Last year, after it looked like the Oilers would trade Ales Hemsky and didn’t and then it looked like they’d draft Ryan Murray and they didn’t, Backhand Shelf’s Ellen Etchingham made fun of the tendency of Oilers’ fans to expect the worst and start reacting to it before it even happens. I am, of course, a subscriber to Colby Cosh’s description of Oiler fans:
The Edmonton Oiler fan has been chosen for a special role in the dramaturgy of the National Hockey League. It is a role which fits him well. He is the modern analogue of the Russian serf–the man so preposterously incapable of resisting his own mistreatment at the hands of blackmailing capitalists and money-engorged players that a pan-global hockey revolution had to be concocted for his sake. Little can he guess what the wind will blow to the doorstep of his frost-laced lair; his instinct tells him that it cannot be anything too good. In a fog of superstitious inarticulacy, he awaits the hammerblow of history.
Cosh wrote this in 2005; as an Oiler fan might have unreasonably feared at the time, the pan-global hockey revolution that was concocted for our sake worked out for us about as well as the Russian Revolution worked out for Ivan Six Pack and the Oilers had the worst record between the lockouts. Those who don’t follow the Oilers closely, who just sort of check in from time, probably aren’t aware of how the last 25 years has basically been a series of Very Bad Things, conditioning us to expect the worst.
But Hemsky stayed and the Oilers drafted Nail Yakupov and as we waited to find out if Ladislav Smid would sign, I thought back to Ellen’s point and remained positive that Smid would sign. Sure enough, he signed a very Oiler-friendly contract today, signing a four year deal worth $3.5MM per year without an NTC or an NMC. Part of me wonders the extent to which Steve Tambellini just lucks into these things – Hemsky and Smid, for whatever reason, were willing to take less to be in Edmonton and I’ve got serious doubts that he was the guy who wanted Yakupov but whatever, it seems to have worked.
Which brings me to Ryan Whitney. I’ve been fooling around with data on defencemen lately, as I think it’s an area that people with an interest in hockey analytics have done the least in terms of trying to find solid indicia of who can play and who can’t. I happened to have some data handy with respect to Whitney and thought I’d assemble it for readers.
For those, like me, who sometimes have trouble keeping the significant events in Ryan Whitney’s history straight: Whitney had an osteotomy on his left foot in August of 2008. On February 26, 2009, he was traded from the Pittsburgh Penguins to the Anaheim Ducks. On March 3, 2010, he was traded from the Ducks to the Edmonton Oilers. In May of 2010, he had an osteotomy on his right foot. On December 28, 2010, he injured his right ankle and required surgery.
As I said, I don’t know that we know a lot about defencemen and evaluating them with data yet. That being said, I’m kind of struck by how terrible Ryan Whitney’s numbers are. His Corsi% is just ludicrously bad. I’ve been looking at the idea of sorting defencemen by TOI/G into three groups and then looking at Corsi and Whitney has horrific numbers: in 2007-08, he’s 79 out of 80 second tier defencemen. In 2008-09, he’s 67/73 first tier defencemen, in 2009-10, he’s 60/69 first tier defencemen, in 2010-11 he’s 69/71 first tier defencemen and last year he was 67/67 first tier defencemen.
One of the hangups I have with using data to evaluate defencemen is that Corsi is pretty team/partner dependent. In Whitney’s case, that’s not as applicable: he’s played in three different cities, on teams ranging from Stanley Cup Champions to Draft Lottery Champions and he’s posted terrible, horrible numbers everywhere he’s gone.
It’s hard to even make an argument for Whitney on the basis of RelCorsi. The idea behind relative Corsi is that some good players play on bad teams and that if a guy is on a bad team but he makes it better when he’s on the ice, he’s probably driving things the right way, even though his numbers look terrible. Whitney’s been bad to terrible at this in four of his six years. Shea Weber, to pick one example, had a RelCorsi of +11.2 last year, despite a Corsi% of less than 50%. You can reasonably infer that Weber’s probably playing a role in hauling the Predators forward.
I don’t know what kind of a defence you can make of Ryan Whitney other than that he can make a pass. Even then, that doesn’t seem to help him avoid spending most of every game in his own end of the ice. It’s interesting that he has a 10% on-ice shooting percentage over the past six years; I tend not to think that defencemen can drive this and that Whitney’s number is randomness. If you asked me to predict his GF/GA numbers going forward, they’d be horrible.
With Smid done, Whitney’s the next issue to be resolved on the Oilers’ blue line. To me, he’s a guy who does something that gets NHL types interested but obscures the fact that he’s terrible: he can pass the puck. If I were the Oilers and there was a second or third round pick available for him, I’d view it as someone offering me a free asset and taking a million bucks worth of salary off my hands and jump on it. Yes, the Oilers lose the passing ability but they’re well stocked with defencemen who spend too much time in their own end and, for as gorgeous as his passes are, that’s what the data says Whitney is: a sort of Jason Strudwick with style points.
Of course, if the “Tambellini isn’t crazy like a fox and just lucked/got ordered into some moves that worked lately” theory is right, the Oilers will probably think that they like the way things are going of late, Whitney has been an Oiler of late, so why not extend him on a one year deal if he’ll take it? You pay him less for next year, you can still trade him for something then and you don’t mess with what works.
That’s the easy way (and the one that blithely assumes that there will be a market for Ryan Whitney next year if he’s in and out of the lineup all year and gets lits up). The harder way would be to say “Look, we’re in a playoff hunt but there are parts of this team that work and parts that don’t work and we need to excise the parts of this team that don’t work.” The middle ground would be not signing him and not trading him – another 14 games worth of assessing. To me, this is a pretty easy question: trade him and move on. In my bones though, I expect bad things when it comes to the Oilers, regardless of recent trends.Email Tyler Dellow at firstname.lastname@example.org