No Room for Squares: MacTavish Not Interested in Middle of the Road D

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=koov4dDz5nI&w=420&h=315]

MacTavish is looking for a high-end defensemen. If so, why is he so skeptical of the UFA market?

In his press conference the other day, Oilers’ GM Craig MacTavish said a variety of interesting things about the blue line. Of interest to me were his comments about adding to the defence from outside the system (yesterday, I discussed my take on the development process under MacTavish). I want to highlight these comments and elaborate on what I think MacTavish has in mind for the off-season on the blue.

Off-Season Wish List: A Very High-End Defensemen 

My focus going into the off-season is: I’m going to be hard at work, I’m going to be making the phone calls, I’m going to be having discussions with the other 29 managers to see if there’s something that’s going to improve our hockey team.

And, I’m trying to determine value. I’m trying to determine whether there’s a fit to do something. In my mind, I’d like to add a very high-end defensemen. I think, I wouldn’t be alone with 29 other GMs in that objective. But, to me I won’t be adding anything in the middle. And, if I can get something this is really going to move the dial of our team from the back end, I’ll be involved in those discussions and consider that.

This comment received some attention because of its phrasing. Evidently some thought MacTavish said he wasn’t planning on adding to his center depth. In context, it is clear “in the middle” is referring to “middle of the road” defensemen (a phrase MacTavish used later in his presser).

What’s interesting here is a) MacTavish setting a high-bar for himself (go big or go home); and, b) he appears to be restricting himself to addition by trade only.

Youth Movement

There’s a lot of optimism internally and I would hope externally with the core group of defensemen that we have. So, if we have to go young, we go young.

His comments on running with a young blue line suggest MacTavish is willing to back-up his willingness to only move on a trade that, in his words, “is really going to move the dial of our team.”

Possible Additions?

What I have to do, is do as much work as I can and assess all the options available to me and not do anything stupid… if we get something that makes sense, we’ll make that decision and make that change.

But, I’ve got some specific personnel pieces and objectives in mindand as I said with the defense, I won’t be adding anything middle of the road to this defense corps. I think our younger guys can fill those positions.

In ten days there’s going to be eight more pissed off teams. And, that’s going to lead to opportunity. And, maybe we have a fit with a more experienced team, to add some experience and add that piece and those are the things I’ll be looking to do.

Here, again, MacTavish reinforces three themes: trades are the priority; he’s only interested in high end D; and, he’s willing to run with youth.

UFA Market

[Question about using capspace] Well, again it’s an assessment of value. And, we’ll see what’s available. We’ll have our meetings prior to the UFA season. We’ll target our players.

The UFA market for defensemen is weak this year. Everybody’s signing their defensemen as Philadelphia did with MacDonald. So, there aren’t very many high-end defensemen that are getting to the market. There is some financial flexibility from our ownership, but we want to make sure we’re spending that money prudently.

When asked about whether he intends to use his cap space to add to the blue line, MacTavish says a few things that are interesting to me.

First, the suggestion that “we’ll target our players” is probably a statement about forwards. This makes sense considering MacTavish said he’d look to the UFA market to fill out his secondary scoring.

Second, he insists that the UFA market for defensemen is weak. When you couple this statement with MacTavish’s statements about only being interested in trading for high-enddefensemen, it suggests that MacTavish thinks the available UFA defensemen are more or less “middle of the road.”

Third, he suggests that what few high-end defensemen there are in the UFA market aren’t going to make it to market. He cites Andrew MacDonald’s recent long-term deal with the Flyers.

(Sidebar: Andrew MacDonald is not a “high-end defensemen.” This should be a red-flag right off the hop. Here’s an excellent article reviewing the confusion in the hockey world concerning MacDonald. Insofar, as MacTavish is targeting high-end defensemen from the UFA pool we should be concerned about who he has in mind.)

Who’s on the UFA Market? Are They ‘Middle of the Road’?

