Introducing: The Erstwhile Oilers

Given the absence of the Edmonton Oilers from the playoffs for a third consecutive year, I have once again taken up the bittersweet pursuit of following the Erstwhile Oilers, that group of former home-town heroes who, like Ray Whitney (pictured twice here), are contributing elsewhere. There are a few dozen Erstwhile Oilers scattered around the NHL, but come playoff time there usually seems to be just enough to fill a regulation NHL roster. So it is in 2009, where I have identified a "roster" of 25 active players with historical ties to the Oilers organization.

Here's that imaginary roster including 2008-09 stats (playoff stats through Apr 26):

54 GP, 36-11-7, 2.10, .933
(4, 4-0, 1.50, .925)
40 GP, 25-11-2, 2.58, .909
(0, all zeroes)
15 GP, 5-5-2,,, 2.84, .907
(2, 0-0, 0.00, 1.000)

82 GP, 12-36-48, EV (5, 1-1-2, +6)
71 GP, 7-26-33,, +11(6, 0-3-3, +3)
81 GP, 6-27-33,, +4 (4, 0-0-0, -5)
82 GP, 3-18-21,, +23(3, 0-0-0, -5)
52 GP, 3-10-13,, +2 (6, 2-4-6, +1)
65 GP, 3-5-8,,,, +8 (4, 0-0-0, -1)

82 GP, 24-53-77, +2 (6, 2-4-6, -1)
79 GP, 25-25-50, +1 (6, 1-1-2, +1)
79 GP, 21-27-48, -12(6, 2-1-3, +3)
81 GP, 16-32-48, -8 (5, 0-1-1, EV)
E.Cole, CAR
80 GP, 18-24-42, EV (6, 0-0-0, -1)
74 GP, 14-26-40, +14(5, 0-3-3, -1)
D.Cleary, DET
74 GP, 14-26-40, EV (4, 2-3-5, +6)
65 GP, 17-19-36, +3 (2, 0-0-0, EV)
62 GP, 10-13-23, +8 (5, 0-0-0, -1)
49 GP, 8-14-22,, +8 (4, 0-1-1, EV)
71 GP, 4-18-22,, -6 (4, 0-0-0, +1)
64 GP, 13-8-21,, -1 (4, 0-0-0, -4)
R.Torres, CBJ
51 GP, 12-8-20,, -4 (4, 0-2-2, -3)
72 GP, 5-13-18,, -2 (5, 0-1-1, +2)
K.Maltby, DET
78 GP, 5-6-11,,, -9 (4, 0-0-0, -2)
33 GP, 0-2-2,,,, -6 (4, 0-0-0, -1)

Not the most balanced of rosters, especially up front where there are just two full-time centres in Peca and Marchant; so happens that Arnott, Weight, Stoll, Reasoner and Comrie all missed the playoffs this season. No Smytty either. Such is the nature of the "filter"; these aren't the best of the ex-OIlers, merely the ones who have played (or at least dressed) in the post-season. Which, of course, is more than one can say about any current Oilers.

I'm sure I missed a couple along the way, especially of the Tim Thomas type
, who was Edmonton property for a time without ever playing an NHL game for the Oil. Please post any names that come to mind in the comments section.

Only the Devils, Canucks and Hawks don't have any ex-Oilers, while the Hurricanes and Scott Howson's Blue Jackets each have 4.

While the list speaks for itself, I certainly do not mean to imply that all of these guys moving on represent mistakes by Oilers management; indeed several of them were moved for each other so there is no way we could have kept all of them. Of particular note is the sequence Woywitka-begat-Pronger-begat-Lupul-begat-Pitkanen-begat-Cole-begat-O'Sullivan, all trades which have occurred since the lockout. All but Woywitka (who is standing in for the injured Eric Brewer) were the primary player in their respective trades both coming and going. The key point seems to be the Oilers have never been able to stabilize what should be an important asset, with each guy arriving with high expectations but moving on to greener pastures after a year or even less. Need I add, all but O'Sullivan have played in the 2009 post-season.

