Anniversaries VIII: 50 in 39

It was a magic time. If you didn't live through it, it's hard to comprehend what a record-breaking machine Wayne Gretzky was. He didn't just break records, he destroyed them with a flair for the dramatic. Examples:

-- Gretzky scored his first 1000 points in just 424 games. The second fastest to the mark, Guy Lafleur, needed 720 games. The night Gretzky hit the 1000 mark, he piled in 5 more points as a down payment on the next 1000.

-- On April 9, 1987, Gretzky started the night tied with Jean Beliveau for the most points in the Stanley Cup playoffs, 176. By night's end Gretzky had tied another playoff record, his own mark of 7 points in a playoff game, and was 7 points clear of Beliveau. Oilers beat the Kings 13-3, setting a couple of still-extant team records en route to their first victory in what became their third Stanley Cup.

-- On February 24, 1982, Gretzky broke Phil Esposito's record for goals in a season by scoring his 77th, 78th, and 79th goals in the last seven minutes of the third period. His natural hat trick blew open a 3-3 tie into a 6-3 Oiler celebration, and capped a streak of four consecutive five-point nights for the Great One as he relentlessly overcame Esposito's awesome record with six weeks to spare.

Of all the records, the most spectacular run had to be earlier in that 1981-82 season when Gretzky challenged and ultimately demolished the most fabled record in hockey, Rocket Richard's 50 goals in 50 games. The previous season the great Mike Bossy had equalled Richard's mark which had stood unchallenged for 35 seasons.

It was clear in the fall of '81 that Gretzky had the mark in his sights. After a run of 7 goals in 7 periods in late November, including his second four-goal game of the season, Gretzky reached 31 goals early in Game 26. For the rest of that game and the next four Gretzky slumped, scoring nary a goal -- albeit with 13 (!!) assists -- to fall to just 1 goal ahead of the goal-a-game pace. In the next four games he remained there, scoring exactly one goal in each and reaching 35 goals in 34 games as the Oilers began a five game Crhistmas home stand. It looked like it would be nip and tuck for several more weeks, maybe until Games 49 and 50 in late January.

I was already a big believer in the Great One, predicting to my season ticket mates on opening night that he would score 200 points that season in what developed into an audacious, hellacious bet. Supremely confident as I was in the young man's magic, that prediction ultimately turned out to be conservative (I guessed "only" 80-120-200, whereas he really went 92-120-212 in yet another demolition job not just of records but of all reason). Even I, staunch predictor of a goal-a-game for the season, could never have guessed the dramatics that would be packed into that five-game stand.

What did happen is emblazoned in my memory as one of the most incredible sustained displays of individual domination that I've ever seen. By the time the home stand was over, the Great One had lit the lamp an incredible 15 times, adding a not-inconsequential 10 assists for 25 points. I could cite you his game-by-game numbers chapter and verse, but you can see for yourself courtesy the Hockey Summary Project, linked below:

December 19 - Oilers 9, North Stars 6:
December 20 - Flames 7, Oilers 5:
December 23 - Oilers 6, Canucks 1:
December 27 - Oilers 10, Kings 3:

By December 30, 27 years ago today, Gretz stood at 45 in 38 and it was clear the record was going to fall. As my mates and I made the 7-minute walk from our (still free!) parking spot to the Coliseum, we discussed the upcoming sked and guessed how many more games it would take. Tonight's opponent was no Campbell Conference softie but the perennial powerhouse Philadelphia Flyers. Yet suddenly I blurted out, "You know, it's not impossible, he only needs five" ...

Did I mention this was a magic time? Like George Orr in "The Lathe of Heaven", one merely needed to imagine the dream for it to come true. Every draft prospect seemingly developed into a Hall of Famer, the owner promised and delivered a Stanley Cup within 5 years, and Wayne Gretzky wrote scripts that would have been too silly for Hollywood but which boggled the mind in reality.

And so it was on December 30, 1981, a date that will forever be locked in hockey lore:
December 30 - Oilers 7, Flyers 5:

Gretzky scored twice in the first period, then beat Pete Peeters once more in each of the second and third taking him to 49, before notching his 50th on a dramatic empty netter with just 3 seconds remaining to clinch an incredible 7-5 Oilers victory. His 50th was set up by Grant Fuhr and Glenn Anderson and scored past a diving Bill Barber, Hockey Hall of Famers all, but at that moment, the 20-year-old Gretzky was a colossus who stood alone astride his sport like few -- Babe Ruth, Pele, Michael Jordan, Lance Armstrong, Tiger Woods -- ever have.

