product of his age and professional experience. He scored 2.37 PTS/60 (that's a Hemskyian clip, if you were wondering), and posted a 2.98 GFON/60. He was shockingly low-event on defense, where his 2.29 GAON/60 trailed only Stortini and Glencross amongst the forward group. As a weak-opposition killer, Nilsson is already good enough to contribute to a contending team. And, in harmony with the scouting reports we'd been hearing, he isn't afraid to play in traffic.

With Nilsson playing so well already, where do we go from here? Well, there are a couple of things that Nilsson could work on, foremost among them being his powerplay production. Nilsson played limited minutes, but his scoring clip (2.66 PTS/60) was actually worse 5-on-4 than 5-on-5. Reasonable expectation: Continued high-level play, but against tougher opponents. Big statistical improvements 5-on-4.

Marc Pouliot is another player who I feel has been miscast, a nice comparable for Brodziak because he's at the other end of the scale in almost every area. He was a priority rather than an afterthought in the 2003 draft. He was an offensive player with defensive abilities, not a defensive player with some offense.

Last season was a bad one for Pouliot, despite making the team out of camp. Dennis has made a bunch of comments about Pouliot that have caused me to reexamine my perceptions of the player; the biggest being that hs awful start to the season (9gp, 0 points, -7) has polluted his numbers on the year (he only played 24 total games, after all). Because of this, I've looked back at his 2005-06 statistics.

In 2005-06, he played with poor teammates agianst middling opposition, and was an extremely low-event player. 1.71 GFON/60. 1.96 GAON/60. He has the size (6'2", 200lbs) to be a durable checking-line forward, and he has shown flashes of having the ability to contain offensive threats. It's the role he needs to wrap his head around filling, at least in the short term- third line forward with offensive ability. The consolation is two-fold and non-trivial: a) regular NHL employment and b) knowledge that MacTavish doesn't mind giving defensive players offensive opportunities.

Pouliot has offensive skill. Right now, though, he's much better served by being a low-event, defense-first player. Reasonable expectation: A steady NHL job, at the 4th line to begin with, and filling in at third line when injuries strike. Decent offensive numbers, but the really telling statistic will be GAON/60, which should reflect a low-event player.

Zack Stortini, whose father's name must be Bruce, is a consistently underrated player (except, of course, by Bruce, who is to Stortini what BBO of HFBoards is to Schremp). Bruce convinced me to jump on the Stortini bandwagon midway through the season, and I haven't jumped off yet, despite his agent's apparent inability to look at Curtis Glencross and think. I really think that there's a case to be made that "Huggy Bear" is a more effective enforcer (not fighter!) than a guy like Laraque because he fights everybody, even guys who aren't card-carrying members of the NHL Heavyweights Club.

Stortini played butter-soft minutes last year with nobodies in a true 4th-line enforcer's matchup; his Desjardins numbers look good though. 1.24 PTS/60 and 2.38 GFON/60 are very reasonable rates for a fighter, while the nicest number is his GAON/60, at a Pahlssonesque 2.04. If he can be a low-event, 4th-line forward for now, he may even someday evolve into a low-event 3rd-line forward, a breed of player that while consistently underrated by fans can really help a team win.

Reasonable expectation: Some growth in fighting ability. Aside from Celine Dion Phaneuf, Stortini doesn't really intimidate, and the occasional decision in his favour might help that out. Aside from that, if Stortini can remain low-event against slightly better opponents, it will have been a successful season for him.

Turning to the back-end, Tom Gilbert is really a key player for this team to make a step forward. Gord Miller of TSN raved about Gilbert's play every time I watched him talk about the Oilers, and it was absolutely proper for him to do so. Gilbert played the toughest opposition among Oilers defensemen (tied with Staios and Souray), while playing with decent teammates (3rd/7 regular defenders). His GFON/60 was great (2.89) while his GAON/60 was respectable given the opponents he faced (2.98).