I'll leave it as an exercise to the reader to establish imaginary line combinations for the Erstwhile Oilers, such as the Pennies-on-the-Dollar Line of Whitney, Satan and Chimera ...


Canada 6, Belarus 1 -- a good start

Team Canada 2009 took to the ice earlier today in Kloten, Switzerland. The club had no opportunity for exhibition games, but the opening preliminary round match against Belarus was pretty much that. The squad, ably coached by Lindy Ruff, Barry Trotz and Dave Tippett, played a pretty solid all-around game, all things considered.

The success formula for Canada or pretty much any club at this tourney is to build cohesiveness through the early rounds and peak for the medal round.
The early games are generally against inferior opponents and tend to be sloppy affairs. That was less true than usual today, as Canada jumped out to an early 2-0 lead courtesy a pair of goals by Steven Stamkos, and held that modest lead through 40 minutes before exploding for 4 goals in the third to put it away.

While at first glance the current squad appears underwhelming, Canada's depth is such that we always have a respectable team with a fighing chance of taking home the gold (5 of the last 15). I see no reason why the current group shouldn't aspire to that, especially with a couple of spots held open for reinforcements.

Today's lines were as follows:

1. D. Roy - J. Spezza - D. Heatley
For obvious reasons the coaches stuck with pairs of teammates when possible. The Ottawa pair showed their chemistry in the third when they combined for three goals, with each finishing the night +3 with 3 points. Best of the lot was the one Spezza literally stuck in the roof of the net after Heatley froze the defence with a fake shot before slipping it through. Roy, playing out of position, did OK, but I have half a mind he's just a placeholder for Rick Nash if he's healthy enough to come over.

2. M. St.Louis - S. Stamkos - S. Doan
Stamkos turned the corner on his rookie season around the time St.Louis was put on his line, noching 17 goals in his last 28 games after just 6 in his first 51. According to HockeyAnalysis.com the pair played 230 minutes together, scoring at a rate of 1.474 GF per 20 minutes. When apart Stamkos recorded just 0.540 GF/20. We saw that chemistry seconds into their first shift when Stamkos converted MSL's bullet feed across the goal mouth into the early lead. Doan provides a perfect complement with his gritty two-way play and broad international experience.

3. M. Lombardi - S. Horcoff - S. Upshall
Finally pencilled in at what some would call his "natural" spot of 3C, Horcoff nonetheless led all Canadian fowards with 18:20 TOI, almost 3 minutes more than the next guy, his linemate Lombardi. Horc was first choice in the long 3v5 Canada killed in the second and a major contributor to the PK unit generally. Like Roy, Lombardi is a centre forced out to the wing. Wild card here is Upshall, who lit it up in Phoenix after a mostly desultory year in Philadelphia.

4. J. Neal - M. Fisher - C. Armstrong
Fantastic looking crash line, three guys with no little skill that skate hard both ways carrying a chip on their shoulder. Fisher absolutely crushed one poor Belarussian with a wicked shoulder check. The line also chipped in with a goal on a fine three-way passing play. These guys are going to be fun to watch.

1. D. Hamhuis - S. Weber
Talented young pairing with buckets of international experience. They look like a natural pair with a righty and a lefty but mostly play with separate partners in Nashville (Hamhuis-Zanon; Weber-Suter). Still seemed to know each other pretty well, playing a solid, assertive and coordinated game.

2. C. Phillips - D. Doughty
Although they had couple of rocky moments, the veteran shutdown man Phillips would seem to be a perfect complement for the talented Doughty, one of three teenaged Canadians who was picked at last June's draft. Doughty combined with his fellow top pick Stamkos on a beauty give-and-go that resulted in the game winning goal.