Today I had the privilege of watching that entire game for the first time since I attended the actual game. It's disc #1 in the new DVD set of the Oilers' 10 greatest games that showed up under the tree the other day. To see Gretzky's performance in the context of the entire game is much more compelling than just a highlight-reel goal, goal, goal, goal, empty net goal. It is essential viewing for those who didn't live through it but who want to get a sense of what made Gretzky so sensationally special at such a tender age.

In this game, not unlike many others of that magic time, he generated chance after chance after great scoring chance in a transcendent display of hockey genius. I didn't document but I would bet he had at least a dozen shots on net and easily could have had 12 or 15 points if every ten-bell scoring chance went in. Peeters robbed him point blank on at least three occasions, and as usual Gretzky unselfishly dished the puck to the man in the best scoring position, even when he was temprarily "stuck" on 49 goals with time running out. He was an incredibly unselfish player in that respect, talking the talk -- "My dad always told me an assist is as good as a goal" -- and walking the walk. But he was just selfish enough to shoot himself if he was the guy in the best position ... which obviously happened fairly frequently.

Gretzky scored an NHL record 10 hat tricks in that 92-goal season, a record that has been equalled only once, by Gretzky himself in his 87-goal season two years later. He had at least one assist in all ten of those games, in fact he scored at least five points in all ten. No "soft" hat tricks like, say, 3-0-3 for the Great One; he scored goals and points in bunches.

The Great One also set a modern record during that Philly game of four, 4-goal games in one season; again a record he equalled two years later but nobody else has approached since the days of Joe Malone. Gretzky established yet a third separate mark by being the only player in the history of the game to notch consecutive games of 4+ goals, a feat even he accomplished just this once ... while under the heat of attacking, and demolishing, the greatest single record in the sport.


The 82nd Spengler Cup

As a lifelong fan of international hockey, I have followed the Spengler Cup since Canada first got involved in 1984, and have watched it faithfully every year it's been televised. In my household this tourney has become a holiday staple right up there with the World Junior. A simple five-team round robin where the top two teams advance directly to a one-game final, it's a compact event that always fits in the short week between Boxing Day and New Year's Eve. The constants are the host team Davos and the itinerant collection of pan-European imports known as Team Canada, with three club teams from across Europe invited each year to fill the slate. The tourney therefore maintains a healthy mix of variety and tradition.

Whereas in the World Jr. you might get a chance to see an Oiler or two of the future, in the Spengler there always seems to be quite a few Oilers of the past. This year Team Canada features Domenic Pittis and Brad Isbister, as well as recent farmhand T.J.Kemp; Davos has Janne "Spaz" Niinimaa, Michel "The Swiss Miss" Riesen, and Tony Salmelainen; German club team ERC Ingolstadt have a couple of import defencemen from very different Oiler eras, namely Allan Rourke and Brian Muir. Cups of coffee in most cases; this tournament is just loaded with guys who were on the cusp of The Show before carving out very respectable careers over in Europe. (Full tournament rosters can be found here.)

Canada is always well-represented by enough of the same players year to year to really have established a team identity. Unlike the NHLers who all too frequently -- for reasons that continue to escape me -- snub their noses at the World Championships, Canadian imports based in Europe never refuse the invitation to play in the Spengler Cup, where it seems a great time is had by all. Former NHLers like Pittis, Hnat Domenichelli, Shawn Heins, Stacy Roest, Jeff Toms, Jean-Guy Trudel, and this year's captain Serge Aubin, seem to be there every year. With the pipeline suffused with "newcomers" who have more recently made their way to Europe like Isbister, Randy Robitaille, Rico Fata, Byron Ritchie, Joel Kwiatkowski and Ric Jackman, Canada once again has a strong team at their 25th Spengler Cup in 2008. The boys wear the Red Maple Leaf with obvious pride and have represented the country brilliantly over the past quarter century, winning 11 titles. Last year the heavy underdog Canadians rode the red-hot goaltending of former Oiler Curtis Joseph to a pair of victories over eventual KHL champions Salavat Yulaev Ufa, including a 2-1 thriller in the tournament finale.