Based on MacTavish’s presser I have several concerns about how he’ll handle the UFA D market (you can hop over to cap geek’s handy UFA tracker and look at the D available come July 1st, 2014). Mostly, I’m concerned that he won’t explore it thoroughly in his attempts to identify value. We can recall from last year that really valuable defensemen languished on the UFA market only to end up signing for a pittance come Autumn (notably Tom Gilbert and Ron Hainsey).

My hope is that, this year, MacTavish will be the one signing those kinds of players whom the market fails to adequately value. My worry––based on his high-end vs. middle of the road notion coupled with calling the UFA market weak––is that he will target a few highly touted UFA defensemen (the wrong ones) and ignore some very good players.

Group One: ‘High-End’ D I’m Worried Are On MacTavish’s List

[Notes: All the graphs are from extraskater.com. All the corsi and TOI/60 numbers are frombehindthenet.ca. The ordinal rankings are filtered for >50gps (except where noted)]

One of the names many presume MacTavish is interested in is Brooks Orpik.

Age: 33 (34 in Sept.); boxcars: 72 2-11-13; caphit: 3.75M

CorsiOn: -6.99 (3rd); CorsiRel: -8.4 (4th)

TOI/60 5×5: 17:55 (1st); TOI/SH/G: 2:56 (1st); PP: N/A

Screen Shot 2014-04-16 at 9.43.28 AM

(click on all charts to embiggen)

Orpik is coveted primarily for his toughness and the sense that he’s a rugged, clear-the-net, stay at home defensemen. He’s undoubtedly going to get paid this off-season. Probably north of MacDonald’s contract (5M x 6 years). It will be a mistake.

Orpik is starting to hit the age (nearly 34) where stay at home defensemen fall off in performance sharply (this season and last Oilers’ fans saw Nick Schultz lose touch with NHL hockey). His TOI numbers tell us Bylsma relies heavily on him at evens and on the penalty kill but that he isn’t used in a power-play role. This is consistent with a stay at home defensemen. The number of minutes he gets, however, suggests Blysma relies heavily on Orpik. The corsi numbers and the usage chart suggest that Orpik is in the tough zone-starts and tough competition zone (the “shut down” role in Vollman’s parlance), but that he isn’t being terribly successful in that role.

Based on his age, slagging performance and the kind of contract he is bound to command, Orpik is not an attractive option.

Group Two: The UFA Defensemen I Fear MacTavish May Overlook

Here’s the “weak market” as I see it.

The Devils’ Mark Fayne

Age: 26 (27 in May); boxcars: 72 4-7-11; current caphit: 1.3M

CorsiOn: 8.40 (2nd on the team >50gps); CorsiRel: 2.6 (2nd)

TOI/60 5×5: 16.05 (3rd); TOI/SH/G: 1.59 (4th); PP: N/A

Here’s his player usage chart:

Screen Shot 2014-04-16 at 9.42.10 AM

The first thing that stands out is Fayne’s age. He’s nearly 27. The sweet spot for veteran D. Old enough to play responsibly and to lock-in long term, but not old enough to harbor great concern about a fall off in performance.

The second thing is his usage by DeBoer. Fayne is, like Orpik, in the Shut Down quadrant of the chart (he faces the top opposition and starts in his own end). However, Fayne’s TOI numbers suggest he isn’t as heavily relied on for minutes played at evens or shorthanded. In the time given and through the tough usage, though, Fayne is killing it.

Fayne’s youth and performance make him highly attractive. He’s not a 27 minute a night, all 3 disciplines D, but he’s a performer in the heart of his career.

The Penguins’ D Matt Niskanen

Age: 27; boxcars: 81 10-36-46; current caphit: 2.3M

CorsiOn 7.14 (1st on Pit D >50gps); CorsiRel 13.7 (1st)

TOI/60 5×5: 16.69 (2nd); TOI/SH/G: N/A; PP: 2.59 (2nd)

Here’s the player usage chart for Niskanen:

Screen Shot 2014-04-16 at 9.43.28 AM

Niskanen is an inversion of Fayne. They are the same age. They are both really good by the numbers. But, Niskanen is more offensively minded, where Fayne is the opposite.

