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The $10 MM checking line

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Ten games ago Pat Quinn rearranged his line combinations, breaking up long-standing trios of Shawn Horcoff with Patrick O'Sullivan and mostly Jean-François Jacques, and Ethan Moreau with Andrew Cogliano and mostly Zack Stortini. He united Moreau and Horcoff with fellow veteran Fernando Pisani of no fixed line, and tasked them with the assignment of hard-matching against the opponents' top trio. The three have lots in common:

  • all are vets of the 2006 Stanley Cup run with a history/reputation for playing tough minutes; 
  • all are members of the core leadership group -- Moreau wears the "C", Horcoff and Pisani both an "A";
  • all are somewhat to very expensive, collectively accounting for a cap hit of $10 MM (Horcoff $5.5 MM, Pisani $2.5, Moreau $2.0)

Ten million bucks seems like a lot for a checking line; surely by putting all his veteran eggs in one basket Quinn could rely on a stabilizing defensive posture. The trio had a promising start when they hard-matched against Vancouver's red-hot Sedin-Sedin-Burrows trio on January 20, holding them off the scoresheet at even strength. Unfortunately, Vancouver's powerplay was clicking on all cylinders, scoring three goals with the man advantage, including the game-winner in overtime. The end result was yet another Oilers loss, but the performance of the new MPH line was considered a qualified success.

So, ten games later, how has that experiment been going anyway? The short answer is, not well. But this is me, so you're going to get the long answer anyway.

The MPH Line has actually played together in 8 of the last 10 games, with Pisani drawing the short straw during the brief 2-game winning streak last week. Since the Vancouver game, each time all three played they have collectively posted a net minus, and the Oilers have lost in regulation each and every time. Here's a summary of those games including the line they were assigned to shadow (in order of most minutes as faced by Horcoff, courtesy timeonice.com), the net +/- of the three Oilers combined, and the game's outcome.

OPP FWD FWD FWD +/- Score Remarks
VAN Sedin Sedin Burrows EV 2-3 OT
DAL BRichards Neal Eriksson -2 3-4
CHI Toews Brouwer PKane -1 2-4
STL Boyes Tkachuk McDonald -3 1-2
CAL Nystrom Lundmark OJokinen -4 1-6
CAR EStaal Whitney JJokinen EV 4-2 Pisani PB
PHI MRichards Hartnell Gagne EV 1-0 Pisani PB
MIN MKoivu Miettinen Brunette -3 2-4
COL Galiardi Duchene Wolski -2 0-3
PHX Lombardi Lang Doan -10 1-6
 

Other than the Calgary game which was a lost cause early with Quinn just rolling the lines, the trio did indeed draw the toughest assignments. Unfortunately, they have consistently failed to neutralize their opponents, and their young teammates have been unable to overcome the deficit, resulting in a string of losses.

An extreme case in point occurred Monday night in Phoenix, when the MPH Line lined up against Phoenix's top trio of Shane Doan ($4.55 MM)  Matthew Lombardi ($1.82 MM), and Robert Lang ($1.0 MM). A $10 MM checking line against a $7.4 MM scoring line, should be a saw-off, eh? Not so fast! Despite Doan's early departure from the game, the Phoenix threesome combined for 10 points and +13, while the Oiler vets were saddled with a collective -10. It certainly didn't help that they couldn't get a save behind them, but it was ugly nonetheless.

The MPH Line has contributed next to no offence, combining for a single goal against Chicago (while down 4-0), with Moreau an innocent bystander on another goal scored during a line change. He therefore has the best on-ice Sh% over the 10 games, a measly 3.3%; the other two are even worse. (The team as a whole is not much better, with an EV Sh% of just 4.4% over the ten games.) All three suffer from poor on-ice Sv% as well, ranging from .861 to .878; the team's rate during this spell is .902. But underlying those bad numbers are poor shots and Corsi numbers as well; Oilers have been outshot 61-82 with Horcoff on the ice at evens; 60-79 with Moreau; 42-65 with Pisani. Using Dennis's scoring chance metric (9 games, MIN missing), those ratios are even more bleak, at 33-56, 30-59, and 23-42 respectively. These guys are getting killed out there, and only so much of the blame can be apportioned to the young goalies or to bad luck.

Pisani's situation is particularly bleak. Saint Fernando has dressed for 19 games in 2009-10, and the Oilers have won just a single one of those games (1-15-3). He is currently riding a personal 15-game losing streak.