There's never a dull moment in the beautiful and always-packed arena in Davos, but it's always electric for the Canada-Davos match in particular. Given that the three European invitees are different ever year, Canada-Davos is the best rivalry by far, and today's game before 6700 singing, chanting, cheering fans was a beauty. HC Davos is always an offence-first outfit that plays a highly-entertaining style, but today the early minutes featured lots of bad blood (both real and imagined) which brought the intensity level way up. A ding-dong affair ensued with Canada battling back from 3-0, 4-2, and 5-4 deficits, with Domenichelli scoring a "60th minute" equalizer -- courtesy an horrific Niinimaa gaffe -- to force OT and ultimately a shootout. Davos, who had earlier scored on a penalty shot, notched the only goal in "penalties" to finally decide the matter, 6-5 for the home side. Still, with their dogged comeback Canada earned a valuable standings point and at 1-0-1 remain firmly in control of their destiny.

Sunday is Canada's rest day -- every team gets one, but where it falls in the five days of the round robin is the luck of the draw -- before facing Ingolstadt on Monday and the fabled Dynamo Moskva on Tuesday in a match which will likely determine at least one of the finalists. Dynamo features no former Oilers on its roster, but a bushel of former NHLers like Karel Rachunek, Alexei Zhitnik, Peter Cajanek, Vitaly Yachmenev, Vitaly Karamnov, Mattias Weinhandl, and Canadian Eric Landry. Both remaining Canada games will be featured on the gamut of Sportsnet channels at various times around mid-day, while Wednesday morning's final will be televised live in the wee hours and, I hope, rebroadcast at a more humane hour.

Spengler Cup hockey is not NHL calibre, but it's a very decent level of men's professional hockey, with most of the games far more competitive than the round robin portion of the World Juniors. Moreover, it's a European festival of hockey that acknowledges the game's roots with the permanent inclusion of Team Canada. A great hockey tradition now in its 82nd iteration, the Spengler Cup seems like a terrific party every year; I'd sure love to check it out in person one of these years.


It's the best game you can name

Where's Waldo?

Friday night the call came about 20 minutes before the opening face-off. "Bruce, something's come up, would you like a pair of tickets to the game?" My son and I had been planning to go to a sports bar to chow down on chicken wings and watch the PPV broadcast, so the mid-course correction was relatively painless.

It's rare enough that I get the pleasure of attending a live game with my son. Kevin was just 5 and beginning Tom Thumb hockey in the fall of 1993 when I gave up my Oiler season tickets after 16 mostly wonderful seasons. I watched him play hundreds of games in the next dozen years, coached him in hundreds of practices. Kevin much prefers playing the game to watching it, but we usually make it out to at least one Oilers game a year, usually around his mid-December birthday. (He turned 21 this week) So the timing was perfect.

Except we were late. By the time we had driven, parked, walked, collected our tickets and found our seats -- Row 27, top of the circle of the Oilers attacking zone -- we'd missed about 8 minutes. Score was 0-0, and by the time I thought to check out the shot clock it stood at 10-1 Oilers. That shot clock would continue to mount in bursts for both teams in a penalty-filled, action-packed affair.

The opposition were the Anaheim Ducks, once Mighty, now just another team give or take Chris Pronger (pictured above battling Dustin Penner in good times and bad). A handful of fans booed half-heartedly whenever he handled the puck, but the venom that had run through the entire building the last time I'd seen him live (in "The Return of Chuckie" game) had now largely run its course.

If this game was any indication, so has Pronger himself. While leading both teams with over 33 minutes of ice time, he was mediocre at best, anchoring a defence that allowed 53 shots on goal, himself with the worst 5v5 shots differential on either team (-7), a goal differential of -1, and a game high 5 giveaways, while none of his 4 attempted shots on goal even reached the net. As one who has watched Pronger closely his entire career -- I picked him in my keeper league pool as an 18-year-old rookie in 1993 and have had him on my team ever since -- it was one of the least influential games I've ever seen him play. On this night at least, Ladi "Fifth Asset" Smid was better.