3. I. White - L. Schenn
One wouldn't expect this to be a regular pair in the NHL for a couple of reasons, but to my surprise the two righties played over 266 minutes together this year. Truth be told, I'm a little baffled as to White's presence on the team -- he's the one guy in the group who doesn't appear to have top pairing potential -- but he's a mobile puck mover whose defensive game needs a little less work than it used to. Schenn is an absolute beauty of a young shutdown defender who accomplished the difficult feat of continuing to impress me this season despite playing for the Leafs.

G - D. Roloson
Roli was in fine fettle, even hit a fungo midway through the game. Got away with one puckhandling blunder late in the first when he stumbled into the net and knocked it loose just as Grabovski was depositing the gift, and even though it was a defensive player responsible IIHF rules disallowed the goal. In the second Roloson made a sensational two-pad stack on a fine rush by Grabovski to hold the lead at 2-0, but later bled a fat rebound to the same Grabovski -- by FAR the best Belarussian -- to lose his shutout late in the third. Looked rested and focussed.

Josh Harding backed up this game, but with Chris Mason en route we probably won't get a look at the Wild young backup who many favour as a possible answer in the Oilers' crease. Or maybe Harding will get a token game against Canada's next opponent, overmatched Hungary playing in the A Pool for the first time since 1939. That'll be on the tube Sunday afternoon for those who want to see different coloured unis and a probable butt-kicking. I'll be out of town for that one, but otherwise will be following Team Canada's progress here on Oil Droppings, including live blogs for the big games in the medal round. Those of you who are following the tournament (or who can't due to its often-inconvenient game times), do drop in!


Team Togetherness

Some interesting quotes in today's news cycle:

"We need a new voice, we need a new start, we need new expectations, we need a new discipline, and it’s time to look forward here."

Steve Tambellini, on expectations

"Mac really thought he couldn’t do any more with the group."

Kevin Lowe, on accountability
[note how it is “the” group and not “our” group let alone “my” group]

"The thing that was maybe most disappointing for me was our culture took a hit, in terms of our work ethic and our selflessness."

Craig MacTavish, on professionalism

"I’m always proud of the way I play, I’m always proud of the way I prepare and proud of the way I carry myself."

Ethan Moreau, on himself

"If you’re in the NHL, if you want to have a good career, you should be able to motivate yourself."

Ethan Moreau, on others

"We have some good veterans that hopefully want to be a part of this going forward. But I can tell you things are going to change as far as expectations and preparation from the players’ standpoint."

Steve Tambellini, on the future

"We got behind the 8-ball right away, we took an undisciplined penalty. I love Scottie Hartnell’s emotion but he’s got to find that line of discipline and I don’t really think he did tonight. He’s a guy we count on to kill penalties, he’s a guy we count on a lot. ... He ends up in the penalty box way too much and that’s something we’re going to have to correct."

John Stevens, coach of an actual playoff team, on Real accountability


The missing link

I know the pieces fit cuz I watched them tumble down
No fault, none to blame it doesn't mean I don't desire to
Point the finger, blame the other, watch the temple topple over
To bring the pieces back together, rediscover communication

Tool -- Schism

I cited this tune over at Lowetide's place the other day, finding some of Maynard James Keenan's lyrics resonated with the (hotly-denied!) reports of a rift in the Oilers' room and with the state of the roster in general. Rather than dally with the rumours or try to divine the true intelligence behind Ethan Moreau's remarks, I focussed on matters of record, namely birth certificates. These reveal a stunning gap where the heart of the roster should be. To recap the findings of my previous post, here are Oilers players and GP by age group through 78 games in 2008-09:

Group ..... # ..... GP ... AvGP .. %team
36-39 ..... 1 ..... 61 ..... 61 ..... 4%
33-35 ..... 3 .... 217 ..... 72 .... 15%
30-32 ..... 8 .... 332 ..... 42 .... 22%
27-29 ..... 1 ..... 20 ..... 20 ..... 1%
24-26 ..... 9 .... 443 ..... 49 .... 30%
21-23 .... 10 .... 343 ..... 34 .... 23%
18-20 ..... 1 ..... 72 ..... 72 ..... 5%

Total .... 33 ... 1488 ..... 45 ... 100%

I have added two columns. The first is simply the average number of GP for players in the given age group; the second expresses the percentage of team GP for each age group. Here's a crude graph showing that % of GP distribution, featuring a very odd double-peaked curve.