Because he plays on the Pens, Niskanen actually makes for a good comparison with Orpik. His age, performance and offensive acumen all make him much more attractive.

The Panthers’ Tom Gilbert (you remember him!)

Age: 31; boxcars: 73 3-25-28; current caphit: 900K

CorsiOn: 3.68 (3rd on team >50gps); CorsiRel: 5.2 (2nd)

TOI/60 5×5: 17.48 (2nd); TOI/SH/G: NA; PP: 2:13 (3rd)

Here’s his player usage chart:

Screen Shot 2014-04-16 at 6.03.20 PM

Oilers’ fans and management have a sordid history with Gilbert. He was traded away in his prime years for what’s now a 5th round pick. Many were and no doubt remain relieved at his absence. I think this is largely due to a failure to register the value of puck mobility and possession. I wrote about this here. Tyler Dellow has an interesting piece up delving into the perception of the “big mistake” on similar themes.

Regardless, Gilbert remains a very effective hockey player. At age 31 he’s still in the range of peak performance for his player type and his numbers show no sign of falling off. On a terrible Panther team this year he managed to post very good possession numbers and was relied upon to play a lot of minutes in his own end (Weaver is the only D to have a rougher zone start).

If Gilbert makes it to free agency and the Oilers can make nice, he’d be a very good addition.

The Canes’ Ron Hainsey

Age: 33; boxcars: 82 4-11-15; current caphit: 2M

CorsiOn: 0.96 (3rd on team >50gps); CorsiRel: 2.2 (3rd);

TOI/60 5×517.90 (2nd); TOI/SH/G: 2.03 (3rd); PP: N/A

Here’s his player usage chart:

Screen Shot 2014-04-16 at 6.13.59 PM

Like Gilbert, Hainsey languished on the UFA market into the Fall last year. This reflects a market unable to see the forest for the trees. The Canes took a cheap flyer on Hainsey and it paid off in spades.

While getting on in years (33), Hainsey’s performance this year suggests he’s still more than capable of being effective in a minute-eating role (at evens and shorthanded).

While I wouldn’t sign him long term, Hainsey would make an ideal bridge contract to buy the youth some time to develop.

The Redwings’ Kyle Quincey

Age: 28; boxcars: 82 4-9-13; current caphit: 3.775M

CorsiOn: -1.18 (5th on team >50gps); CorsiRel: -5.5 (5th);

TOI/60 5×5: 17.34 (1st); TOI/SH/G: 2.26 (3rd); PP: N/A

Here’s his player usage chart:

Screen Shot 2014-04-16 at 6.01.44 PM

Again, Quincey’s age is a real selling point. At 28, we are in the sweet spot for defensemen. The standout for Quincey is the faith that Babcock shows in him. Quincey is playing the most minutes at evens of any defensemen on his team. That is a huge feather in his cap. He also pays significant minutes shorthanded.

The numbers suggest Quincey is losing ground on by shot metrics and doing so from a somewhat favorable zone and competition start. He’s in the “two-way” zone. That is, the toughness of his competition and zone starts are moderate. But, he’s not losing ground by much. And, looking at the way Babcock has deployed his troops, Quincey is not getting favorable treatment over other defensemen.

While not quite as exciting as Fayne or Niskanen, Quincey looks like a very good target based on his age and performance.

Group 3: Bottom of the Barrel Defensemen

In his presser, MacTavish suggested he didn’t want “middle of the road” defensemen. On my interpretation of that quote, MacTavish seems to be excluding the players listed above. He’s not necessarily, however, excluding “bottom pairing” defensemen, players suited for the 6-8 spots (depending on how many D Eakins carries on the roster).

In fact, based on the chatter coming from various “insiders” in the media, it appears very likely MacTavish is targeting a bottom pairing defensemen. I’ve talked previously about Matheson’s obsession with bottom pairing tough guys. Here he is recently, discussing Matt Greene:

– Take this to the bank: the Oilers will offer Los Angeles Kings defenceman Matt Greene, a one-time Oiler, a free-agent contract this summer to come back. He’s been marginalized in L.A. now with the much-improved play of Alec Martinez, more of a puck-mover, and quicker. Greene, only 30, is part of their leadership group with Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown and Jarret Stoll, but he’s the No. 7 blueliner there.