Pronger was sitting in the penalty box when the goose eggs were broken late in the first. Alas, rather than make him pay for his transgression, the Oil committed a couple of their own in allowing a brutal shorthanded goal against. Sam Gagner made a terrible blind back pass which led directly to the Brothers Niedermayer breaking loose on a 2-on-1. Robert Nilsson, hustling back to defend, broke stride just long enough to watch the initial shot, then arrived a split second too late at the edge of the crease to take Rob Niedermayer's stick on the juicy rebound. Later Nilsson would pay the price and spend the third period on the bench, while Gagner would, as usual, escape the wrath of his coach.

Bad went to worse early in the second as the Oilers started to run around and take penalties. Ducks barely missed on two tap-in opportunities on the first powerplay chance, peppered Roloson with shots in the second, before the weasel Corey Perry made the Oil pay for the third penalty with a nice deflection off a Bobby Ryan spinnarama. 2-0.

Minutes later the game began to turn the Oilers way when Smid absolutely clocked the hated Perry with a great open ice hit. While Perry went down and stayed down, Ryan Getzlaf came to challenge Smid for the clean hit. Ladi did not refuse the invitation, removing his shielded helmet and giving Getzlaf the "let's go" motion. A linesman intervened before the fight could materialize, but the Oilers were energized by Smid's big hit and subsequent refusal to back down. The following minutes featured a parade to the penalty box on both sides. The Oilers wound up taking 8 penalties in the period with only Smid's being coincidental. Disaster nearly occurred in the last minute when Ethan Moreau took his second silly slashing penalty of the period to put Oilers 2 men down, then couldn't resist beaking off to the ref and drawing an unsportsmanlike call. Three stupid penalties in one period -- call it the Ethan Moreau Hat Trick. Somehow Oilers survived the 5-on-3 and got to the buzzer still only down 2-0.

During the intermission we went down to the "club" section beneath the stands, where it seems one can get "clubbed" even worse for concession prices. We quickly thought better of parting with any cash, but Kevin wanted to watch the players walk out of the dressing room so we hung around. A surprising number of people had the same idea, including a few puck bunnies fully decked out in their Gagner and Hemsky jerseys (with many signatures on the numbers). The doors behind the hige silver Oilers logo opened, revealing five replica Stanley Cups at the end of the hall. Soon enough, the players clumped out, large as life and seeming larger in their skates and shoulder pads. Penner, Stortini, Smid, Souray ... these are large men. People called out words of encouragement but the local warriors kept their gazes fixed straight ahead on the task at hand.

By the time the ropes were lowered and we emerged into the bottom of the lower bowl the puck was being dropped, so we ducked down and sat on the steps immediately behind the Ducks bench. For two and a half exhilarating minutes the play whirled in front of us at a dizzying speed. At such a low angle it was difficult to follow the rapid movement of the puck through the constant shift of bodies, and I empathized anew with the plight of the goaltenders. Indeed, from our angle it was difficult to catch a glimpse of Roli in a high speed game of "Where's Waldo?" as he attempted to track the puck through the swirling maze. The powerplay continued at the far end, the puck zipping from stick to stick, suddenly a shot and the clang of a post behind Roloson, but no harm done. The zone was cleared, the play zipped in front of us for a second, and as Anaheim worked it back up the ice the simple line change was elevated into an art form as first one, then the other defenceman safely but warily made his way to the Ducks bench. Again the Ducks worked it deep and crashed the net, but as Roli went down the ref's arm went up and finally the whistle blew. Bobby Ryan -- who looks like a force to be reckoned with btw -- had been caught for the game's third goaltender interference penalty.

Rather than return to our seats Kevin and I found an empty pair of aisle seats about 15 rows above the Ducks blueline and enjoyed the rest of the game from there. We certainly chose the right end to sit in; the Oilers began to surge, and the tiring Ducks beat a steady path to the penalty box. The two-goal deficit seemed insurmountable with Jonas Hiller playing brilliantly in the Ducks goal, but finally there was a breakthrough from a most unexpected source.

The fourth line had been nailed to the bench with all the penalties, but just past the 6-minute mark Zack Stortini and Jason Strudwick took the ice for the first time in a full period. Within seconds Stortini ran Pronger with a clean bodycheck, forcing the play into Anaheim's zone. As Stortini charged towards the goal mouth a puck was shot into the melee, bouncing off Zack's skate and right onto the stick of Kyle Brodziak who buried it into the top corner. The crowd erupted in a frenzy, the shutout broken. A 23-second shift by the scrubs, and wouldn't you know but the Oilers were back in the game.