That looks not so much like a team, but two different ones.

Comparison is the next stage of the analysis; it is obvious at first glance that the current age distribution is out of the ordinary, but how much so? Surely the place to start is with the '05-06 Oilers, the last time we know the pieces fit. Here was the distribution by age of the House of Cards that Kevin Built.

Group ..... # ..... GP ... AvGP .. %team
36-39 ..... 2 ..... 56 ..... 28 ..... 4%
33-35 ..... 2 ..... 43 ..... 22 ..... 3%
30-32 ..... 9 .... 536 ..... 60 .... 34%
27-29 ..... 9 .... 472 ..... 52 .... 30%
24-26 ..... 7 .... 235 ..... 33 .... 15%
21-23 ..... 6 .... 204 ..... 34 .... 13%
18-20 ..... 3 ..... 25 ...... 8 ..... 2%
Total .... 38 ... 1571 ..... 41 ... 100%

In each column there's a fairly normal Bell curve with a single peak. Almost half (18 of 38, or 47%) of the players who suited up for the Oil during that chaotic season were between 27 and 32; moreover the same group played more games per player than the other groups; combine the two and the 27-to-32-year olds played fully 64% of the games. It's an interesting contrast to 2008-09, where not only is that huge hole at the age 27-29 level, but the distribution within groups is strange. Players over 33 averaged 70 GP; those between 27-32 averaged just 39. In 2008-09 the 27-32 y.o. group comprised just 27% of the full roster and played only 23% of the games. Let's compare the two graphically, with the 2005-06 Oilers represented in copper, the '08-09 squad in blue.

There are superficial similarities between the central curve of the '05-06 Oilers and the younger lobe of the current version, but there is a 5-year difference in maturity. More generally, the above starkly demonstrates the '08-09 Oilers have far more players near the beginning or end of their careers, while the '05-06 club had a critical mass of players near their peak.

Of course the 2005-06 regular season Oilers that stumbled and bumbled their way to 8th place was different from the leaner version that was wildly successful in that same post-season. Some guys were traded off mid-season; others who had a cup o' coffee at some point were out of the mix come playoff time, as was the case with all three 20-year-olds (Pouliot, Jacques, Syvret).

Group ..... # ..... GP ... %team
36-39 ..... 1 ..... 18 ...... 4%
33-35 ..... 1 ..... 24 ...... 5%
30-32 ..... 9 .... 169 ..... 37%
27-29 ..... 8 .... 130 ..... 28%
24-26 ..... 4 ..... 74 ..... 16%
21-23 ..... 2 ..... 42 ...... 9%
18-20 ..... 0 ...... 0 ...... 0%
Total .... 25 .... 457 .... 100%

The 27-32 y.o. set comprised 68% of the active players and played 65% of the games, while the under-24s played an even smaller role with only Hemsky and Greene getting a sniff of playoff action. I won't show a graph, which varies but little between regular season and playoffs. I have noted for future reference that playoff rosters might provide a more streamlined methodology, a little less clutter with fewer players and a more constant "best possible" line-up. Of course, for that method to work the team in question has to actually make the @#$%^&* playoffs.

Which brings us back to 2008-09, where it's instructive to compare the Oilers with the competition. I'm using brute force, not code, so won't do the whole league. Let's just compare with geographic rivals and Northwest Division co-leaders Calgary and Vancouver. Here I have reduced each team to just the number of players in each age category, and the percentage of GP for each group.