This must continue. Like many college players, Gilbert looked winded in the second-half, and while it might also have been a function of increased responsibilities, he was gaffe-prone and it must not happen this year. The Oilers seem likely to take a defense-by-committee approach again this season, and Gilbert is, in my opinion, the best option against opponent's top lines coming out of the gate.

Gilbert is not yet a complete defenseman, but he's getting there. He is already a bonafide offensive option, leading the Oilers defense corps in both EV PTS/60 (0.98) and PP PTS/60 (3.01). I rather expect his counting stats to drop off a bit, given that both Souray and Visnovsky are likely preffered options on the powerplay's right point. Reasonable expectation: Break even against high-end opponents at even strength. Increased role on the penalty-kill, given his excellent performance in a limited viewing this season and his likely reduction in powerplay time.

Denis Grebeshkov is another young defenseman who is going to be counted on in a key role this season. He is, to date, the best option on left defense (Grebeshkov, Souray, Smid) against tough opposition, and his familiarity with Gilbert should also propel him into that role.

Grebeshkov (behind Matt Greene, naturally) was one of a few players put into a position to succeed by Craig MacTavish. He played the 6th toughest minutes (although it's worth noting that the gab between 6th and 1st is smaller than that between 6th and 7th) among Oilers defensemen with the best teammates, but to be fair, he performed well.

He is a puck-moving defenseman who posted good offensive numbers at even strength (0.84 PTS/60, 2.90 GFON/60), and surprisingly poor numbers 5-on-4 (1.26 PTS/60). He was christened Marc-Andre Grebeshkov early in the year by a commenter over at Lowetide's site (I forget who, sorry), and he seemed like a real chaos defender early on, something his statistics bear out (2.64 GAON/60), but that tendency diminished as the season wore on. Reasonable expectation: Some degree of proximity to the break even point in goal differential against quality opponents. An increased role and nicer numbers on the powerplay.

Ladislav Smid is a somewhat controversial prospect in the Oilersphere, with various groups having no degree of consensus on what he is. A few seem to feel he isn't much of a prospect, others peg him for a less than glamorous defensive role, while a few still feel he has untapped offensive potential. I've compared him to Jaroslav Spacek in the past, and was rebuked by Dennis, who said, "Spacek actually has a shot - Smid doesn't:)".

I've come around to that point of view. Smid is not an offensive defenseman; his career high in goals at any level is 3, while his career high in points (and the only time he ever exceeded 10) is 28, achieved in 2005-06 with the Portland Pirates of the AHL. His offensive numbers (0.25 PTS/60, 1.91 GFON/60) are so strong as to be definitive.

His defensive numbers weren't terribly nice to look at this year- 2.93 GAON/60 is a rather ugly mark for a defensive defenseman. His penalty-killing numbers were OK, however, and we know that he was playing relatively tough opponents as well. Finally, given his age and the steeper development curve for rearguards, I think there's lots of hope that Smid can turn into a player somewhat resembling Rostislav Klesla; tough (he led the Oilers defense in hits last season) and low-event against top opponents. Reasonable expectation: A reduced GAON/60 against tougher opponents, and a bigger role on the penalty kill. A modest improvement in his offensive production rate, especially since it can't get much worse than it was this past season.

Finally, since I referenced it in my title, I think the "sophomore slump" is a simplistic explanation of complex phenomena only really referenced by the uninformed or the lazy/hurried (which is why you hear even good colour commentators mention it). It is mythology, akin to Thor, Zeus and efficient bureaucracy. The real explanation is that the numbers the vast majority of hockey fans use to judge players (i.e. counting stats) are influenced by a wide variety of factors (ice-time, quality of opposition and teammates, luck) and that a sophomore player is often placed in a different role with increased responsibilities and a decreased cushion. The ability of the player generally doesn't go into the toilet, and the underlying numbers can make it obvious why he took a step backward superficially. The problem is that the majority of fans never go beyond the superficial numbers, or bother to look at the situation where a player gets playing time. It's all a matter of perspective.