Minutes later the Ducks young star Ryan Getzlaf went off for interference, and seconds later their old star Scott Niedermayer joined him in the box for crosschecking Sam Gagner on an impressive burst to the goal. Surely even the Oilers couldn't blow a 2-man advantage for 1:51? Oh, of course they could, and they did, with lots of help from Hiller who made two tremendous stops off of patented Horcoff one-timers. The man's lateral motion is just sick. As Gagner lost a draw which frittered away the last seconds of the powerplay, the night's best hope seemed lost, only to be renewed when Mr. Kristi Yamaguchi (Bret Hedican) took yet another penalty for carelessly dumping the puck over the glass. I've seen enough hockey to realize this would be the one to burn the Ducks, and sure enough, within a few seconds the impromptu PP line of Pouliot, Gagner and Cole (9 goals among them on the season) had combined for the equalizer, as Cole batted a rebound out of mid-air and into the net to break a season-long drought at Rexall.

The Oilers continued to pour it on and the Ducks to hang on. Yet another penalty in the late minutes saw the Oilers peppering Hiller with shot after shot, 6 in all including three wicked slappers by Souray and two by Visnovsky. Hiller stared them down.

The buzzer assured the Oilers of their first point in a frustrating week, and on to overtime we went. In 4v4 play MacT sent out ever-changing twosomes up front: 89-26 ; 13-78 ; 10-83; 13-89 ; 13-26 ; 83-26 ; 10-13 ; 89-83 all got time together. Cole, strong all night and flying since his goal, had the best chance, wiring a slap shot past Hiller but off the inside of the post. The crowd raised their voice as one at the opportunity, letting out a mighty "Oh-h-h-h!!!" of despond as the puck clanked off the iron.

Again the buzzer sounded without resolution, so on to the shootout we went. The weasel Perry scored on a nifty deke on the first attempt, and that was all she wrote. Roloson made fine plays to thwart Getzlaf and Ryan to keep hope alive, but all three Oilers shooters made weak attempts and never threatened to score. Both Pouliot and Hemsky made slow-motion moves to the backhand and couldn't lift the puck into the tiny hole that may have been available up top. As the last shooter, "shootout specialist" Sam Gagner, approached the puck the crowd all rose from their seats. Alas, Sam wasn't up to the occasion, bobbling the puck right off the hop, altering both his flight path and his stickhandling confidence, and he fired weakly into Hiller's blocker to end with a whimper what had been a slambang affair.

Oilers have now won just 2 of their last 10 at home, an unacceptable streak at any point of any season. Once again their special teams had been their undoing: they won the even-strength game 1-0, held Anaheim to one PP goal in 8 attempts, but ruined it by scoring just 1 of 10 powerplays of their own while allowing the killer shortie against. The other "special team", the shootout squad, didn't deliver either.

Still, it was tough to complain. Even with the Bettman-era anticlimax the game was great, the price was right, and the time with my son was well spent. A highlight moment came in the second period when Kevin suddenly fixated on George Parros and his infamous moustache, which he labelled "right out of the '80s". ("Ouch!" I remembered) Right on cue Parros jumped over the blue line ahead of the play forcing an offside whistle. A couple rows below us a leatherlung hollered: "Hey Parros! Your moustache went offside!" You had to be there, but the timing was perfect, and Kevin laughed until the tears rolled. The good times rolled right along with them.


Tracking Ladi II

At the beginning of the season I identified Ladislav Smid as a player of interest. A third of the way into the campaign, his development has been derailed somewhat by a concussion and complicated by Craig MacTavish's seeming preference for a marginal veteran (Jason Strudwick) over the emerging youngster. Still, there's a big enough data set to see how Ladi stacks up in the team's hierarchy.