Age ..... Edmonton .. Vancouver .. Calgary
Group ... # / %team . # / %team . # / %team
36-39 ... 1 // 4% ... 1 // 3% ... 1 // 5%
33-35 ... 3 / 15% ... 3 // 8% ... 3 / 12%
30-32 ... 8 / 22% ... 3 / 14% ... 6 / 23%
27-29 ... 1 // 1% .. 13 / 38% ... 6 / 20%
24-26 ... 9 / 30% ... 5 / 16% .. 11 / 30%
21-23 .. 10 / 23% ... 7 / 21% ... 5 / 11%
18-20 ... 1 // 5% ... 0 // 0% ... 0 // 0%
Total .. 33 /100% .. 32 /100% .. 32 /100%

The Oilers have gotten more GP out of guys 33 and older than either rival, and more GP from guys 23 and younger. In the middle both divisional rivals far outstrip the Oilers; note the 13 players Vancouver has used in the 27-29 group, compared to Edmonton's 1. Calgary's curve peaks a little younger, but fully 73% of their games have been played by players aged 24-32, compared to 68% for Vancouver and just 53% for Edmonton. Here's a graph showing Vancouver in green, Calgary in red, Edmonton in blue.

Next year Dustin Penner and Tom Gilbert -- dangerously assuming either is still around -- will turn 27; Pouliot, Jacques, Stortini, Reddox and O'Sullivan all "graduate" to age 24, and their whole generation of players will be one year older and presumably better. At the same time, Sheldon Souray, Lubo Visnovsky, and Fernando Pisani all turn 33, Steve Staios turns 36, and lest we forget, Dwayne Roloson turns 40. Whatever the validity of my artificial brackets, it's pretty tough to argue those guys on the far side of 30 will be getting much better; they'll just be getting older. The wheel of time keeps turning, but given the void of players cycling through the top of the career curve ours seems to be missing an axle.

It is incumbent on Oilers management to address this gaping hole in the coming l-o-n-g off-season. Such a hole cannot be readily filled from within.


A room divided?

In 2006 the Oilers made a thrilling run to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals. It was a veteran group: 19 of the 25 players who dressed during the playoff run were aged 27 or older, the other 6 age 25 or younger.

Fast forward three years, and just 6 players remain from that Cinderella crew. 5 of them were, and remain, veterans: Dwayne Roloson, age* 39; Steve Staios, 35; Ethan Moreau, 33; Fernando Pisani, 32; Shawn Horcoff, 30. Of the youngsters, only the enigmatic Ales Hemsky, now 25, remains an Oiler.

( * - "hockey age" as of Feb 1, as per Hockey-Reference.com)

Brad Winchester and Marc-Andre Bergeron were in the pressbox during those Stanley Cup Finals and were gone within a year. Of the four key youngsters of that run, last summer's trades of Raffi Torres (now 27), Jarret Stoll (26) and Matt Greene (25) gutted the squad of three of them. One of the departed players was moved for yet another unproven youngster, the other two netted a valuable but now injured veteran. Whatever the return, what was lost was an important link between the older and younger members of the team.

The 2008-09 Oilers are rumoured to be a fractured squad, with a significant group of 30-something vets, a larger group of youngsters with collectively little success in their pro careers, and not much in between to bridge the gap. Here's a breakdown of the 33 players who have suited up for Oil this season:

Group ..... # ..... GP
36-39 ..... 1 ..... 61
33-35 ..... 3 .... 217
30-32 ..... 8 .... 332
27-29 ... 1 ... 20
24-26 ..... 9 .... 443
21-23 .... 10 .... 343
18-20 ..... 1 ..... 72
Total .... 33 ... 1488

That's right, a great big hole right in the centre of the Bell curve, which even the gigantic Steve MacIntyre cannot begin to fill. Other than SMac and his 67 minutes of ice time, there's not a single player on the roster in the prime age bracket of 27-29.

And when the likes of Ethan Moreau -- or Craig MacTavish for that matter -- looks around the room, he sees a bunch of 30-something guys who have been through the wars, many of them together, and then a bunch of youngsters whose history with the Oilers is one of failure. Is it any wonder there are rumours of a disconnect in the room?