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Joni Pitkanen's Undeserved Reputation In Edmonton

Photo by Dave Sandford/Getty Images, All rights reserved
Photo by Dave Sandford/Getty Images, All rights reserved

Joni Pitkanen is a legendary Edmonton scapegoat.  Among mainstream fans, he's considered on the same level as Joffrey Lupul.  Pitkanen, like Dustin Penner prior to last season was the butt of Craig MacTavish's ire, and as MacTavish's frustration became more public, the fans latched on to the notion that Pitkanen was the cause of Edmonton's problems.  Pitkanen's personality didn't match that of his coach, and MacTavish felt like Pitkanen wasn't giving his all, and as Penner would later find out, harping on that difference of personalities wouldn't stop.  And like Dustin Penner a season later, the verbal lashings by the coach and the public condemnation by the fan base was completely undeserved.  And just like Penner, Pitkanen was actually one of the best players on the team.



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During the 2007-2008 season, Bruce and I were having a conversation about Pitkanen.  In it, I set forth that Pitkanen was the guy that made the Oilers go.  Bruce was skeptical, so I asked him to look at the Oilers with and without Joni.  Bruce obliged in a big way.  The following is taken from a post by Bruce in a game-day thread at Lowetide's joint, quoted in it's entirety:

During the back-and-forth about Joni Pitkanen in the (last) Colorado game day thread, Coach suggested that I check out the Oilers record inc. GF/GA with and without Pitkanen in the line-up. It was a good suggestion, and since he asked me so nicely, Vic, I decided to check it out.

Well the results are fairly telling and worth recounting, given that Pitkanen’s future is probably the biggest single question hanging over Kevin Lowe this off-season. Here’s the gross numbers for 2007-08:

Oilers overall record: 39-34-5, +225/-241, .532

With Joni in line-up: 32-23-4, +178/-175, .576
Joni out of the line-up: 7-11-1, +47/-66, .441

Well that’s a bit of an eye-opener isn’t it? And my compliments to Coach for a pretty astute observation (esp. for a 14-year-old, eh Coach? :o )

Well before I got too excited about those numbers, I decided to ditch the shootout noise in favour of the signal that is actual hockey. For one thing, Pitkanen has not been involved in a shootout all year – the one he might have, the marathon in Washington, was a game he left in the first period with (yet another) minor injury. So I reworked the information in the traditional format, considering overtime wins and losses as actual wins and losses, and all shootouts as ties. And I made the ersatz "goals" disappear.

Oilers record in actual hockey: 24-36-18, +210/-238, .423

With Joni dressed: 21-25-13, +167/-173, .471
Joni on the shelf: 3-11-5, +43/-65, .289

Well if anything that makes the picture more starkly clear, even though the record with Joni sinks below .500 and his goal-differential submerges from positive to negative, the performance of the team without him speaks volumes. This shows up well in per-game GF/GA:

With Joni: +2.83 / -2.93
Without: +2.26 / -3.42

Wow! that’s half a goal in each direction. Hard to argue with numbers like those.

But I’m an argumentative son of a bitch, and I will always argue that numbers need to be put in context. So perhaps that’s too simple. Pitkanen missed 13 games early in the season, when the Oilers (esp. Dwayne Roloson, who was playing himself out of the #1 job) were struggling with or without him. Since then it’s just been the odd game here and there, unfortunately critical games like Fight Night in Vancouver or the last visit to Colorado. But Pitkanen has been in the line-up for most of the Oilers’ post-All-Star run. Did the Oilers slump because Pitkanen was out? Or is Pitkanen’s record inflated because he happened to miss the slump?

Well there’s no perfect answer to that, but I decided to look specifically at the opening two months, when Oilers mostly struggled, and Pitkanen missed exactly half of those games. So:

With Joni: 4-7-2, +31/-37, .385
Without: 1-7-5, +27/-41, .269

So still a significant difference in Joni’s favour, although not quite the yawning gulf of the season-long study. Extending the principle to per-game goal scoring to that same group of 26 games:

Joni in: +2.38/ -2.85
Joni out: +2.08 / -3.15

So a smaller difference of "just" 0.3 on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ledger.

F**k, I think I am convinced.


And it's not just in the WOWY analysis that Pitkanen shined that season.  A look at the underlying stats at shows just how good Pitkanen was that season.

GP Corsi RCorsi RCorsi RK QC
EV +/-
+/- RK
2007 - Joni Pitkanen 63 -5.29 3.6 2/6 3/6 4/6 46.4% 4/6 49.0% 4/6 0.00 2/6

After Sheldon Souray's injury, Tom Gilbert and Steve Staios were playing the tough minutes and Pitkanen was playing the second-tough minutes.  He was moving the puck in the right direction comparably, and he was one of the few players on the team not getting drilled on the score sheet.

Joni Pitkanen's time in Edmonton was controversial, but as fans would later see most of that controversy was due to a coach in the death throes of his tenure in Edmonton.  He was pulling the last desperate triggers that he had left and in doing so, he turned a fan base against one of the few players on the team who was delivering results.