It's interesting to look at the performance of the team as a whole across the last 10 games. First of all, goals for and against sorted by +/- per 60, with forwards shown in blue, defencemen in red, and goalies in copper:

No. Player GP TOI GF GA 5v5 +/- +-/60
46 Stortini 7 53.8 5 1 4 4.5
48 Plante 4 54.1 2 1 1 1.1
78 Pouliot 10 105.7 4 3 1 0.6
5 Smid 2 30.0 0 0 0 0.0
22 Jacques 10 86.8 3 3 0 0.0
27 Penner 10 134.5 3 3 0 0.0
89 Gagner 9 115.1 2 3 -1 -0.5
77 Gilbert 10 175.0 5 9 -4 -1.4
13 Cogliano 10 127.0 2 5 -3 -1.4
41 Chorney 8 117.1 1 4 -3 -1.5
37 Grebeshkov 10 182.2 4 9 -5 -1.6
71 Visnovsky 10 178.3 2 7 -5 -1.7
38 Deslauriers 7 344.2 8 18 -10 -1.7
67 Brule 5 60.0 1 3 -2 -2.0
40 Dubnyk 3 142.7 2 7 -5 -2.1
44 Souray 5 85.4 3 6 -3 -2.1
19 O'Sullivan 9 114.0 2 7 -5 -2.6
91 Comrie 6 68.1 0 3 -3 -2.6
12 Nilsson 7 88.7 2 6 -4 -2.7
43 Strudwick 10 138.4 3 10 -7 -3.0
16 Potulny 9 108.2 2 8 -6 -3.3
10 Horcoff 10 143.9 1 10 -9 -3.8
34 Pisani 8 111.4 1 8 -7 -3.8
18 Moreau 10 142.6 2 11 -9 -3.8
24 Staios 1 13.9 0 4 -4 -17.3
** Team 10 486.9 10 25 -15 -1.8
 

Note how the club's veterans populate the bottom half of the list, with the MPH Line the worst of the forwards, while the four worst defencemen were the four over-30s. Staios has a tiny sample size of just one game, but he sure got lit up in Glendale.

Next is a list of even-strength scoring over that same stretch of games, in order of actual points scored:

No. Player GP TOI G A P P/60
78 Pouliot 10 105.7 2 2 4 2.3
27 Penner 10 134.5 2 1 3 1.3
22 Jacques 10 86.8 1 2 3 2.1
46 Stortini 7 53.8 0 3 3 3.3
89 Gagner 9 115.1 1 1 2 1.0
12 Nilsson 7 88.7 0 2 2 1.4
19 O'Sullivan 9 114.0 0 2 2 1.1
67 Brule 5 60.0 1 0 1 1.0
44 Souray 5 85.4 1 0 1 0.7
16 Potulny 9 108.2 1 0 1 0.6
34 Pisani 8 111.4 1 0 1 0.5
48 Plante 4 54.1 0 1 1 1.1
13 Cogliano 10 127.0 0 1 1 0.5
18 Moreau 10 142.6 0 1 1 0.4
10 Horcoff 10 143.9 0 1 1 0.4
77 Gilbert 10 175.0 0 1 1 0.3
91 Comrie 6 68.1 0 0 0 0.0
24 Staios 1 13.9 0 0 0 0.0
5 Smid 2 30.0 0 0 0 0.0
37 Grebeshkov 10 182.2 0 0 0 0.0
38 Deslauriers 7 344.2 0 0 0 0.0
40 Dubnyk 3 142.7 0 0 0 0.0
41 Chorney 8 117.1 0 0 0 0.0
43 Strudwick 10 138.4 0 0 0 0.0
71 Visnovsky 10 178.3 0 0 0 0.0
** Team 10 486.9 10 18 28 3.5

The small amount of good news is concentrated near the top, where the Class of '03 Line (Pouliot-Jacques-Stortini) has surprisingly emerged as the Oilers' top even-strength scoring threat in recent games despite their limited ice time. The bad news is that none of the top 3 lines is being very productive, with the veterans up front and the entire blueline corps struggling badly offensively. The MPH line is again clustered at the bottom of the forwards, each having scored a single point on that same meaningless goal against Chicago. Not just they but all of the Oilers' veteran corps have been letting down the side during this recent stretch of futility. Even Lubo Visnovsky, the one veteran Oiler who had been playing fairly well early in the season, has fallen on hard times of late.

I'm left with the distinct impression that all of the vets realize how truly hopeless this situation is. Unfortunately, their poor play is not going to make them attractive to other teams which might offer them a fresh opportunity at the trade deadline.