As we did in part one of this series, let's start again with stats compiled by Gabe Desjardins of Behind the Net:

GA ON/60
0.43 Ladislav Smid (12 GP)
1.36 Lubomir Visnovsky (25 GP)
2.23 Steve Staios (24 GP)
2.31 Jason Strudwick (22 GP)
2.33 Denis Grebeshkov (22 GP)
2.39 Sheldon Souray (24 GP)
3.24 Tom Gilbert (25 GP)

+0.96 Visnovsky
+0.48 Souray
+0.42 Smid
+-0.0 Grebeshkov
-0.15 Gilbert
-0.56 Staios
-1.16 Strudwick

+0.06 Smid
+0.04 Gilbert
+0.03 Souray
+0.03 Grebeshkov
+0.02 Visnovsky
+0.01 Strudwick
+-0.0 Staios

+0.32 Souray
+0.25 Visnovsky
+0.14 Grebeshkov
+0.10 Gilbert
-0.12 Smid
-0.21 Staios
-0.26 Strudwick


It would appear the last category is affected by defence partner, given that for the most part the top two on the list have played together, as have the next two, with the bottom three mostly combining as the third pairing and largely playing with one of the other two. Be that as it may, from the QualComp metric Smid has played the toughest foes on the club, Staios and Strudwick the weakest.

Since the top four are pretty well defined on this club anyway I'll simply look at 5-24-43 from here on.

ES TOI (from HockeyAnalysis.com)
Staios 341:44

-- w. Strudwick 213:56 (63%)
-- w. Smid 65:02 (19%)

Strudwick 275:30
-- w. Staios 213:56 (78%)
-- w. Smid 26:31 (10%)

Smid 141:01
-- w. Staios 65:02 (46%)
-- w. Strudwick 26:31 (19%)

As the de facto 7th guy Smid filled in for both Staios and Strudwick when both missed time for various reasons, so he wound up on the third pairing naturally. He also got a little time with Visnovsky when Souray was out, and a little more with Gilbert when Grebs was out, as MacT clearly didn't want to mess with the mighty pairing of Staios and Strudwick. And when all 7 have been healthy, Smid has been the choice of healthy scratch for reasons that continue to escape me entirely. Hockeyanalysis.com provides the evidence:

GF/GA per 20
Staios w . Smid: +0.000 / -0.000 = EVEN
Staios w/o Smid: +0.723 / -1.012 = -0.289
Smid w/o Staios: +0.526 / -0.263 = +0.263

Strudwick w . Smid: +0.000 / -0.000 = EVEN
Strudwick w/o Smid: +0.402 / -0.964 = -0.562
Smid w/o Strudwick: +0.349 / -0.175 = +0.174

Staios w. Strudwick: +0.374 / -1.028 = -0.654
Staios w/o Struds: +0.939 / -0.469 = +0.470
Struds w/o Staios: +0.325 / -0.325 = EVEN


That's per period, meaning that for every 60 minutes they play together, Staios and Strudwick have been outscored by 2 goals. Either on his own has been OK, and either with Smid has pitched zeroes. Staios is +6/-3 = +3 without Strudwick, +4/-11 = -7 with him. My eyes have not been deceiving me: this partnership has struggled.

But GF/GA are small number statistics (esp. for Smid!), so let's avail ourselves of the ES shots data from Timeonice.com, and prorate them to the above ES ice time. I prefer per/60:

SF/SA per 60
Smid overall: +29.8 / -31.9 = -2.1
Staios overall: +22.4 / -33.5 = -11.1
Strudwick overall: +18.9 / -36.2 = -17.3

Staios w . Smid: +29.3 / -31.4 = -2.1
Staios w/o Smid: +20.1 / -33.0 = -12.9
Smid w/o Staios: +30.0 / -32.4 = -2.4

Strudwick w . Smid: +29.4 / -43.0 = -13.6
Strudwick w/o Smid: +17.8 / -35.4 = -17.6
Smid w/o Strudwick: +29.9 / -29.3 = +0.6

Staios w . Strudwick: +18.2 / -34.2 = -16.0
Staios w/o Strudwick: +29.6 / -32.4 = -2.6
Strudwick w/o Staios: +21.4/ -42.9 = -21.5


I have nothing at all against Jason Strudwick, but I just don't see any way to interpret the above except to conclude he stinks at evens. As a pair, he and Staios have been brutal, outshot 34-18 per 60 minutes and outscored 3-1. Without Staios, Strudwick's performance has been even worse, whereas Staios at least gets up near the waterline. Smid, meanwhile, tools along at about +30/-30 with everybody, except Strudwick where his shots against rate just plummets into the ghastly mid-40s.

