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Defensive Depth: An "Embarrassment of Riches" or Overrated?

Oilers' GM Steve Tambellini was recently interviewed by 630 CHED's Dan Tencer, and the following clip caught my notice:

Steve Tambellini: "...That's the strength of our hockey club, and we're weighted to that side right now. I know Pat and Tom and Kelly right now are excited to see these guys healthy and on the ice and see what they look like under this system. You can argue with some areas of our hockey club, but the depth of our D right now with Strudwick and Peckham filling in on the bottom end, and Chorney coming and some of these other kids that are coming - there's good depth there.

Dan Tencer: "I would say it's an embarrasment of riches actually. You've got guys like Theo Peckham and Taylor Chorney who probably are 6 or 7 guys right now - certainly Theo Peckham is a number 7 guy, or capable of being a number 7 guy. You throw Strudwick in, we haven't even talked about Staios... there are 8 or 9 guys who could potentially play NHL games with a lot of teams and not look out of place.

Both, I think, are overrating the Oilers' depth defenders.

I should clarify when I say that, though: I think the Oilers top-four are a definite strength of this hockey club, but after that things are far less clear. Here's how I see the depth chart right now:
  1. Lubomir Visnovsky
  2. Sheldon Souray
  3. Tom Gilbert
  4. Denis Grebeshkov
  5. Ladislav Smid
  6. Steve Staios
  7. Jason Strudwick
  8. Theo Peckham
  9. Taylor Chorney

Let's have a look at the bottom five players on that list.

Ladislav Smid

A lot depends on how an individual views Ladislav Smid. Many fans view him as top-four ready right now, but I think a view closer to reality is that, as he is, he's a bottom-pairing defenseman. According to Behind the Net, Smid played the sixth-best opposition with the sixth-best linemates among Oilers defensemen. Unlike the top four guys (who ranged between +5.8 and -3.5 in Corsi/60) , Smid was getting buried (-13.4 Corsi/60). His -5 rating was earned. Now, he's also a young guy who brings size and a physical dimension, plus he's getting into those years where he makes a difference, but as it stands he's a third-pairing guy until he shows otherwise.

Ranking: Third-pairing defenseman.

Steve Staios

I don't think Staios has a snowball's chance in hell of covering his cap hit, but I think that's probably covered my perception of his performance. I'm not even sure he shouldn't be above Smid on the depth chart. gives us an idea of his performance with different defense partners that I think is illuminating (I've multiplied the numbers by 3 to get a per/60 ratio):

  • 510:27 with Souray: 2.59 GFON/60 - 1.88 GAON/60 = +0.71 +/- per 60
  • 407:18 with Smid: 1.77 GFON/60 - 2.36 GAON/60 = -0.59 +/- per 60
  • 278:48 with Strudwick: 1.08 GFON/60 - 2.80 GAON/60 = -1.72 +/- per 60

I think that's a revealing chart. The Staios/Strudwick pairing was an absolute disaster; one of the enduring mysteries about last season was the sheer volume of positive press that Strudwick got from people connected to the team. To my eye he wasn't overly effective, and the numbers are vicious. Staios/Smid weren't great, but they weren't bad either. And before everybody jumps aboard the Staios/Souray bandwagon, the only reason their numbers are so good is because of an incredible .945 on-ice save percentage when together; their Corsi number was a less than spectacular -72.

Ranking: Third-pairing defenseman.

Jason Strudwick

I suppose I tipped my hand above when I talked about the mystery of the Oilers' love for Jason Strudwick. He lucked out with a nice on-ice save percentage, but he bled shots against all year and made every defensive tandem he was on worse. I thought he was better in his brief cameo as a left wing. His Corsi/60 number (-14.8) was the worst among Oilers' regulars, and he lucked out to some extent with solid on-ice save percentage (.932) and shooting percentage (8.4%) numbers.

He faced soft competition and still struggled to hold his own. I don't mind him as the seldom-used depth defenseman, but I think it's a stretch to say that he's ready for a top-six role. His size and physical willingness are plusses, and they may be enough to get him into the lineup under Pat Quinn.

Ranking: Reserve defenseman.

Theo Peckham

I'm bullish on Peckham's potential, and he was one of the few bright spots on last year's miserable Springfield Falcons. He played far and away the toughest competition, added some offense (19 points in 47 games) and didn't get killed in goals against (a very respectable -7). He's a willing shot-blocker, uses his size, and has no compunction about fighting. That said, I do think he could use another year in the minors. His Corsi/60 rating was atrocious (-21.2) in fifteen NHL games and he struggled a bit with NHL speed.

All of that said, he's a fine option at #8 and not one of the weak links on the depth chart.

Ranking: #7/#8 defenseman.

Taylor Chorney

Taylor Chorney is a prospect whose numbers are way out of line to the scouting reports. He didn't play top opposition, contributed less offense than Peckham (.309 points per game vs. .404 points per game in the AHL), and on top of all that led the Falcons with a -29 rating. The next worst defenseman was Chorney's frequent partner Mathieu Roy, at -20. He's undersized, and was unimpressive in a brief NHL cameo to end the season.

Speaking of that brief NHL cameo, the numbers are probably meaningless but still fun to look at: -67.6 Corsi/60 and 9.66 GAON/60. Chorney isn't a top-pairing defenseman in the AHL, and the dropoff between Peckham and Chorney is incredible.

Ranking: AHL'er.

Final Analysis

This isn't a bad group - guys are slotted in where they belong, for the most part (with spare parts Strudwick and Chorney being the sole players above where they should be) and that's a situation both welcome and surprising given this team's tendencies. However, trading a defenseman without replacing him will seriously test this group's depth - particularly when injuries hit.