And, in a recent discussion, Bob Stauffer, the ultimate Oilers insider (he works for the team), suggested the Oilers would look to add “a 3rd pairing tougher right shot defensemen.”

Well, both Matt Greene and Deryk Engelland––the two names most bandied about by Matheson––fit the bill perfectly. Both are UFAs; right shots; hard-nosed/tough/whathaveyou; bottom pairing defensemen. Let’s have a look at them.

The Pens’ Deryk Engelland

Age: 32; boxcars: 56 6-6-12; caphit: $566,667

CorsiOn: -12.51 (5th); CorsiRel: -11.4 (5th)

TOI/60 5×5: 11.62 (5th); TOI/SH/G: 0.56; PP: N/A

See the player usage chart below Niskanen.

Screen Shot 2014-04-16 at 9.43.28 AM

We can see right away the red flags. Engelland is getting old (32) for his player type. He’s facing relatively weak competition (though his zone starts are moderate) and he’s getting pounded. He plays a very limited role at both evens and shorthanded and has trouble staying in the lineup as Bylsma goes to better options.

Engelland would probably quench the “tough guy” thirst of the Oilers and its fanbase. And, he would make for a nice storyline of an Edmonton boy coming home (a la Ference). But, at best we are looking at an upgrade on Mark Fraser here.

The King’s Matt Greene

Age: 30 (31 in May); boxcars: 38 2-4-6; caphit: 2.950M

CorsiOn: 17:55 (3rd); CorsiRel: 2.4 (4th)

TOI/60 5×5: 12:50 (7th); TOI/SH/G: 2:41 (3rd); PP: N/A

here’s his player usage chart (just D, with >25 games played)

Screen Shot 2014-04-20 at 9.30.19 PM

Greene immediately looks like an upgrade on Engelland. His performance by the numbers is far superior. And, when looking at his history, we can see some evidence of an effective player––have a look at his seasons mapped out via somekindofninja.com and viabehindthenet.ca.

The trouble with Greene is twofold: he’s on a possession juggernaut of a team and he has trouble staying in the lineup (whether due to healthy scratch or injury). In the last 3 seasons, he’s only managed to play 49 games.

That said, it’s hard to argue with the results. If MacTavish is looking for beef at the bottom of his roster, Greene is a good option. Moreover, Greene, originally drafted by the Oilers and a guy that played under MacTavish as a coach, will likely make for a great storyline in the press.

My bet is the problems will arise when they sit down to discuss terms. That bloody ankle from the other night and what it represents is going to cost someone dearly.

[As an aside, the guy I preferred for the role, just walked out the door and into a 4 year KHL deal. Here’s Jonathan Willis making a compelling case that Belov was a good bet as a 6-7 D for next year.]

Final Thoughts

I came away from MacTavish’s presser with the distinct impression of three things:

1) he wanted to add a high-end defensemen but expected to find one only via trade

2) he wasn’t impressed with the middle of the road UFA market

3) he was willing to run with a youthful blue line if he couldn’t land a high-end defensemen via trade

I think this is a mistake. I believe rushing the youth is a bad decision and would reflect poorly on the development process MacTavish has so much faith in. I believe the UFA market has several really good options on the blue line that MacTavish would be foolish to ignore. I also believe the UFA market has a few names MacTavish would be wise to ignore.

It’s quite possible all of the defensemen above re-sign with their current teams. If any of Fayne, Niskanen, Gilbert, Hainsey or Quincey shake free, MacTavish would well advised to court them vigorously.

As a parting gesture, I’ve used Rob Vollman’s handy make-your-own usage chart mechanism to put all of the names above together. Hint: the good ones are in blue.

Screen Shot 2014-04-20 at 9.35.37 PM

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