Finally, a hodge podge of other "new statistics". Again from Timeonice.com, the stat Vic Ferrari calls ZoneShift, where a positive number means play is tending from the defensive to offensive zone with Player X on the ice, followed by Scoring Opportunities for and against as tracked by Dennis over at MC79hockey, and Errors as tabulated by David Staples at Cult of Hockey.

Smid ******** -5 (-2.1/60)
Staios ***** -29 (-5.1/60)
Strudwick ** -28 (-6.1/60)

Staios w. Strudwick -27 (-7.6/60)

Scoring opportunities
Smid ******* +28/-34 = -6 (-2.55/60*)
Staios ***** +64/-87 = -23 (-5.35/60*)
Strudwick ** +49/-77 = -28 (-6.49/60*)

(per 60 rates adjusted for missing STL game)

Smid ******* 1 (0.43/60)
Strudwick ** 6 (1.31/60)
Staios ***** 8 (1.40/60)

One final point about Smid: there was a big discussion a while back about how his on-ice Sv% of .981 was unsustainable. Since then that number has actually risen to a presumably-even-more-unsustainable .987 (!), while his Sh% ON is also by far a team low at just 2.9%. He may be a low-event player, but surely he can't be THAT low-event. Only three goals scored by both teams in over seven periods of even strength time is the type of stat that cannot continue long term. That said, he's clearly far lower (negative) event than Strudwick, and MacT's seeming preference for the veteran is puzzling in the here and now as well as for the future.



Over at the always-interesting and usually-civil Game Day Thread at Lowetide, yours truly has been happily eating crow about Ales Hemsky. In my defence I pointed out he really did turn the corner in early November -- about ten seconds after I published some critical remarks about Hemsky's early-season play -- but Ales has been rolling for the most part the last five weeks. As we all hoped he would.

But while I'll take the hit for being “wrong” about Hemsky over there, I think I will claim being “right” about something else in the safety of my own blog. All year long I’ve been saying the best LW for the Horcoff-Hemsky duo is one Dustin Penner, who happened to first join the line on Nov. 1 in Carolina, just as Ales was getting it together. (Coincidence? Or not?) Hemsky played real well in Carolina before finally breaking the goose egg with two spectacular goals in Philly on the 2nd and then going on a bit of a run. His linemates have changed from time to time, with Penner finding time in the dog house in between, but for the most part the 27-10-83 have played the lion's share of time as a unit.

As we first saw last Dec.-Jan., “Horpensky” have been a very effective combination, compiling some eye-popping shots data. Assuming (dangerously) that I have entered the Timeonice.com code correctly and understand the results, this tells a tale:

27-83 together:
+9/-3 = +6 goals
+72/-41 = +31 shots
+139/-79 = +60 Corsi

27 apart:
+7/-4 = +3 goals
+71/-86 = -15 shots
+152/-157 = -5 Corsi

83 apart:
+7/-10 = -3 goals
+111/-125 = -14 shots
+206/-212 = -6 Corsi

Then there's this from Hockeyanalysis.com (all numbers are GF/GA per 20):

27/83 together
+1.500/-0.643 = +0.857

27 apart
+0.817/-0.350 = +0.467

83 apart
+0.594/-0.934 = -0.340

... which is just a bit of an eye opener, isn't it?

It's important to realize that Hockeyanalysis uses strictly GF/GA, which by definition is a small sample size this early in the season. Penner has achieved better results on the scoreboard, both for and against, than either of his highly-rated linemates, but it's early. Using the larger data sets of shots and Corsi available courtesy Timeonice, both players had virtually identical numbers when apart, and both are hugely improved since they are together.

Indeed, the Horpensky unit has been dominant in recent games. Here are shots and Corsi data as well as traditional +/- for forwards over the last five games:

Player ** = Shots / Corsi / Goals
Penner ****** = +16 / +41 / +2
Horcoff ***** = +14 / +30 / +3
Hemsky ****** = +11 / +35 / +3
Gagner ****** = +4 / +7 / EV
Schremp = *** = +3 / -1 / +2
Nilsson ***** = +2 / +5 / EV
Cogliano **** = +1 / +3 / +1
Pouliot ***** = 0 / -8 / EV
Brodziak **** = -1 / -4 / EV
Cole ******** = -2 / -1 / EV
Stortini **** = -4 / -11 / -1
Moreau ****** = -5 / -7 / EV
Reddox ****** = -9 / -17 / -2

Note this five-game stretch began after the series against Corsi kings Detroit. It’ll be interesting to see how we stack up against the powerhouse Sharks tonight.

Speaking of which, it’s game on. Goilers!


Stars at Oilers backstory

There's good news and there's good news, I'll let you decide which is which. The one is that I'm back from a rather more productive road trip than the Oilers had, and the other is that there are now officially rocks in my head.

Better still, the hockey gods have finally answered my regular entreaties and delivered me up a pair of tickets for tonight's Dallas at Edmonton game. So this pregame blurb will be rather short, but I'll have a game report in the comments or separate post much later on.

All this should have me in a good mood, and it does. Except for these odd nagging doubts. First and foremost among them is what has happened to our third defence pairing. Guys like Steve Staios and Jason Strudwick (pictured, with puck entering wrong net) are supposed to shore up the back end and give the team steady, solid service. But there is just no way of getting past numbers like these over the past 6 games:

Date - OPP: 24 / 43
11/17 @DET: -1 / -1
11-18 @CBJ: -1 / -1
11-20 vDET: EV / -1
11-26 vLAK: -1 / -1
11-29 @STL: -1 / -1
11-30 @DAL: -1 / -1

Simply put, these guys are getting Owned, every game. Even before this: between them, they've had 15 minus games in the last 9 Oilers games.

Veteran defencemen like Staios and Strudwick aren't necessarily supposed to win you games, but they're not supposed to lose them either. Oilers have lost three of the last four by one goal, all in regulation. Those -1s look like lost standings points to me ... in fact, the difference between a regulation tie and a 1-goal loss is actually more like 1.5 points, assuming an equal distribution of Bettman points.

It's not just on the scoreboard. Over the season, at even strength the Oilers have been outshot 158-78 with Strudwick on the ice, a staggering 2:1 ratio. If you prefer the per/60 metric, make it 38-19 in shots on goal with Strudwick on the ice. Is it any surprise they've been outscored 10-5?

In the past 6 games it has only gotten much, much worse. Oil have been outscored 6-0 with Strudwick on the ice, and outshot 48-15. I haven't done the micromath but at his season's average of 12:37 ES TOI/GP that would be in about 75 minutes of action. Egads.

But wait a minute, you say, these guys kill penalties. True enough: over the last four games, Strudwick was twice on the ice for 2 PP GA, the one-goal losses against Detroit and Dallas. Over those four games, Strudwick has amassed 9:02 SH TOI during which time the opposition has scored those four goals. Again, for those who prefer per 60 metric, that's a cool -26.6 per hour over that short period of time.

Staios is barely better. he's been outshot 176-107 on the season and 43-19 over those 6 games. He's been on for 3 PPGA in 10:40 the last four games, including the ghastly game winner by Modano late in regulation in which Steady Steve seemed to be completely unaware of the concept of passing lanes and was frozen in the ice like a big ol' meteorite.

On the PP, and on offence generally, these two guys are a complete nonentity. When they're out there, the game gets played, badly, in their zone. The team shots differential on the season is -58. Staios is -69 and Strudwick -80; with these guys on the bench, the team is positive. That's insane.

But what's really insane is this. Ladislav Smid continues to rot in the press box with occasional opportunities to ferment up on the wing. Smid has been on the ice for exactly 1 ES GA all season. Yet MacT continues to show faith in his veterans (even though technically Smid is more of a MacT vet than the Oiler newcomer Strudwick is) who are routinely on the ice for an ESGA every game.

The last log on this particular fire is the fact Strudwick was advertised as a swing man, a guy who could move up and play wing when the situation required. If one of these guys needs to play up front for 4 or 5 minutes once in a while, I sure in heck would rather it was Strudwick. Better yet, I'd rather he was shipped direct to the press box for awhile. He has not been helping the hockey club for some weeks now.

Oh well, tonight I get the four-dimensional, live view. Hopefully that view will include a #5 and not a #43, but whoever, it's GOILERS!

Enjoy the game, everybody!